This article if from the NY TIMES, May 24, 2009. I thought this was such a powerful quick read for anyone in a leadership position. I hope you enjoy it as well!
In a Word, He Wants Simplicity
This interview of Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman of Wal-Mart Stores, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What is the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?
A. Walking the talk is the most important lesson I’ve learned. There’s nothing that destroys credibility more than not being able to look someone in the eye and have them know that they can trust you. Leadership is about trust. It’s about being able to get people to go to places they never thought they could go. They can’t do that if they don’t trust you.
Q. What have you learned to do more of, or less of, over time?
A. I read something early on when I was in my first or second management role that you can accomplish almost anything in life if you do not care who takes credit for it. So I’ve tried to do more of that. And I’ve tried to do less of the things that make business more complex. I really like simplicity. At the end of the day, retailing – but you could apply this to many other businesses – is not as complicated as we would like to make it. It is pretty logical and simple, if you think about the way that you yourself would act, or do act, as a customer.
Q. So you find that people make business more complicated than it is?
A. No doubt about it. I think that all of us read far too many business books. I’ve worked 30 years now in management roles, and a number of times I’ve seen a new C.E.O. come in, and the first act is typically to get the leadership team to an offsite. And you get a consultant – because you can’t do it without a consultant – and the consultant then helps the team design a vision. And then you’ve got all these words, and several thousand dollars and a couple of days of golf later, you go back to the company to actually try to communicate that vision throughout the organization. So you hire another consultant to do that. It shouldn’t be like that.
We have a very clear view of what we do for consumers around the world. And we can describe our complete strategy in 10 words. And that makes it very easy to get everybody energized and aligned.
Q. So what do you think the process should be?
A. I think the best source of strategy is your customer and the people who work for you. I’m not saying there’s no room for a vision statement or anything like that. I’m just saying that we tend to spend too much time on that and not enough on the more practical, down-to-earth requirements that drive business.
Q. So when you’re visiting stores.
A. I walk around the store and approach customers and ask them if they have any recommendations for us. Are there things that we’re not doing that we should be doing? And I typically also will go to the back of the store. I just go mostly on my own and I get there mostly unannounced and talk to associates and ask them questions about their jobs. I ask them about their leadership in the store. I always tease them that they can tell me whether their store manager’s good or bad. Almost always, you get enormous insight from those who spend their days taking care of customers.
Q. What was the best advice you were given about your career?
A. Someone I trusted when I was working for Nabisco convinced me that if I really wanted to have bigger and more impactful opportunities, then I probably needed to become broader in my knowledge. And I’ve changed industries twice since then, completely different industries.
Q. What do you look for in job candidates?
A. People I interview today are most likely going to be in a senior leadership role. And leadership roles in business require enormous energy – both physical and, very importantly, emotional energy. And so I try to find out whether they have the enormous amount of energy it takes to lead and manage. You’re exposed so often to decisions that are emotionally charged; you have to have the balance and the energy, the emotional strength to actually do it.
Q. What kind of questions do you ask to get at that?
A. I ask them to share how they have dealt in the past with major issues, like a reduction in force, and major changes in the business environment. An interview is not a perfect process, right? You can’t learn about people in one hour, but it is helpful.
Q. What is your most effective time-management technique?
A. Oh boy, time management is a work a progress, I think, for everybody in business. And if they tell you differently, then they’re probably lying.
I try to get things done early in the day, things that I know are going to get in the way. Also, I have developed a system with my assistant. I send her e-mails at night. When I’m at home and I have a little bit more time and I’m more relaxed, I send very quick e-mails to her, just with things like, “Remind me tomorrow I have to do such and such thing,” or, “We need to complete this or that.” And I send probably 5, 6, 10 of those that come up at night. She doesn’t see them until early in the morning, but that sets the stage for the following day. And it helps me quite a bit with those things that are outside of scheduled appointments.
Q. What would you like business schools to teach more, or less?
A. I’ve done this quiz several times when we have gone to talk at business schools. I always ask people, “So who’s taking accounting?” And everybody raises their hand. And, “Who’s taking strategy?” And everybody raises their hand – and you go on with your typical curriculum about the business school. Mostly they are very good at teaching strategy, operations, management, finance, accounting.
But then I ask, “O.K., how many courses have you taken on how you talk with an employee you’re firing?” Or, “How do you talk with the person who comes to your office late at night to tell you that her daughter is sick and she might not be able to come in the following day?” Or, “What do you say when they come in with issues in their marriage that are impacting their job?”
As managers and leaders of people, those are the kinds of questions that one deals with probably 80 percent of the time. I think that business schools could do more to prepare kids to deal with the often more difficult side of business management and leadership. The balance of courses is probably weighted to the numeric side of business as opposed to the people side of business.
Q. And you obviously think such things can be taught?
A. I think they can. You can guide people to get them to understand the implications of decisions they make.
Q. What message would you convey in a commencement speech?
A. It would depend where, right? Here in the United States, and any of the developed countries, I would tend to provide a speech along the lines of what I said before about what makes great leaders – the fact that there’s no leader who can be called one if they don’t have personal integrity, or if they don’t deliver results, or if they don’t care about the people they lead, or if they don’t have a passion for winning. At the end of the day, business is about winning.
If it were outside the United States, I probably would add something that I honestly believe – that cultural differences, which are so often touted as the rationale for making decisions in business, are grossly overrated, and that human behavior really doesn’t have a language. It’s pretty much the same everywhere.
We are constantly talking about differences in how consumers behave. Early on in my career, I was working in Asia, and I heard often from people about how to apply Western types of business practices to an Asian environment. But I found out, after living six years over there, that quite honestly, there were a lot more similarities to how customers behaved in Latin America, Europe and here in the U.S. than the differences everybody stressed.
So if you’re training people to make exceptions for cultural differences, as opposed to following general rules, by definition you’re going to be managing all the time by exceptions. And that might not be the best way to do it.
This article if from the NY TIMES, May 24, 2009.