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Walton built Walmart by listening

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Some CEOs talk more than they listen. They bark orders, tell self-aggrandizing stories and show off their knowledge.

True leaders prefer to extract knowledge from others. They ask questions in a friendly, engaging manner.

Sam Walton (1918-1992) built Wal-Mart by listening to employees and customers. He didn’t pretend to know more than them; instead, he sought their opinions and refrained from injecting his own.

Chris Sultemeier, an executive vice president at Wal-Mart U.S. who oversees 80,000 employees in the logistics unit, remembers his early years at the company with fondness. As a project manager in charge of opening a new distribution center in Indiana in 1990, he presented his site selection proposal to Wal-Mart’s top brass.

They approved his plan and the meeting was wrapping up when Sam Walton unexpectedly entered the room. At the time, an ailing Walton was chairman of the board.

Walton asked what they had discussed in the just-concluded meet­­­ing. When he learned that they had decided to approve a new distribution center, he replied, “Great, I’d like to hear about it.”

The group sat back down as Walton peppered them with questions for an hour.

“He must have asked me 50 questions,” Sultemeier recalls. “He wanted to know every nuance and detail about the project.”

Months later, Sultemeier’s dad visited Wal-Mart’s corporate office from his home in Fort Stockton, Texas, to see his son. They happened to bump into Sam Walton in the hallway, and Walton initiated a long conversation with Sultemeier’s father.

 “He [wanted] to know all about Fort Stockton,” Sultemeier says. “He asked my dad what kind of community it was, what kind of people lived there, what the retail competition was like. The questions just kept coming.”

Two years later, Wal-Mart opened a store in Fort Stockton.

—Adapted from “Walmart Logistics Exec Talks Leadership,” Kim Souza, www.supplychain247.com.

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