When Walmart Went Green

“Hi, we’re going to become a highly sensitive green sustainable corporation,” said the CEO of Walmart. It wasn't their business model then, but now they are a global leader.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Who are your leadership inspirations?

Swope:    I’ve never met this gentleman, but I’m going to take a controversial figure and talk about him because I’ve had three separate people on his staff now describe him, which is the CEO of Wal-Mart.  And the story goes and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the story goes that he walked in and said, “Hi, we’re going to become a highly sensitive green sustainable corporation,” and his staff went into this long explanation of how he was just wrong.  It was not their business model.  It was not their customer base.  They couldn’t implement.  They couldn’t sell.  They couldn’t do anything.  At the end of about an hour of heated discussion, he said, this is a fantastic conversation.  I am so glad we’ve all engaged to these.  We’ll talk about again in two weeks, and it took him over a year.  And he moved that organization to a place where, you know, you can argue with whether you like Wal-Mart or not, right.  But if you look at the business leader that moved the company into a place where… it now begins to make a lot of sense, but there was a vision there.  There was a commitment to a goal.  There was clear leadership, right.  That’s pretty impressive to me.  There are many people at Intel that I can highlight equally, but I feel it would be self-serving.  But just for someone where we have no business, you know, Wal-Mart is not a big customer of ours.  There’s no, you know, there’s nothing here, but in that story and having multiple people on his staff tell that story and pretty much the same way, I believe it pretty much happened that way.

Question: What are the attributes of a great business leader?

Swope:    The first thing is, you know, you have a business vision.  You kind of know where you’re going.  You’ve got a way that you think that’s going to work, right?  You just imagine trying to do any of these social networks inside.  I’m not so sure that 12 years ago, if somebody described to me Facebook, I would have said that was a good idea.  But someone clearly had a leader position there, so the first thing is a business vision that matters.  The second of all is you have to be willing to take informed risks, and I don’t know if that really means being a visionary, but it certainly means that you have to have a pretty good sense of how to do it, right.  Well, we have found… and leadership is kind of edgy and the reason I say that is because there are some people that have been very effective leaders over the years that are really pretty despicable people.  And we always want to talk about leadership in terms of the people that we admire and respect, but, unfortunately, there have been some pretty corrupt and evil leaders in the world that have proven to be very strong leaders.  So, I don’t want to paint this into that form, but in assuming ethical business leadership under those constraints, right, you’ve got to understand the business first and foremost.  You have to be able to then articulate that and paint a vision for where you’re trying to go.  And then third of all, in my opinion, then you’ve got to be able to build a series of trusting relationships with the people that have to be with you, because you can forgive an awful lot of things if you trust the person.  If you miss the trust at least in the business setting, I don’t think you’ll get there.  So if I look at it at least for what I try to emulate, those would be the three and then, of course, then you lead you know, good governance.  There’s a whole series of operational issues that are required if you want to actually make it successful, but I think on the leadership aspect, that would be that.

Question: What do you say to employees who don’t like change?

Swope: Hi, I think we should go blank and you think about that for a while and you play with it with your mind and maybe you talk to one or two people about it and they certainly assure you that you’re wrong and then you go, okay, well.  Then I go to modify a little bit.  You come back to them and when they stop saying vehemently no, then you figure that you must be pretty close.  And then you try to go right to a group of people to say, hi, I want to still consider this and then you start doing that process.  I face that every day of trying to move the status quo and sometimes requires they, I realize, there are other people of Intel who would tell you every day they try to move me.  So, it’s not a matter that I’m this great person trying to move the corporation and others are not.  I think of Mr. Otellini very clear on the fact that he is the CEO and I’m not, and he is and I’m not.  So at different levels, we’re all working on the same issue, but each time you’re trying to form a consensus, you’re trying to get people to see the world differently than they see it today and you’re trying to paint that that new vision is better than where we are today.  And then you proceed with your day job.