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Carol Avenant
Lessons from Uncle Sam

During an interview with a local CEO, Carol Avenant was given a copy of Sam Walton’s book Made in America. Here she shares some of the secrets to success he imparted in his book.

Recently I interviewed the CEO of one of South Africa's largest and leading value retailers who wished to remain anonymous. I was forewarned about his presence, but was unprepared for his generous spirit and gentle manner. His calm, controlled and collected way was in stark contrast to my over-energetic enthusiasm as I tried to glean what's made his company great, and what will make it even better in the future. As a strategist we are always asking people "why, what, when, how", and those questions seemed particularly relevant given that Wal-Mart is on its way to South Africa.

After a few cups of coffee and him patiently answering all my questions, he opened the cupboard behind him and pulled out one of many copies of the book "Sam Walton: Made in America". He put a copy of the book into my hand saying: "If you want to understand how a great leader built a great brand, read this." So in continuing the spirit of generosity, I've decided to share some of the noteworthy lessons taken from the book given to me by the 'anonymous CEO', that have made Sam Walton a great leader, and Wal-Mart the most valuable retailer brand in the world, as I've interpreted them from the book.

Lesson 1: His vision was the air that he breathed

Sam Walton understood that to get people to believe in his vision, he would need to believe in it more than anyone else. Unwaveringly so. 'Saving people money to help them live better', was the goal that Sam Walton envisioned when he opened the doors to the first Wal-Mart more than 40 years ago. His passion was infectious, and his dedication unquestioned. This vision still guides Wal-Mart's journey today.

Lesson 2: Practicing servant leadership

An unmistakable character trait of Sam Walton is his servant-like leadership. He behaves as if he works for management, and he expects management to behave as if they work for the employees, and employees work to serve customers. Therefore the whole company serves the most important stakeholder, the customer. He is unafraid to use his own mistakes as lessons to teach others, and often shared stories even if the tale was told at his own expense.

Lesson 3: Creating a healthy culture

John Townsend said: "A healthy culture is one where people know they are around a leader who will lead, who will actually take the reins, create the vision, be ahead of the pack, make the hard decisions, care about the people, and protect the mission and the goals." If I didn't know better, I would say John Townsend wrote that about Sam Walton. He created an environment where people are valued parts of the whole, where experimentation is encouraged, everyone respected. They take their culture seriously, and everyone is encouraged to share stories about how they live the Wal-Mart values every day.

Lesson 4: Communicate, and then communicate some more

Sam Walton believes in sharing everything he possibly can with his partners, suppliers, employees and customers. He believes that the more they know, the more they will understand, therefore the more they will care. He understands the psychology behind getting people to engage with Wal-Mart on an emotional level, it leads to increased loyalty and ultimately it leads to increased sales. He knew that once he could get people to care, there's no stopping them.

Lesson 5: Swimming upstream

Sam Walton prided himself in 'zigging' when everyone else was 'zagging'. He even favoured the mavericks who challenged his own rules. He believed that as long as you were prepared for all the naysayers, there was a good chance that you would find success by going in the opposite direction to everyone else - if it helped you on the journey to reaching your vision off course.

By no means did Sam Walton only execute the above five lessons to build a powerful global brand. He also wasn't afraid to steal ideas from others, but always improved on them. He surrounded himself with people that have the right selection of skills to execute his vision. He knew that the best way to get great ideas to bubble up to the surface was to listen to people, and to do that you need to get them talking. He still believes in celebrating big and small success, and always reminds himself to find humour in his own failures. Most importantly, he understood that he needed to exceed customer expectations, it's the only way to get customers to come back over and over: 'Give them what they want - and a little more.'

Since this is about Uncle Sam, I'll let him have the last word: "Those are some pretty ordinary lessons, some would say even simplistic. But they worked for me. However, to succeed you can't just keep doing what works once, because everything is constantly changing. You have to stay out in front of that change."


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