I had the privilege to listen to a talk given by Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart North America, last Thursday in Northwest Arkansas, at The Summit Luncheon. He spoke to a group of 650 executives and local business leaders at the Cross Church pavilion in Rogers, Arkansas. Mr. Simon was very gracious and humbled by the opportunity to be heard outside his world at Walmart. He said that it was a rare occasion that he cherished. All of his words were simple and authentic and it was very obvious that he meant everything he said. I found his speech to be very profound and it compelled me to write this piece.
Bill Simon has served in many leadership roles throughout his career. First of all, he is a 25 year veteran of the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves; he worked in various executive roles before being appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to serve on his administration in 2003. Simon then moved on to be a senior executive at Brinker International where he was responsible for the growth of the restaurant division outside of the United States and in March of 2006, he made the decision to join Walmart. He offered some poignant ideas of leadership that I found quite stimulating and motivating, and I would like to share with our Inward audience.
The first theme was that we all have the opportunity to make a difference. Sam Walton took chances; he swam upstream and impacted the lives of millions of Americans every day by embracing the concept of three core values. Instead of being one of a pack of many retailers, Sam re-invented retailing by offering an opportunity for his customers to save money and live better lives.
With the right mindset, attitude and willingness to takes risks, anything is possible. Sam Walton built his business around this vision. By being different, exceptional and standing out, he was able to make retail history in a small corner of Northwest Arkansas. Making history can occur anywhere in our country, like in Silicon Valley with Steve Jobs or in Boston at MIT labs. Innovation is a frame of
mind. We have to be bold and eager to make a difference.
The next theme was the idea of not accepting mediocrity. He said that people accept “average” all too often. “Average” must be unacceptable. “Average has become below average”, he said. Would you accept an average surgeon to do an appendicitis operation? “It is a simple surgery therefore an average surgeon will do”. Should that be acceptable? If someone told you that all they wanted was to be average, would that be okay? What about an average student, firefighter, teacher or nurse? Why should we accept this idea as a nation? Should we be an average nation or be the best?
He introduced the idea at this point about being exceptional, being the best that you can be. This is an idea he learned in the Navy and from his immigrant parents. He now hopes to instill this idea of being exceptional, changing the rules, being a catalyst of positive change to distinguish Walmart apart from all retailers and make retail history once again.
He shared how he arrived at Walmart in 2006 and was given the opportunity to change the world immediately. Within 6 months, his team introduced $4 generic prescriptions which saved millions of dollars for American consumers. This initiative, alone, changed the world because it was the first program in over 15 years that was able to lower the cost of healthcare for millions of Americans. Wow!
The third idea was the concept living in the moment because there is no guarantee for tomorrow. He cited the Old Testament and the story of Esther, which happens to correspondent to the Jewish festival of Purim which is coincidentally celebrated around the world this Thursday. In that story, Esther chose a specific time to step up, save her nation against an evil man named Haman, who was set to obliterate her nation in exile. She chose the moment to do something about it. She didn’t procrastinate. She acted. She stepped up to the plate. She saved her people by exposing Haman’s evil plot to her husband, the Assyrian King, Achashverosh. As a result, he put a stop to Haman’s plan.
As human beings, as leaders, we need to act, do the right thing and not worry about perceptions and what others may think. Do what has to be done. My twist on this is to build consensus, momentum and create a movement to make change happen. Create a society based on abundant mentality that binds us together on common ground and harmony.
Mr. Simon reminded us that we were born for such a time as this and encouraged us to live in the moment stating this is one way that he stays grounded and strives for excellence. We are placed here on earth to make an impact. Then he challenged us to do something to make a difference by asking us where would we be had good people not contributed?
Citing a quote attributed to Sir Edmund Burke, Simon said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men to do nothing.” He asked those in attendance to imagine throughout history of all the instances where good people did something and be inspired to defend themselves by doing the right thing.
All in all, I was impressed with Bill Simon’s simple ideas of leadership and making a difference in this world. It can come from anywhere if the presence of mind is to be innovative and buck the trend, be resolute in your ideas and committed to make a difference in the lives of our people and our society. That is what we should value.