How Hank Mullany uses three strategies to get his 180,000 employees to embrace Wal-Mart’s mission Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

There is being a division president, and then there’s being a division president for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Hank Mullany is the latter.

He’s the president of Wal-Mart’s Northeast Division, a 600-store,

180,000-employee cog in the world’s largest retail chain, which

produced $374 billion in sales in 2007. Mullany’s divisional footprint stretches from Maine to Virginia, encompassing the metropolitan areas of Boston, New York and Philadelphia and making

him the head of a giant within a giant. Yet, with nearly a quarter-million employees under his umbrella, Mullany still must take big-picture corporate concepts and make them personal for his people — many of whom he’ll never meet beyond a handshake during

one of his store visits. If that doesn’t happen, initiatives don’t get

executed and Wal-Mart won’t succeed.

“If we want something to happen and get it executed, it happens

with the people in the stores,” Mullany says. “The best programs

and strategies in the world aren’t going to happen without execution. (The stores) are where people meet Wal-Mart. I’m not Wal-Mart to our customers. The people in the stores are Wal-Mart.”

Here’s how Mullany drives Wal-Mart’s vision to his employees

through training, communication and delegation to enable his

employees to pursue their ideas, furthering Wal-Mart’s mission in

the process.

Develop your employees

Mullany calls it “executional excellence.” The word might be

made-up, but the reasoning behind it is very real.

In order for a vision to mean anything, it has to be executed effectively, which means you need employees who are compelled to follow the leader and you need to put benchmarks in place to measure

your company’s ability to achieve your vision.

“It’s about creating a weekly cadence of accountability —

what are the key performance indicators that tell us if we’re

achieving our strategic plan and our vision?” Mullany says. “But it

also helps if you can create a compelling vision, something that is

exciting and people can get behind. It will help your employees if

you can create the kind of company where there is a compelling


Simply put, you’re not going to be able to hold employees

accountable for executing the vision without first getting them to

embrace it. For Mullany, it starts with training. Through continual

training, Mullany and his leadership team help employees develop

their skill sets, increasing their sense of purpose in the organization. Motivated employees, in turn, are better at embracing the

vision and executing on it.

“The key is working with the people you have currently,” he

says. “A key challenge for us is making sure we develop the talent to grow our business, which is something that applies to

just about any business. We’ve implemented mentoring programs where I and all of the leaders in the Northeast Division

are mentoring at least four people to groom them so they can

receive additional responsibility. We’ve implemented additional training programs, partnering with our home office and our

internal training team, which we call ‘Wal-Mart University.’

We’ve also developed new positions called ‘developmental

roles,’ where employees are really getting focused with on-thejob training, and in time, they can become a manager.”

Some people come forward and let their leadership-oriented

ambitions be known to their superiors. But in many cases, you

have to do some scouting. That’s why Mullany coaches his store

managers to keep tabs on the managerial potential of their best

and brightest people.

“Some people come forward and clearly state that they want to

be promoted, that they want to become a department manager

or assistant manager,” he says. “But we’ll ask the supervisors to

identify which people are doing an outstanding job and would

be willing to assume additional responsibilities.

“For any business to be successful, you have to make sure you

can retain good people. Your best people have embraced the

core values and know what is important to the business. That’s

why we’re looking to keep good people, grow them and promote


Let ideas flourish

Communication must be a two-way street between employees

and management. If you make time to tell your employees what’s

on your mind, you must make time so they can do the same with


Mullany says he believes ideas must have avenues through which

to flow upward in a business. Some ideas won’t fit your plans, but

some could become best practices throughout the company.

“We had an idea in the Northeast Division about how to lay out

the produce departments in the stores,” he says. “It came from one

of my regional general managers. I told him it sounded interesting

and we’d try to pilot it in a couple of markets.

“We tested it, and it worked. Then we expanded it to the entire

Northeast Division, and more than 600 stores tried it with similar

great results. We shared that with the rest of the Wal-Mart system,

and the system that was thought up by one regional general manager is now how we set up produce departments nationwide.”

Mullany’s bottom-up philosophy for generating ideas has helped

spawn other initiatives at Wal-Mart, among them a national Wal-Mart blog where employees and managers can share their ideas,

giving updates on what is working and not working.

“It’s powerful for an associate to see their idea implemented,”

he says. “That’s why you need to let your employees reach all the

way to the top of the organization. Here, an associate can speak

directly to a member of management, all the way up to me, and

even up to ... the CEO of Wal-Mart. It’s about having an environment where people feel open to sharing new ideas.”

But, as is often communicated by leaders in all types of businesses, innovation can’t occur in a vacuum. You want your

employees to produce and share ideas, but you don’t want them to

get off track with regard to the company mission and goals. It

requires a balance between showing appreciation for all contributions but also developing a selective eye about what you’re going

to implement.

Mullany has a number of barometers in place for deciding on whether to utilize a new idea.

“The key is you want to make sure that you stay true to your mission,” he says. “If a new idea isn’t going to further the mission,

that’s kind of the first filter. We also want to make sure that what

we’re doing lines up with our brand strategy and how we’re going

to market.”

The best way to keep your employees’ creative juices flowing

while keeping the company on track is to remind them of where

the company is headed.

“Part of leadership is clearly communicating the goals and strategies,” Mullany says. “You have to keep your messages clear and

simple. What is simple is understood, and what is understood gets

executed thoroughly. You need to narrow the focus of your messages down to the few critical things that are really important.

Make sure the message is consistent, repeat the message, and I’ve

also found that it’s helpful to deliver the message via multiple

media. That means I’ll do video messages, speeches, meetings in

person, I’ll visit the stores. I’ll also make sure that my entire team

reinforces and delivers the message.”

Delegate effectively

Good communication plays into effective delegation. There is

more than one way you can delegate responsibility to your

employees, so you have to make yourself clear on what you want.

“One type of delegation is that you’re telling someone to decide

what to do, then inform you about the progress,” Mullany says.

“Another kind is to tell someone to make a decision, then go ahead

with it — don’t inform me. A third type is to tell someone to make

a recommendation and we’ll work together on it. A fourth would

be to make a recommendation on it, but I’ll make the decision.

“So it’s important to avoid miscommunication and bad feelings,

and to make sure that doesn’t happen, people need to understand

the level of delegation you’re handing them. Then, when you delegate, you need to delegate both the responsibility and the authority to make it happen. If you delegate the responsibility and not the

authority, whatever you were planning isn’t going to happen, and

you are going to put the person in a no-win situation.”

Even if you’ve given others control over a project or department,

you need to keep supplying them with resources, which means

you need to stay in contact with them. Part of delegating authority

is giving them the authority to contact their superiors and request

what they need to get the job done.

“A leader has to make sure the person has what they need to do

the job,” Mullany says. “That includes the information, the authority and the understanding among everyone that this person has your


“In some cases, I might know upfront the resources they need. In

most cases, they’ll start executing the project or whatever it is, and

I’ll tell them to come back if they need any help. They might come

back and tell me that they’ve started, but they need more information, more money or more time. But they need to understand from

me that my door is open and that we in management want dialogue and feedback. If they understand that, they’ll feel comfortable with coming back to management.”

Along with communication, training is a key component in

grooming employees capable of receiving delegated responsibility

and authority. A leader will not be able to deliver the best results

without a properly prepared team.

“The most critical element of delegation is to surround yourself with great people who you trust,” Mullany says. “The

stronger the team and the higher the trust factor, the more you

will have managers willing to delegate and people who are willing to take on that responsibility.

“The best business lesson I’ve learned is to surround yourself

with good people. I’ve seen leaders who have great people and had great results. But I’ve also seen very smart individuals who

didn’t have a good team and didn’t deliver the results.”

You have to develop your people, which means they have to

have confidence in the company’s leaders. That comes back to a

common theme in business: “Promise what you’ll deliver, and

then deliver what you promised,” Mullany says.

“That’s important to me. I have that on the wall of my office,

right next to my door, so people see it when they walk in to my

office and know that’s what I believe.”

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