How Walmart Builds Its Corporate Culture
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Learn From the Best: How Walmart Builds Its Corporate Culture

Today, Walmart and its associates are guided by a relentless commitment to its customers that's centered on a fundamental purpose of "saving people money so they can live better."

This commitment can be traced back to the early days of the company and its founder, Sam Walton. Since the first discount store opened in 1962 in Rogers, Ark., Walmart has grown to a global brand serving 260 million customers each week across its 11,500 locations spanning 28 countries or on one of its e-commerce websites available in 11 countries. Despite six decades of growth and expansion, Walmart has remained true to Walton's "Every Day Low Prices" philosophy along with his belief that Walmart's associates are the ones responsible for making the difference for its customers and business performance.

The culture behind this success didn't evolve by chance - it was built through strong leadership and focus, and has been no simple task. According to Deloitte, "culture and engagement" was cited as a top challenge by 87 percent of HR leaders around the world. So how does one of the world's largest, most recognizable brands approach its corporate culture?

Creating an inclusive culture

It begins with a strong commitment to the 2.3 million associates that drive Walmart's stores, e-commerce business, logistics and other functions that are crucial to serving customers. Walmart's leaders believe all associates have an important voice and play a critical role in driving the business - Walton is often quoted for saying "listen to your associates, they're your best idea generators". Any associate might come up with the next big idea that separates Walmart from the competition.

As Walmart has gained recognition in recent years as a leader on environmental sustainability, some of the initiatives that have helped the company maximize energy efficiency or reduce waste began as ideas shared by associates. Working together, Walmart associates make corporate strategy a reality, and they alone do the consistent, important things that make a customer's experience special. It's not uncommon when talking with a Walmart associate to hear them say "that Walmart can change the world" - and mean it.

This approach to doing business is a direct result of the Walmart culture - which the company defines as "our values in action". At Walmart, every associate is expected to practice behaviors consistent with four core values - "Service to the Customer", "Respect for the Individual", "Strive for Excellence" and "Act with Integrity" which trace back to the start of Walmart and are consistent around the world.

While Walmart's values are universal, it's by design that you'll see them manifest a bit differently whether you're at the company's Home Office in Bentonville, Ark. or shopping a store in Sao Paulo or Beijing. Walmart's values remain the same, but the application adapts to align to local customs and norms - an example of a business philosophy Walmart's International division calls "freedom within a framework".

Pro Tip: Regularly communicate, promote and share the essence and values of your culture throughout the organization so employees can live it, every day. This will pay extra dividends, too. Mission-driven companies have 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of retention and they tend to be first or second in their market segment (Becoming Irresistible, Deloitte, February 2015).

Keeping the Walmart culture strong

Walmart began more than 50 years ago with a purpose of saving people money so they could live better, and its culture - brought to life by its associates - helps realize that purpose. But how does Walmart ensure its organizational culture is consistent and relevant across the organization as the needs and wants of customers change and as the company continues to expand globally and into e-commerce?

Here are five ways:

1. Walmart sees corporate culture as a key business strategy.

For culture to survive as organizations expand, everyone needs to be committed to it as a business strategy. In high-performing organizations, efforts to build a positive culture do not compete with the means to achieve business results - culture is the means. Realizing this, Walmart has integrated culture development into its business planning processes. Moreover, senior leaders are heavily engaged in that planning, and also serve as culture role models as they communicate the company's strategy and values to others within the organization. After all, truly successful corporate culture rollouts start from the top.

2. Walmart engages frontline leaders to support its culture.

Successful corporate culture rollouts might start at the top, but their long-term viability depends upon buy-in from the grassroots. Don't simply wait for company culture to trickle down from senior leadership. Engage frontline leaders to support and live the company culture as well. This includes leaders in the formal "chain of command" as well as more informal leaders that live and influence at or near the front line.

Each Walmart associate is expected to be a keeper of the culture and practice behaviors consistent with company values - one of those behaviors being to lead by example. In that way Walmart has 2.3 million culture leaders, and that is one of the reasons why the company is so effective in developing its own talent- with 75 percent of its salaried U.S. field managers promoting from hourly positions.

3. Walmart maintains consistent global communication of its culture.

How culture is communicated is key to sustaining culture over the long-term. Ensure communication is consistent, both internally and externally. Arm teams in different locations or branches with the tools they need.

When it comes time to reinforce or refine its culture, Walmart engages leaders at the local level, giving them what they need to communicate with their teams.

Ensuring all locations are on the same page can help companies scale more effectively and make sure culture doesn't suffer in the process.

4. Walmart aligns its people systems.

By aligning HR systems from recruitment to retirement, Walmart is able to recognize and reward its future associates and leaders. Understanding how culture plays a part in benefits will help any company sync its recruitment and retention strategies. Most important, leadership development and selection - the path to success at Walmart - is achieving great results through living the culture.

5. Walmart conducts its business with an emphasis on culture every day.

Culture has a starting point, but not an end. Walmart's culture is integrated into every aspect of its business. Company culture reflects the values and beliefs of any organization, so employees should strive to live them every day-as should the organization as a whole.

Defining a winning culture is fruitless if it does not radiate through the company. Hire and promote leaders at every level who get results and embody core values-they will build teams that do the same.