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ATD Blog

Building a Legendary Culture

Monday, December 5, 2022

A catch phrase that’s used frequently when talking about organizational culture is “people first.” Everyone knows this maxim to be true—people are an organization’s greatest asset. But what does it look like in action?

Recently, the ATD Forum had an in-person lab at member-company Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. While the focus of the two-day session was benchmarking members’ digital learning practices, participants from 23 different companies also had the opportunity to delve into the leadership practices of founder Sam Walton, or “Mr. Sam” as he is affectionately called. Walton initiated a company culture that still reflects his innovative spirit and his “people first” attitude.

The Walmart culture story is unique. It’s based on the ideas and practices of Mr. Sam, his wife Helen, his brother Bud, and the early associates who jumped into the fray as he courageously and creatively built the brand. His entrepreneurial purpose was to attract and keep customers, and this was reflected in pricing (lowest price guaranteed!). From the start, his goal was to get up every morning and improve something, with the ultimate goal of saving people money so they could live better. As documented in his memoir, Sam Walton: Made in America, he often said “There is only one boss, the customer. And they can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending their money somewhere else.”

Mr. Sam quickly realized that customer-first thinking also required an investment in the company’s employees, known as associates. As the current Walmart leaders shared in their overview at the lab, the customer net promoter score (NPS) can go no higher than the associate NPS. Mr. Sam said often, “Take care of your associates, and they will take care of the customers.”

Creating opportunities to listen to associates is a must. Mr. Sam’s actions reflect this. He constantly visited his stores and his competitors’ stores. He asked detailed questions about what they did and how they succeeded. And he not only listened, but he also captured notes. His yellow legal pad was always accessible, and he would scribble thoughts and information to record every idea. Later, he would review these and surface them at the weekly meetings.


To explore the depth of Mr. Sam’s leadership actions on the culture, the lab included priming activities for participants prior to arrival: learning about the Walmart journey from senior leaders, a scavenger hunt at the Walmart Museum, and hearing directly from Mr. Sam via Walmart’s conversational artificial intelligence (AI) research and implementation. During the lunchtime conversations with “Mr. Sam in a Box,” one member asked him what skills were needed to be a good leader. He replied:

“I'm convinced about 98 percent of our problems would disappear if we'd all apply these 12 principles of leadership. I would suggest you think on each one every day.” A good leader:

  1. Sets a good example.
  2. Gets results through other people.
  3. Treats everyone as an individual—lets them know they are important.
  4. Suggests or requests rather than commands.
  5. Asks questions before reprimanding; criticizes in private.
  6. Leads rather than bosses.
  7. Gives credit where credit is due.
  8. Welcomes suggestions for improvement.
  9. Explains why; lets people know in advance about changes that affect them.
  10. Lets people know how they stand; suggests ways to improve.
  11. Praises good performance rather than criticizing the bad.
  12. Keeps all promises.

As part of the lab’s small group activities, participants synthesized their thinking about Mr. Sam’s leadership and the culture that lives on as his legacy. The deliverable from this exercise was a visual poster of the innovative spark (Walmart’s symbol for innovation and inspiration) for them to take back to their organizations. The requirements included a title for the topic, a visual collage for how the topic was operationalized, a quote from or about Mr. Sam’s leadership, and a statement for how his actions and philosophy are relevant for today’s leaders. Here are a few statement examples:

  • Making the right connections is needed to drive the right results.
  • People make the difference.
  • A people-focused culture enables a better life for customers and associates.
  • People are the secret sauce in every organization.

This emphasis on the importance of people can be summed up with another quote from Mr. Sam: “It is a story about entrepreneurship, and risk, and hard work, and knowing where you want to go and being willing to do what it takes to get there. It is a story about believing in your idea even when some folks don’t, and about sticking to your guns. But I think more than anything it proves there’s absolutely no limit to what plain, ordinary working people can accomplish if they are given the opportunity and the encouragement and the incentives to do their best.”

What skills or behaviors does your organization expect of a leader? How might these ideas about leadership and culture spark ideas for enhancing your work with leaders? How might these leadership skills help you with your personal practice?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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