So, every company has them—corporate-values statements. Sometimes they’re called company values and principles, or simply what we believe. But values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested. That is until someone is put in a difficult position of choosing between doing the hard right or the easy wrong.
And that’s why stories are uniquely called for when trying to establish values in an organization. They show the uncomfortable, awkward, and messy real-world situations people find themselves in when having to make a decision that either does, or does not, reflect your company values, and the consequences of those decisions. So, one of my favorite examples is about a man I suspect all of you will be familiar with. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.
So, for most of the 1900s, H-E-B was the largest grocery store chain in Texas. That is, until Walmart came along. Then, within a couple of decades, Walmart had overtaken H-E-B as the leading grocery retailer in Texas.
So, it would be fair to say that Sam Walton and Charles Butt (the CEO of HEB) were fierce competitors. Which, by the way, makes the whole story all the more impressive.
Anyway, in an effort to learn from his now-larger competitor, Charles Butt once asked Sam Walton if he could bring his leadership team to Walmart’s headquarters, in Bentonville, Arkansas, on a learning mission. Now, Sam could have been forgiven for saying no. After all, they are competitors. But instead, Sam said that he wasn’t sure if he could help, but he’d be happy to try.
So, on the scheduled day, Charles Butt and his senior executives arrived in Arkansas and met Sam at one of his local stores. When Charles walked in, he could see Sam at the end of a long aisle talking to a customer. So, the whole group of them started marching up the aisle. When Sam saw them, he said, “Charles, I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m talking to this young woman.” He was trying to sell her an ironing board cover.
Well, after a few more minutes of conversation, the woman put the ironing board cover in her cart and pushed it off to the register. Sam turned to Charles and asked him with all seriousness, “Charles, do you know how much worn-out ironing board covers there are in this country? We’re going to sell a million this month! Now, what can I tell you about retail?”
Now, imagine you’re an employee at Walmart today, and your boss told you that story. What lessons about company values would you learn? So, I’ve shared that story and asked that question to thousands of participants in training classes over the past decade. I never get fewer than ten solid answers. Here are the most popular five:
- Other retailers are our competitors, not our enemies. We work in the same industry serving the same customers. If we can help each other serve those customers without giving away our competitive secrets, we should.
- The customer is number one. When approached by H-E-B’s CEO, who he’d invited to fly hundreds of miles to meet with him, Sam Walton chose to make the CEO wait while he helped a customer.
- Understanding the customer’s wants and needs is important. Why do you think Sam knew there were so many worn-out ironing board covers in the country? He asked.
- Persistence pays off. Valuing persistence means you don’t give up until you’ve helped the customer find what they’re looking for. Sam didn’t quit until the woman was satisfied with her choice and put the ironing board cover in her cart.
- Passion wins. Out of the billions of dollars of merchandise Walmart sells every year, Sam had a goal specifically for how many ironing boards covers he wanted to sell (a million this month), and he was clearly excited by the challenge. Passion is contagious. Spread it and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
So, a story like this can convey a number of values far better than a corporate values statement.
In the next lesson, we’ll look at an example of a marketing story.