Friday, December 5, 2008

Wal-Mart: Culture and Cheer

Our class discussion about organizational culture sparked my own memory of my experiences at Wal-Mart, where I worked in Arkansas as a high school student. While I believe Wal-Mart is by no means a perfect organization and has many faults, the culture I experienced while working at Wal-Mart played a large role in developing a positive mental image of Wal-Mart while I worked there as an employee. The following is an analysis of Wal-Mart’s core values that underlie its culture.

In 1962, Sam Walton opened the very first Wal-Mart in Rogers, Arkansas. As the founder of this one-store organization, he established the company culture upon three basic beliefs: (1) respect for the individual, (2) service to our customers, and (3) striving for excellence. Today, almost half a century and many stores later, the values and organizational cultural which Walton valued still resonate among many of the over 2 million Wal-Mart associates throughout the world (

(1) Respect for the Individual. At Wal-Mart, each employee is referred to as an “associate.” This verbalization emphasizes the shared ownership of Wal-Mart each associate has as an employee. This ownership is both a figurative metaphor which serves to open up lines of communication by downplaying the hierarchy between employees and managers, but is also literal, as many employees buy small shares of Wal-Mart stock, which is encouraged in the initial hire orientation.
(2) Service to Our Customers. At Wal-Mart service and servant leadership are key themes. According to Sam Walton, “Effective leaders don’t lead from behind a desk. It's more important than ever that we develop leaders who are servants, who listen to their partners – their associates – in a way that creates wonderful morale to help the whole team accomplish an overall goal” ( Store managers and district managers are often seen on the floor making themselves available to all associates and practicing the “10-foot rule,” which encourages associates to each customer with the infamous, “How may I help you?” which is written on the back of every associates blue vest.
(3) Striving for Excellence. Wal-Mart employees are constantly encouraged to strive for excellence through competition and improvement. Three store-wide weekly meetings (for each of the three work-shifts) are held at which store managers, department managers, and associates discuss sales strategies (merchandise displays, cleanliness, friendliness), sales performance (compared daily, weekly, and one year earlier), and sales competition (among departments within the same store and with other stores regionally and nationally).
These three core values are particularly strongly embedded within the organization and each associate in part by a rigorous orientation which occurs after initial hiring. Before stepping foot on the actual store floor and beginning training, each associate watches a series of videos regarding Sam Walton’s life, core values, and history of the company. By watching these videos, many associates may become inspired. In many ways, the life of Sam Walton encompasses the American Dream of going from rags to riches. By working at Wal-Mart, they to have chance at the American Dream through hard work, promotions, and developing community relationships.
Perhaps one can best show the strength of Wal-Mart culture in the activities which often occur during the store-wide weekly meetings previously noted. These meetings are characterized by an open and inclusive family dinner table-like environment. Managers and associates come together in an open space in the back of the store to discuss store happenings, compare sales performances, share a package of cookies, and announce weekly birthdays of associates throughout the store. Each meeting ends with the infamous “Wal-Mart Cheer”:
Give me a W!
Give me an A!
Give me an L!
Give me a squiggly!
Give me an M!
Give me an A!
Give me an R!
Give me a T!
What's that spell?
Whose Wal-Mart is it?
It's my Wal-Mart!
Who's number one?
The customer! Always!

To me, this cheer exemplifies Sam Walton’s original values of respect, service, and excellence which are still embodied and valued by many Wal-Mart managers and associates, regardless of the negative attention the corporate side of Wal-Mart has increasingly (and often deservedly) received in recent years.

Just For Fun:
Video of the Wal-Mart Cheer:

Innovation and creativity, anyone? Here is an example of some Wal-Mart employees in Sherwood, Arkansas, really taking “ownership” of the Wal-Mart Cheer and making it their own:

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