One of the topics that seems to be highly prevalent in both the trade press and general business publications concerns leadership.

Whether it’s print media, social media, blogs, or other sources, it seems a though “what makes an effective leader?” is being weighed in on by everyone. But there seems to be one very effective tool that has become lost, namely, the art of MBWA — Management by Walking Around.

While I don’t think Sam Walton originated the concept (I believe it was Peter Drucker), Sam exemplified the principal. And all the great leaders that I had the pleasure to work with at Walmart were masters of it. 

With today’s buyers and sellers, there is a huge premium on the ability to analyze data and base decisions on that data. That is certainly a critical aspect to managing multi-million/billion-dollar portfolios. But tempering those decisions against what is happening in the marketplace seems to be lacking. 

So often I will go into a store and observe a display, a price point, or a promotional activity and ask myself “What on earth was a buyer thinking?” Beyond that, I wonder if that person’s supervisor, VP, SVP, or EVP ever actually looks at the results of what they have directed. What “looks good on paper” often has a very different result when implemented.

But going out to visit your own stores is only a part of the equation. Sam was often quoted as saying he spent more time in his competition than in his own stores. He never looked at what his competition was doing wrong, but rather what they were doing right! 

Throughout his life, he was always a “student of retail.” And that is at the heart of spending time in the field. So often, I will see groups “giving direction”. And there are certainly situations that call for that. But the reason to go out into the field is to learn. 

Talk to the people that are actually doing the work and simply ask them “What are we (the home office) screwing up?!?” I promise you this: if you sincerely want to know, they will tell you. 

Then go fix it! And while you’re at it, maybe give some people some recognition that they helped make the company better. Get into the competition. Be honest with yourself as to what they are doing better than you and go fix it. Sam used to call it “stealing shamelessly,” which simply meant that he learned from his competition. Visit growing areas. Learn about the challenges your suppliers are facing when trying to meet your demands. It may cause you to think differently about things you simply impose on them. Visit terminal markets. You will see things you had no idea existed. And you will have the opportunity to gain wisdom from people who can claim their great-grandfather was in the business.

While all of this seems to be directed to retailers, the same is true of suppliers. Get out of your office and into stores. Check out your products for sure, but look for and evaluate what your competition is doing, especially if they do it better than you do. And talk to as many of the produce clerks who have a moment to visit with you.

Walmart gave a name to this in the merchandising division. It was called “eat what you cook.” The more time you spend observing the effects of the decisions you make, the more robust your decision process becomes. I assure you, it will pay big time.


Bruce Peterson is a former produce executive with Walmart and president of Arkansas-based Peterson Insights Inc.


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