Fast Company senior writer Charles Fishman, who has been with the magazine since Issue #1, is the author of a bestselling book about Wal-Mart, The Wal-Mart Effect, which grew out of a story he wrote for Fast Company called, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.” (A chapter of the book was excerpted in Fast Company’s January/February issue, “The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart.”)
The Wal-Mart Effect has caused quite a stir — Fishman has been interviewed on NPR and CNN, reviewed everywhere from Business Week and USA Today to the Denver Post, and the book spent three weeks on the bestseller lists of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Economist said The Wal-Mart Effect is “the most satisfying” of the Wal-Mart books, and “has frequent unexpected insights.” The Economist then used the book’s ideas to frame its own story on Wal-Mart — “Measuring the Wal-Mart effect.”
We’ve asked Charles Fishman to guest-host the Fast Company blog this week, to do a series of postings on the ways Wal-Mart is talking about changing its business; to look at how seriously we should take those changes; to consider their possible wider impact, and Wal-Mart’s chances for success.
When You Want to Treat the World Better, Who You Gonna Call? ‘Stakeholders’
Wal-Mart is currently advertising to fill two new and fascinating jobs at the Bentonville home office: director of global ethics, and senior director of stakeholder engagement
The ethics job got a burst of media attention last week — Wal-Mart’s director of global ethics “plays a critical strategic role by promoting ethical behavior globally, facilitating proper decision-making, and ensuring that ethics is embedded into key business processes.” The posting makes it clear the job will have its bare-knuckled Wal-Mart moments. The right candidate must be “able and willing to take a difficult or unpopular position if necessary,” and the right person will maintain “rationality in tense interpersonal situations.”
Having a chief of ethical business practices isn’t all that unusual — since 1992, there has been an association of people with that job. Companies from AOL Time Warner and Burger King to Clorox and Halliburton are members. As is Wal-Mart. The ethics responsibilities are not new at Wal-Mart, they are simply being put in a separate job to give them more visibility.
The much more interesting — and all new — job at Wal-Mart is the senior director of stakeholder engagement. This person, the job description says, “will help pioneer a new model of how Wal-Mart works with outside stakeholders resulting in fundamental changes in how the company does business.”
It could be the beginning of realizing that “always low prices — always” isn’t even always good, even for Wal-Mart.
In The Wal-Mart Effect, while discussing Wal-Mart’s corrosive impact on Chile by its salmon-buying practices, I asked, “What if Wal-Mart imposed conditions on its suppliers that went beyond cost, efficiency, and on-time delivery? What would the ripples from that look like?…The result could be a completely new Wal-Mart effect — Wal-Mart using its enormous purchasing power not just to raise the standard of living for its customers, but also for its suppliers.”
In looking for a new director of stakeholder engagement, Wal-Mart says its senior executives have spent the last year talking to “key global stakeholders to better understand their concerns, the company’s impact on the world and society, and what leadership means for Wal-Mart in the 21st century.”
“Wal-Mart’s size and scope have created a unique opportunity for the company to leverage its resources in new and different ways that create value for shareholders and have a positive impact on stakeholders worldwide.”
In other words, time to think about things besides price. It’s time to see if Wal-Mart can use its power to improve the working conditions of sweat-shop factory workers in developing countries; to see if Wal-Mart can use its power to restore and safeguard the environment in the places its products come from, instead of having those factories and farms keep merchandise cheap by ignoring pollution.
Wal-Mart’s focus on price changed the world — by wringing inefficiencies out of businesses from salmon farmers to deodorant makers, an effort that saves us all billions of dollars a year. If Wal-Mart adds two other priorities — people and the environment — to price-consciousness, it already has the power to change the world again.
Is creating a new job the way to drive a new set of priorities into a company famous for its single-mindedness? Are sweat-shops and pollution even properly the province of a retailer — even a mega-retailer?
In this instance, I opt for optimism. I think a job devoted to assessing the Wal-Mart effect and finding ways to moderate it is a great start. And I think such issues are unquestionably something Wal-Mart should pay attention to. After 40 years, so does Wal-Mart.
But the job description makes it clear transformation will be hard and slow. The right candidate, writes Wal-Mart, will have “superb skills at creating new possibilities” and be able to “challenge conventional ways of thinking.” But Wal-Mart’s senior director of stakeholder engagement will have a “readiness to accept significant challenges” and will “not (be) daunted by setbacks” or “defeats.”
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