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What the CEO of Walmart can teach us about working your way to the top…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You should try to “own” something at work!

Today’s Preview

How “owning” something at work…

(1)... helped lead this Walmart trainee to the C-suite

(2)... might boost you past the “last mile”

(3)... is something you can practice today!

(1) A story from the past

Walmart is a company with over two million associates (employees) and one CEO. How did Doug McMillon, who started working for Walmart as a high-schooler to pay for college, become that one person?

Let’s travel back to 1991: McMillon is on his first day as a trainee in Walmart’s buyer program. He was assigned to sort through a stack of papers when he spotted a Post-It note. “Walmart Trilene Fishing Line,” it read. A number—Walmart’s price—was written next to a competitor’s—Kmart’s—price.

McMillon could have glanced at the note and kept sorting as he’d been asked to do. But he didn’t—instead, he realized that Walmart’s price was higher (at odds with the company’s “Low Prices Every Day” mantra), and brought it to his manager. 

“That’s from Sam Walton [the founder of Walmart]!” his manager exclaimed. 

Indeed, the note was initialed by Sam Walton, who penned the note as a heads-up to the team. McMillon’s manager immediately investigated the issue and lowered the price of the item.

The same day, McMillon’s manager explained his actions to McMillon: “When something is messed up…it is your job to fix it, not to focus on how it might've gotten messed up or who did it, but to take ownership.”

This advice, McMillon recalled, “has served me well throughout my entire career." And so it did, with McMillon bringing an “ownership mindset” to his steady stream of promotions, from buyer to general merchandise manager for Sam’s Club to Senior VP of electronics and toys to CEO of Sam’s Club in 2006. Then, as the CEO of Walmart International in 2009, McMillon grew international sales to 29% of Walmart Inc’s total revenue.

Today, McMillon is the fifth CEO of the entirety of Walmart Inc.

So, the next time you see one of the 10,500 Walmart stores across the world, remember McMillon, who, by assuming responsibility for his role—and more—made his way from the entry level to the C-suite.

Doug McMillon (L, circled) in the early 90s (via Facebook) and in 2019 (via WWD)

(2) A study of the present

McMillon rose in Walmart’s ranks because he not only took ownership, but also navigated his way to roles that allowed him to take ownership. As it turns out, the path to becoming a CEO has some science behind it. In 2021, researchers from executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart found that, over the past 20 years

  • “85 percent of S&P 500 CEOs have ascended from four ‘last-mile’ roles: COOs (Chief Operating Officers), divisional CEOs, CFOs (Chief Financial Officers), and ‘leapfrog’ leaders promoted from below the C-suite” and,
  • “What distinguished aspiring CEOs who beat the odds was their self-awareness and devotion to unlocking their full potential.”

So what? Don’t expect hard work to speak for itself. To stand out as a future CEO, you need to develop a track record like a CEO. That means taking ownership—and being in situations where you can take ownership.

(3) A strategy for your future

How can you “own” your work and stand out like McMillon? Consider this:

  • Volunteer for projects that both interest you and push the organization closer to its goals by saying, “I’d love to help out with ______, which is a lot like ______ where I ______. What would it take to join the team?”
  • Take initiative by making suggestions that could benefit your organization by saying, “I noticed that ______. I was thinking that we could ______, which might decrease ______ / increase ______. What do you think?”
  • Solve the problems you come across, even when they don’t “belong” to you by saying, “I noticed that ______. To fix / improve / avoid this issue, would it make sense to ______?”

Your career is defined by the actions that make others think, “Wow—if [your name] is already this good at ______, what else would they be good at?”—or the opposite. You want the former! So, to the 61% of you who said in last week’s poll that you believe your job is about “contributing to the solution to every problem that crosses my path,” you’re well on your way!

I know it because I’ve lived it: From a former manager who said, “Gorick needs to take ownership of his work.” I thought, “What does that even mean?” So, I spent the last decade trying to figure out what these unspoken rules were… and then how to turn them into a digestible, straightforward, and universally applicable set of frameworks, both in and outside of book form.

Own your work and own your career!


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