Skip to Main Content

Great leadership is about how you make people feel

March 2024

Judith McKennaI’ve been thinking ahead to World Retail Congress in April in Paris where I will have the privilege of interviewing Judith McKenna (left) who recently stepped down from Walmart after 27 years with the company. In her last role there, Judith was President & CEO of Walmart International, where she led all of Walmart’s operations outside the US — including over half a million associates in 18 countries.

It was on her watch that Walmart US launched click-and-collect, as well as a complete reshaping of Walmart’s international portfolio with the sale of operations in Japan, Argentina, Brazil, and Asda here in the UK, alongside the $16bn acquisition of Flipkart in India.

Judith has received numerous accolades, including “The Outstanding Contribution to Retail Award” at the Retail Week Awards earlier this month. According to this publication’s Executive Editor, George MacDonald, she was “probably the most powerful woman in retail”.

But what really stood out for me was the reaction to the post that Doug McMillon — Walmart’s President & CEO — made, announcing her retirement from the company. Thousands of people, from board directors to shop floor associates from all corners of the globe, reacted to Doug’s post, wishing Judith well and recognising the impact that her leadership had had on them personally.

They referred to her as down-to-earth, humble and approachable. They thanked her for remembering her roots, for valuing every individual’s contribution and for leaving them energised and inspired. They praised her unique blend of intelligence and compassion and recognised in her the embodiment of Sam Walton's belief in servant leadership.

Being a high-performing retail leader today is harder than ever. The relentless growth of technology and e-commerce, increasing stakeholder expectations and generational changes in the workforce are just three of the critical forces they must deal with.

Being able to retain your composure under this kind of intense scrutiny and yet continue treating others with respect and humanity is the mark of a fine leader.”

Add into the mix the primacy of customer experience, the importance of innovation, and the need to develop, retain and motivate outstanding people, and it’s clear that being a CEO is not for the faint-hearted.

The best leaders today exhibit what we call “beneath-the-surface” qualities, which fit into two categories: capacity — what they are capable of doing — and character — how they respond when dealing with new challenges or the unknown.

Things change so fast in retail that leaders have to be open-minded and curious. They need to expand their network, interact with people inside and outside the business and be willing to listen to different perspectives. Systems thinking — the ability to synthesise and distil critical insights from volumes of information and to consider all angles of a problem — is rapidly becoming an essential leadership trait.

Successful leaders establish a culture of trust and are good at aligning people with the strategy. They are keenly in tune with how the team is feeling, and they build adaptability by inspiring and engaging the organisation through purpose, values and culture, guiding people’s behaviours and decisions in a way that is more flexible and responsive to change. This is critical in a highly dynamic environment if you want to move quickly and decisively.

The best leaders today exhibit what we call beneath-the-surface qualities, which fit into two categories: capacity – what they are capable of doing – and character – how they respond when dealing with new challenges or the unknown.”

Leaders inspire by modelling the behaviours they want to see and by raising the energy of their team and the entire organisation through clear, consistent and transparent communication. Leaders who communicate well set the expectations for those who follow them.

There is, however, nowhere to hide for the modern CEO, who is under constant pressure to monitor and make sense of the “always on” information environment. Emboldened and empowered by social media, customers, employees, investors and others are more vocal and can quickly coalesce around controversial topics.

Being able to retain your composure under this kind of intense scrutiny and yet continue treating others with respect and humanity is the mark of a fine leader.

None of the people who posted their comments about Judith McKenna mentioned acquisitions, divestments, growth or shareholder value — not that these things aren’t important. Great leadership is, ultimately, about how you make people feel. Congratulations Judith on your exciting next chapter and see you in Paris!

Sally Elliott, Co-leader, Global Retail Practice, Spencer Stuart, interviews Judith McKenna on 16 April at the World Retail Congress.

This article was first published in Retail Week magazine.