Wal-Mart’s Culture Shock

Published: Apr 10, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By John Salveson

One of the most critical benchmarks of a recently recruited executive’s track record is how well he or she fits into the new organization’s culture. Although newly hired executives may have achieved stellar accomplishments with previous employers, and worked at the “right” companies, their leadership styles, interpersonal skills, and decision-making processes may not mesh well at all with the way their new employers do business.

This is often a fatal mismatch.

Such was most likely the case with Julie Roehm, the former senior vice president of marketing communications for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., who was abruptly fired in December after an 11-month tenure amid allegations of personal and professional misconduct.

A much-acclaimed executive who had established a track record for cutting-edge commercials when recruited away last January from automaker DaimlerChrysler, Roehm had been expected to spearhead a similar resurgence for stodgy Wal-Mart by adding glitz to an advertising strategy that focused primarily on price-cutting smiley faces and downscale merchandise. However, her unconventional management style, combined with her risqué advertising methods, ultimately matched neither Wal-Mart’s folksy organizational culture nor family and bargain-oriented core customer base.

In hiring Roehm and adopting such a marketing strategy, Wal-Mart was intentionally stretching the limits of “cultural fit” in an effort to shake up both its culture and image. But subsequent allegations that Roehm accepted gifts from clients and engaged in a relationship with a colleague violated company prohibitions, and hastened Wal-Mart’s “organ rejection” of her.

Whatever the true story behind such accusations, executive recruiters generally agree that she and Wal-Mart were a bad match from the start.

Lack of “cultural fit” is by far the biggest reason why so many newly recruited executives fail in their new jobs. Usually, the hiring company shares as much of the blame for the mismatch as the ousted executive.

Companies may be unrealistic about their true organizational culture and customer base, and how suddenly introduced dramatic changes might be received. In the case of Roehm, it’s possible that those who hired her mistakenly believed results are all that would matter, and that the means she would employ to achieve them would be irrelevant. When Wal-Mart failed to achieve the sales turnaround it had been anticipating from this radically different strategy—and saw its critical “same-store sales” indicator actually decline slightly in November—things began to unravel quickly.

From the outside looking in, Roehm seemed to possess a management style that mirrored her marketing and advertising approach – unconventional, highly creative, and aggressive. This style seems to be in direct contrast to values that others in the Wal-Mart organization prize most—a sense of family where coworkers are called “associates,” and a culture where “rocking the boat” is not in the corporate vocabulary. One has to wonder whether she and the organization took the time to build the consensus with bosses, colleagues, and subordinates that is so critical in the initial “onboarding” process.

Adding a new executive to your company’s senior team from outside the organization is never easy. Predictably, many companies and new hires consider the recruitment process finished when the new executive arrives for his or her first day of work. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, cultural fit and executive assimilation involves much more art than science—and needs to be built in to the recruitment process from the very beginning.

Here are some critical factors and strategies that can be used by companies to enhance the success of their newly recruited managers and executives:

  • Being realistic about their organization’s culture, and allowing their executive search firm to get to know it. The best way to evaluate cultural fit is to be sure the search firm has the opportunity to meet with and experience many executives in a variety of environments. Let them sit in on a sales meeting or planning session. Allow them to interview people in the organization who are "stars,” regardless of their functions, as well as talk to a few people who did not succeed in the company. Also, ask executives who have recently joined your company to describe the culture to you, and the experience of joining the company. They will likely have a more accurate view of your culture than you do.
  • Don’t just look at what candidates did. Look at how they achieved it. While you would never want to downplay an executive’s ability to achieve results, you need to understand how he or she gets them. A sales leader who hits100% of his or her target on a yearly basis—but has a turnover rate 40% above the industry average because he or she manages by intimidation—may or may not be the person you want running your sales organization.
  • A strong on-boarding process will help newly recruited executives during their first months on the job. New executives need access and exposure to the organization's leaders in a variety of settings. They need mentors or guides to help them understand what is going on in the company, and to help "interpret" what they see and experience.

A comprehensive on-boarding process will significantly decrease the ramp-up time and can turn a potential hiring mistake into a key contributor to your leadership team.

—What is it about your style that can get you in trouble?
—What do your team members love about you? What do they wish you would change?
—What are the developmental issues you are working on right now as a leader?
—What drives and motivates you? What are you passionate about?
—What was the single biggest failure of your career? What did you learn from it?
—Describe your best boss and the personal leadership characteristics that made them effective.

  • Perform extensive reference checks on new executives. Let them know you want to do "secondary references," that is, speaking confidentially to people they do not give as references but who have worked with them. Ask a lot of questions about how they interact with peers and subordinates, as well as their ability to build teams and their ethical groundings.
  • During the interview process, ask candidates questions about cultural fit, such as:

About the Author(s)

John Salveson is cofounder and principal with Salveson Stetson Group of Radnor, Pennsylvania, a full-service retained executive search firm founded in 1996.