Soapbox: Developing Leaders at Walmart

How the Walmart Leadership Academy become a center of excellence for the global retailer.

By Damian McKinney

Early in Walmart’s history, most store managers began their careers working at the register or another entry-level position. Through a gradual process of working their way up the corporate ladder, these employees were promoted to store manager in seven to 11 years. This process served the company and its employees well, providing a secure predictable career path and producing knowledgeable, loyal people at the middle-management level.

However, today, boasting 10,000 retail units in 27 countries, Walmart is faced with the demand to open stores faster than it can produce qualified managers. Recognizing the importance of overcoming this obstacle, Walmart determined that the company must collapse the time frame, discover talent faster, and train them more efficiently, without sacrificing quality.

To transform its management training approach so it could accelerate the preparedness of leaders and cultivate managers fast enough to meet rising demand, CEO Bill Simon enlisted the help of business execution experts McKinney Rogers. Using the British Military Staff College model, an operator-led team of McKinney Rogers consultants designed and directed a comprehensive leadership development system for identifying employees with great potential and training them to be highly prepared, successful managers.

As a result, after three years of perfecting its leadership development tool, Walmart brought its Walmart Leadership Academy (WLA) in-house permanently as the retailer’s center of excellence for developing accelerated leadership skills in its managers.

The Walmart Leadership Academy Program

Together, Walmart and McKinney Rogers created a leadership training process that has generated unprecedented career opportunities for the company’s future leaders by cultivating highly trained management from the inside.

The program takes each participant through a series of developmental, training, and inspirational experiences that cause them to think of themselves as leaders. Over four months, the participants spend every third week immersed in the program for a total of six weeks of instruction. Training consists of on-the-job experience, master classes, virtual classroom environments, instructor-led events, self-paced study, student-led activities, experiential exercises, service projects, distance learning, and small group discussions. The course follows a series of themes such as communication, leadership, international scoping, and global thinking. Increasing in complexity each week, these themes and others are examined and revisited throughout the program in the context of each week’s curriculum focus. For example, during the week that focuses on “Delivering Business Results and Productivity,” the instructors teach the communication theme in the context of results and productivity by examining negotiations, communication tools, presentations, and by studying successful business case studies from innovative companies such as Zappos.

The outcome is an alumni network of graduates who identify themselves as leaders, collaborate and work together in an integrated fashion as high-performing teams, and continue to develop and lead across a variety of circumstances. Crucially, in line with the Staff College model where selected mid-career high-potential officers are trained, leaders at all levels are made to think “two levels up” in the context of the business and across functional areas.

By combining development, training, and operational activities in the context of the company’s day-to-day needs, the Walmart Leadership Academy delivers greater impact and relevance than generic management training. Critical to the integrated approach to business leadership is that the course leverages the principals of the McKinney Rogers Mission Leadership philosophy. This emphasizes keeping everyone aligned to the mission, but trained and empowered to make decisions independently.

Transformative Results

Since its implementation, the program has generated approximately 500 graduates across the U.S. and delivered more consistent, confident, and thoroughly trained store, market, and regional managers. As Celia Swanson, senior vice president of Talent Development for Walmart U.S., explains, “We know our associates are our greatest asset; investing in the development of our future leaders is essential. Through the Leadership Academy, we have developed talented leaders, managers, and associates around the country—providing immersion training and broader development for our leaders. We appreciate the partnership with McKinney Rogers and its support in developing a world-class training program that focuses on building high-performing teams relevant in today’s business environment.”

The WLA has transformed Walmart’s management and has expanded the program into a multi-function and multi-level high-potential talent initiative. In addition to store managers, the system has expanded to develop market leaders, senior merchants, and executives. It’s producing both the quantity and quality of leaders needed to sustain and drive growth.

Walmart has exceeded its goal of producing highly trained leaders in less than two years. Not only have 74 percent of graduates been promoted one, two, or three levels up within just 18 months of graduation, but they’re outperforming their peers and producing real business results. Stores and markets led by these graduates have posted higher sales growth numbers than the rest of the company every quarter since entering their position [typical store revenue is approximately $100 million, and markets bring in up to $1 billion].

WLA has emerged as more than just a program for advancement. It is recognition and the promise of a more fulfilling career. Its impact bears more resemblance to a scholarship than a training program. Those selected say they feel valued and empowered, because they know that within a short time frame after graduation, they could be promoted. They are given the mandate to “pay it forward” across their teams and pass the training along.

WLA has achieved the holy grail of development programs: true behavioral change. Graduates have testified to their personal and professional transformation with enhanced performance. Today, entry-level employees aspire to be selected to the program, while graduates aspire to return to teach; the best graduates are brought back to help lead the future training classes.

Businesses around the globe are starting to recognize that a unified solution to leadership development such as the WLA is the best way to rapidly flood their organization with quality leaders at every level.

Damian McKinney is the author of “The Commando Way” (LID Publishing, He spent 18 years as a Royal Marines Commando before setting up his own company in 1999. McKinney Rogers leverages lessons from the military to help align international businesses and deliver exceptional results.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.