Retired Walmart executive Celia Swanson spoke of leading with grace and harmonizing the leadership paradox as she delivered the keynote address at the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s 22nd annual Forty Under 40 luncheon Tuesday (Aug. 21) in Rogers. This year’s class of honorees and roughly 400 of their colleagues, friends and family attended the event at the Embassy Suites and sponsored by Intrust Bank.
Swanson, who was the first female executive vice president at Walmart, shared some personal stories about her career trajectory that eventually broke through the glass ceiling for women at the world’s largest retailer. Swanson joined Walmart via the 1993 Sam’s Club acquisition of Pace Membership Club, where she was heading up human resources in Denver.
She told the group of honorees in a private question and answer session before Tuesday’s luncheon there were reservations about moving to Bentonville in 1993, but her husband had longed to get the family to a quieter place to raise their daughter, who was 7 at the time.
“I was a big-city girl but my husband grew up on a farm and he liked the small-town culture and saw opportunities here for our family,” Swanson told the group. “So I came aboard and spent 26 years at Walmart.”
When asked to share her hardest lesson learned as a leader, Swanson said she was heading up membership at Sam’s Club, which at the time was seeing a new president every two years leave the retailer floundering to find its identity. She hired a marketing executive to help unify the brand and saw some amazing results from the person’s efforts as membership, and sales turned around. The team which reported to her was not happy with the executive she had brought in, despite the results.
“They kept telling me she was leaving people in the wake and her methodology was not in-sync with the company culture,” Swanson recalled. “I didn’t listen because the financial results were good. My team went over my head and I was told by my bosses to deal with the concerns. When I paid attention to the team, I too began to see the destructive manner in which this officer was achieving the results. I had to go all the way to Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart, to get permission to let an officer go and I will never forget Lee telling me that this would be the hardest decision I would have to make as a senior leader. He was right. I let the officer go, but it took me months to regain the trust of my team and repair those relationships.”
During her keynote speech, Swanson spoke about leadership principles which are hard to master. She said even today finding a leader who can lead with grace and strength is a rarity. She explained those principles are often misunderstood, saying strength does not mean force and should not be confused with authority. She said strength is about leveraging your influences to make positive strides toward the company’s goals.
Swanson said leading with grace is about harmonizing the conflicting principles in a way where a team can get behind a central mission that is bigger than any one person. She provided a few examples of how leading with grace worked on her behalf as she climbed the corporate ladder at Walmart.
Swanson said while she was at Sam’s Club she was reprimanded by Walmart’s vice chairman who didn’t believe she was on the same page with the company mission. The lecture took place in between two buildings in an area next to a group of trash cans.
“During this time there had been six different leaders at Sam’s Club and I was the only senior leader to survive all six changes and a bit skittish about adopting another plan,” she said. “Was I on or off the team, that’s what the vice chairman asked me. He told me to take 24 hours and decide before I reported back.”
After consulting mentors and her husband, Swanson said she felt a loyalty to Walmart and was not yet ready to move on. The next day she went to see the vice chairman and told him she had always been a team member, loyal to the end and then gave him some ways he could measure her on that in the future.
Swanson said the lesson here about leading with grace is being authentic, but humble and having the confidence about yourself to be comfortable with your decisions. Even those that impact your ability to move up or move on.
Swanson said after she was promoted to lead Walmart’s talent division, she was told to cut 20% of the staff immediately and another 10% the following year. That was no way to make friends among the team she was asked to lead, she recalled. Swanson said she worked hard to be compassionate with the team, but ultimately she shared an inspired vision for the success of the division and outlined all the talent needed to accomplish this goal.
“Being able to lead with an inspired vision allowed me to see who best fit the new plan and who bought into the goal,” she said. “When you can capture the hearts and minds of your team, then greatness can happen.”
Swanson said effective leaders must fully understand their responsibilities and then step in with conviction and compassion. Doing that well is what she considers leading with grace.
Swanson said leaders many times find it hard to ask people for help or let people know what they need. She was no exception, that is until her personal world came crashing down with the sudden death of her husband in the midst of her growing career, with their only child away at college.
She spoke of how a friend came to her and asked what she needed to feel comfortable when returning to work after losing her soulmate. Swanson said leaders have to open themselves up, make the needs known and then be willing to accept help from others. She said the friend asked her questions she had never contemplated, but were crucial to an easy transition back to work.
“Because I prepped for this before returning to work, I was better able to handle the transition and fall forward when asked about how I was doing,” she said. “I told them I may cry a bit but that’s okay because it’s about happiness, and please do use David’s name and share your stories of him with me anytime.”
She told the group not to try compartmentalize work and home because they are inevitably intertwined. And when facing what looks like insurmountable challenges, look for help from those who can facilitate falling forward.
Swanson said leadership is complex and those leaders who can harmonize the conflicts consistently will elevate their businesses. She said it’s possible for any leader to recalibrate their trajectory by adopting the leading with grace principle which is also a critical differentiator in talent searches. Swanson said those who lead with grace promote a work environment that is fair and firm, and a team who is respected will always give more.