Walmart's Pandemic Innovation Didn't Happen Overnight, McKenna Says

Walmart's Pandemic Innovation Didn't Happen Overnight, McKenna Says
Walmart International President & CEO Judith McKenna stands in the produce department of a Walmart store. McKenna said at the Northwest Arkansas Business Women's Conference that some markets had to make changes much quicker than planned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Walmart)

Walmart Inc. International President & CEO Judith McKenna said her company’s ability to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic was years in the making.

McKenna is the head of a division with 550,000 employees in 23 countries including China, where the coronavirus first appeared in 2019. McKenna was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Northwest Arkansas Business Women’s Conference in Bentonville, appearing remotely with host Blake Woolsey of Heartland Forward.

McKenna said Walmart had been following early reports of the virus through daily meetings that included executives in China. The company realized it would need to revamp its business model to allow more online and digital transactions as social distancing protocols limited in-store activities.

“We had markets where it wasn’t on the road map for three years to do anything like that,” McKenna said of blending online and brick-and-mortar sales. “The teams had to start that in two weeks. That kind of capability and innovation doesn’t come overnight. It comes from a way of thinking for a long period of time.”

McKenna said being a part of the collaboration between Walmart officials, its business partners and other experts on how to proceed during the pandemic is her “biggest hope” of what comes out of the chaos. 

“We will be able to bottle and use that going forward,” McKenna said. “[Combine] great people and a great mission and purpose, and you’d be amazed what people can deliver.”

Woolsey asked McKenna how the company kept the momentum and motivation for continued innovation during the pandemic. 

“It’s something that I have really reflected on,” McKenna said. “I always start with people. Having the right people in your business, whether in a crisis or in the normal course of business if there is ever such a thing these days, is the place to start to make sure you can be creative and innovative. 

“People who are curious and look outside, [who] have been recruited over the years, those skills really came to the front. It is one of the things, the quality of the folks we had, that stood us in good stead.”

McKenna said Walmart’s international presence allows it to “see things quicker.” When the CEO of Walmart’s China operations told them details about the effects of the coronavirus, there was a feeling of disbelief. 

“You can’t quite believe it,” McKenna said. “You kind of want to believe it wasn’t going to happen, and it was going to be contained and that would be it. It rapidly became clear to us that wasn’t the case.”

When the seriousness sank in, McKenna said Walmart developed a response plan to make sure it took care of its customers, its employees and the communities in which it had a presence. Then it focused on how to keep the business running.

“Quite quickly, what was this going to mean for the long term?” McKenna said. “Whilst nobody could have had a crystal ball and nobody could predict what it was going to look at, we started to look at what this could mean long term. We knew that wasn’t going to be a one-off and done. We could see quickly where the world was moving to and we needed to respond to that.”

McKenna said the company has a culture of experimentation even when some of those experiments may fail, sometimes miserably. But in order to continue to have cutting-edge innovation in the company, people have to be willing to think unconventionally.

Failures, McKenna said, can be just as informative as successes.

“You haven’t got to be scared to get it wrong; if you want people to be innovative and you want people to be creative, you have to create space where it is safe to do that,” McKenna said. “We had lots of things we tried in this period and … they just didn’t work out. 

“People have to know that that is all right and it is part of the learning process. You have to create that environment where people genuinely believe you mean it.”

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