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A Walmart leader’s lessons in being an “Only” in corporate America

Walmart's first executive vice president shares her journey as an "Only" and how companies can improve on executive diversity.

6 min read




Before imposter syndrome became a ubiquitous phrase, Celia Swanson felt it. She had risen through Sam’s Club and then into Walmart corporate, both in HR roles and then a profit-and-loss role. Eventually, she became the first female executive vice president at Walmart.

But being an “only,” whether as a woman or in other ways, brings a unique set of challenges for “Onlys” like Swanson. She noted McKinsey and Lean In research that found greater likelihood that such “onlys” were thinking about leaving, and the research also shows greater likelihood of facing slights and harassment.

“Onlys” can feel the pressure of the role they carry, the pressure to succeed, and the responsibility to help others break through glass ceilings, she said. They’re always being watched, and perceptions are always threatening to be formed.

To that end, there were moments when Swanson doubted whether she was up to the job. “Why me?” she wondered. Will the company figure out she isn’t the right choice? Being the “Only” brings these types of questions, and it’s a kind of test.

“When you get into that ‘Only’ position … do you have the strength, do you have the muster, do you have the ability to be able to stand tall, stand firm and continue to be the leader that others want to emulate?” she said.

But, as she told attendees this week at SHRM’s annual conference and exposition, she had already made a bold move in being the only executive to relocate from Denver to Bentonville, Ark., when her employer was acquired by Sam’s Club. Among other things, she had helped build a field HR organization after moving to Sam’s Club/Walmart. Yes, she was now being asked to manage P&L, which was new, but she had a wealth of experience.

In other words, she had put in the work, been noticed and promoted. But the doubts weren’t always easy to erase.

Swanson mentioned a number of mindset approaches that other “Onlys” might learn from. Here are three:

  1. What are you at your core? She asked herself, “Who am I, separate from this title? What are my priorities? What do I stand for? Who am I going to show up as?” Starting from that point and working forward helped her discover who she really was when she was authentic and gave reassurance that she didn’t have to “lead like a man.”
  2. Understanding your “belief windows” can help you see where you’re limiting yourself and how you can propel yourself forward. For instance, Swanson had to remind herself to speak up at the executive committee meetings that were shaping the company. For her first couple of years, she stayed too quiet or waited too long to express her ideas. Other people had confidence in her, so why couldn’t she?

    “You are there for a reason,” she said. “They picked you!” Walmart, from the CEO down, wanted a woman’s voice in the room. They wanted her voice. “Don’t waste their energy and yours by being quiet,” she said.

  3. Know yourself, and don’t wait for permission. Swanson talked about how she and other women successfully argued for Walmart covering preventative care such as vaccines, and the crux of that argument was around issues such as retention and the company’s family culture, but not strictly about finance, because that was not her expertise compared to the other people in the room. The self-awareness to know what you know — and what you don’t — can take you a long way. Same for knowing when to say something publicly or off to the side, Swanson said. But don’t confuse awareness and tact with timidity.

    “The greatness that I have been able to leave in my legacy at Walmart has all been when I didn’t ask for permission to do something. It’s been when I felt empowered enough to put it into play,” she said. 

What companies need to do better

That idea of empowerment is critical for organizations and executive to keep in mind. The state of “Onlys” persists because women are generally not gaining in terms of C-suite and board representation. Women and other underrepresented groups can’t break this cycle on their own. 

At that Walmart budget meeting about preventative care, one crucial factor in Swanson and others successfully arguing for the policy change was that the CEO at the time stopped the meeting and said, “I haven’t heard from the women here.” While people need to say their piece, leaders who feel they aren’t getting enough viewpoints need to take the initiative. 

“Stop the conversation. They have something to say, there’s something causing them not to speak up. You’re in control of the meeting, stop it. Ask them what their point of view is,” Swanson said she told former CEO Mike Duke.

Another, perhaps more systemic area in which companies can make progress is in how they rethink “potential” — specifically the adage that women are promoted for performance and men are promoted for potential. What specifically does “potential” mean for your organization, Swanson said? What are the competencies that deliver results? 

Other suggestions she offered included:

  • Better diversity in the “feeder positions” that usually lead to executive status.
  • CEOs have to take ownership of diversity efforts, and senior leaders and managers also have to take leadership roles. 
  • Sponsorship needs to be focused on more equitable distribution of stretch assignments.

Leaving a legacy

Swanson talked about the pressure felt by her and other “Onlys” to set an example for others like them. Swanson was able to do this at Walmart in a distinctive way.

She founded an internal Women’s Officer Caucus, knowing how many vice president and above women worked at Walmart but who weren’t aware of each other. This was a group to offer networking, information and a welcoming to any new executive on forward, along with a nonprofit that did community work. This caucus built community, offered mentorship, advice and support, and showed them they weren’t alone. This group lives on today..

“It didn’t cost the organization anything, but it allowed all of us to lift up and celebrate and support the women that came through the organization,” Swanson said.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact daSilva at @James_daSilva or by email.

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