AP Interview: Wal-Mart CEO Talks Leadership, Life

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NEW YORK (AP) - Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke leads the world's biggest retailer, which has 2.1 million employees and serves 200 million customers each week. He crisscrosses the globe every month, yet still finds time to spend with his family.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview Duke did with The Associated Press in New York:

Q. When does the day start for you?

A. I usually get up between 5:30 and 6. The good news in Bentonville, Arkansas, is I can be in the office seven minutes later. I like to get in, work on e-mails and catch up. I like to have no e-mails (in my inbox).

Q. How does a CEO keep his inbox empty?

A. If you looked at my garage, you'd probably see there's a relationship between my garage and my e-mail. I just don't like things undone. I'd rather work five minutes longer and have it (done) today than to carry five minutes over (to) tomorrow and start tomorrow five minutes in the hole.

Q. How do you balance the nitty-gritty of the business with looking at the big picture?

A. If I spend all of my day in the details as a CEO of a company like Wal-Mart, I think it would be trouble, because I wouldn't really be prepared to speak to the big issues that the country or the world should face. But at the same time, if you spend all of the time at 50,000 feet, (you) really are not out talking to customers and know real people. ... I think it's often the interaction directly with customers in the details of their family and their issues is what inspires me to want to help solve the big issues.

Q. Consumers retrenched during the Great Recession. Which habits are sticking?

A. Customers are shopping smarter, and I think customers are proud of that. It can be the customer that has to shop smarter because of maybe limited income, but also the middle-income and higher-income customer wants to shop smarter today. They want to feel proud of the way that they use their financial resources.

Q. Wal-Mart has struggled more than competitors to grow its revenue post-recession. Part of that was veering away from everyday low prices and part was weeding out too many products and brands. How do you react when Wal-Mart makes a mistake?

A. I don't know that there's a business model that says, 'You're going to empower the organization. You're going to experiment. You're going to change and try new things all the time, but you're not going to make any mistakes.' I'm probably not willing to commit that we're positioned to do that.

Q. How often do you check Wal-Mart's stock price?

A. Maybe every other day ... I look at sales every day, and customer traffic, and (the) average (shopping) basket. I look to see how we're doing in Brazil and the UK and China every day. I don't necessarily check the stock price every day. I think if I were a shareholder and the CEO spent all of his time focused on the share price, then I would probably be concerned, because the share price follows the results of the company.

Q. Wal-Mart's reputation seems to have improved markedly. Is that a function of the recession?

A. It's interesting the letters I get from mayors that want Wal-Mart to look and invest in their community. I like to start with looking in the mirror, and I think we have improved and changed who we are in many ways. I think we are more desirable to come to a community. ... I think we've done a better job of communicating about the jobs that we create and the opportunity that we create in the area of jobs.

Q. What ideals from Sam Walton do you embrace?

A. (Leadership is) about showing respect to every individual, about humility over arrogance, about listening and getting feedback from a broad array of constituents. It's about a passion for customers and knowing customers firsthand, not theoretical, not through some data only, but by having personal, passionate communication with customers. And leadership is about striving for excellence. It's about setting aggressive goals and not being afraid to go after very aggressive goals and targets. I think it's even better for a leader to set an aggressive goal and come up a little short than it would be to set a soft goal and to exceed it.

Q. What should a leader value most?

A. Integrity and trust. If a leader doesn't have the trust of associates, of customers, of shareholders, then all the other things, the ability to speak eloquently and to sing and dance and entertain, (don't) mean a thing if a leader's not trusted.

Q: Outside of the results of the company and the stock price, how do you know how you are doing at Wal-Mart? How are you evaluated?

A: Hard feedback is in some environments viewed in a very threatening way, and people don't want to hear feedback. In our environment, I think there is a desire to hear candid feedback. When we leave a meeting, before we'll even drive away, I'll ask, 'Well, give me feedback.' I think a leader asking for feedback sets a good tone.

Q. Does work ever stop for you?

A. I do spend really focused time with my wife, my kids, grandkids, and so when I'm doing something or on a golf course, work has stopped. I'm not always thinking and working. ... I think a leader has to really be a balanced, whole and healthy person personally in order to be the best leader on the job.