How a summer at Walmart turned me from an intern into a CEO

June 30, 2014
June 30, 2014

Everything I know about myself as a leader and a manager, and what it means to be a good manager, I learned from my summer with Walmart.

One year ago, I worked as a field management intern in their store #1411 in Sahuarita, Arizona.

When I first started, I kept hearing, “You come to Walmart, and you don’t leave.” Some had started out as cashiers, and rose through the ranks to become managers.

That challenged one of the assumptions of my world: you need to go to college to have a career. First reality check: that assumption is false.

When this (paid) internship was offered to me, I was thrilled to have any internship at all. That was a mistake—I was not selective about the internship I chose. I took the first one that was offered me, and I left it at that. I did what I was “supposed” to do as an undergraduate business student—I landed the paid internship.

Considering that I studied marketing, a management position probably wasn’t the internship for me.

I struggled so much. At first, it seemed like I was just another pair of hands to be ordered around to do random things in the store. From sorting boxes to stocking shelves to manning registers, I worked in all areas, from the back end to the front end.

It was hard. It was the most difficult work experience I had encountered thus far. I could not see the value in the work I was doing. I can’t recall how many times I called one of my friends to rant. During one these sessions, he asked, “Well, why don’t you quit?”

First, quitting is not in my vocabulary. What would I be doing instead? I had made a commitment, and I would see it through.

“Never quit, unless you have something better.” The person who said this to me was a security guard at the Tucson Museum of Art. I was there, doing homework for the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. “I know it’s hard. It’s hard right now, but from one challenge to another, that’s how I’ve always lived.”

Here was this benevolent old man with a cowboy hat, sitting on a bench, talking to me. I was amazed. He didn’t know my name, and yet somehow, he was able to gaze into my soul and see the struggle there.

I didn’t know what I was doing working for Walmart. But something in me told me that this was the right choice to make.

Now, I know why: what better way to learn about how to run a business from the world’s largest retailer? What better way is there to learn how to run a company than learning how to run a store?

My store manager is the most seasoned store manager in the market: he has been there for 7 or 8 years.

Given all the bad press Walmart gets about its workers, let me tell you why they are still the world’s largest retailer: it is because they are still doing something right.

Overall, the staff felt like a family. Even now, if I were to go back there, everyone would be delighted to see me, even though I no longer work there.

The market manager was honest with me. “This job is not for everyone,” he said. He respected my ambition, and did not try to deceive me into staying. He saw that I would be a great asset to Walmart, but he respected me enough to be able to recognize that I needed to forge my own path.

In the 13 years since they started this internship program, I’m the first intern who chose not to stay with the company.

If I wanted a career with Walmart, there it was for the taking. I would be set for life—I’d become a manager, and maybe I would rise through the ranks to corporate. But retail is not for me. It took 10 weeks for me to figure that out. I want to be my own boss, and at the time, the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program was waiting for me. There, I would learn even more, and my journey would take me forward.

However, looking back, two conversations have greatly colored my life since then. I will never forget them, and they deserve to be immortalized.

Conversation #1: When I gave my exit presentation, one of the members of the audience was the manager who had interviewed me for the position. I asked for a few minutes to speak with him, and I asked him, “You must have interviewed a lot of people. There was something about me that made you put my name forward. What was it?”

He replied, “You think global. You think beyond what you can see. We managers receive tons of problems everyday. What we need are solutions… Also, you are fun- you’re personable. Let me tell you something: Never forget the power of a personal connection. You keep being who you are, and keep using that power, and you will go twice as far.”

Conversation #2: On Veterans’ Day, I woke up with a sudden impulse to make the drive down to Sahuarita and visit my Walmart. So I got dressed, and drove the 25 miles south from Tucson. Thank God I didn’t have classes.

I found the store manager, and told him about my McGuire project (which has now evolved into SmartStar).

He smiled a little knowing smile. “You need to own your own business. You need to. It’s just the way you are designed. You are a free thinker, and there is nothing wrong with that. We need more people like that… But if there’s one thing you listen to me about, it is this: Make time for yourself. This work is like a vicious ex-wife—it will take all that you give it.”

So perhaps Walmart took me on as an intern with the hopes that I would become a future store manager. But in the end, perhaps that wasn’t the purpose at all. The purpose was to teach me things about myself that I never would have learned otherwise.

Even as a student in McGuire, the way I handled each challenge involved something I learned from Walmart. My leadership and management style was forged in the crucible of those ten weeks, and it was in that summer that I first recognized the nascent steel inside of me, and just how strong and powerful it can be.

Walmart didn’t breed another store manager, but it is still an instrumental part to my story. When I become a millionaire, I will always remember that summer with Walmart, and where I was then. I will laugh, but I will also be grateful, and I will always tell the story of how Walmart has shaped me into the strong person that I am today.

This post originally appeared at LinkedIn

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