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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 134: Ben Hasan

In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Ben Hasan, senior vice president and chief culture diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Walmart. Read more...

More About This Episode

In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Ben Hasan, senior vice president and chief culture diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Walmart, to discuss his journey to becoming the Chief Culture DEI Officer and how his personal experiences with DEI have influenced his career. Ben and Matt discuss what representation means in the U.S and globally and how policy can change from country to country.

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Episode Transcript

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0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today. I have with me today, Ben Hasan, who is Senior Vice President and Chief Culture, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Walmart Inc. Thank you so much for taking time to join me today, Ben.

0:00:43.9 Ben Hasan: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

0:00:45.8 Matt Waller: Your background's really interesting. Of course, you have a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, and MBA, and the early part of your career was clearly solidly in technology. You started with a energy company in the Dallas area, you were there for 14 years as Director of Information Technology. But then you were at Dell for 11 years, where you were VP of Information Technology. You came to Walmart, where you've been for 13, almost 14 years, and you were a VP of People's Systems. So IT, I assume... That's IT related to people, right?

0:01:25.6 Ben Hasan: That's right. That's right.

0:01:27.7 Matt Waller: And then you were SVP of ISD, Information Services Division for Strategic Services. And then in 2015, you became Senior Vice President and Chief Culture, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Walmart. That seems like a huge change. So I would like to start out, if you wouldn't mind, by just... Clearly, you were interested in technology, especially early in your career. What got you interested in that? Going in that direction?

0:01:58.5 Ben Hasan: Matt, it's a great question. And I say this all the time. I got drafted. I was in my dream job. I had spent my whole career in technology. And I literally, Matt, got a phone call from my boss, who was the Chief Information Officer at the time, and she goes, "Hey, Ben. You're one of five finalists for the Chief Diversity Officer job." And I remember saying, Matt, "How am I the finalist for a job I didn't apply for?" And she told me, "Well, don't worry. I told them you're not going anywhere. We got plenty to do over here. You're a technologist at heart. And don't worry about it." Well, if you've been around corporate America as long as I have, which is almost 40 years, when they tell you, "Don't worry about it," you better worry about it. [chuckle] And sure enough, 30 days later, I get a phone call from the head of HR, who says, "You've been selected as the finalist. You need to come talk to me and when we get done, you need to go talk to Doug McMillon, who's our CEO." And so I went and talked to the head of HR at the time, and she told me all the reasons why this would be a great move for me.

0:03:04.6 Ben Hasan: Now mind you, I'm thinking, "I've got a 900-person organization with a huge budget. And now you're asking me to take this job that maybe has 30 people in it. I'm not sure this is actually a move forward, in my career." I had all my ducks lined up on how I was gonna convince Doug that I was not gonna take this job. And Doug can be very convincing. And one of the things he said to me was, "Don't judge the worth of the job based on the size of the organization." He said... At the time, we had about 4000 technologists, and he said, "You've had an amazing impact over in that part of the business." And he said, "But I believe, in this job, you'll have the opportunity to impact 2.2 million people around the world." And I remember going home and talking to the boss, my wife. She said to me, Matt, "Remember when you asked me to move to Bentonville from Austin, and I asked you to pull out the map and say, "Where is Bentonville?" And remember you asking me to give you two years and if things didn't work out, we'd find another opportunity?"

0:04:05.3 Ben Hasan: She said, "I think you'd be really good at this. And give it two years. And if things don't work out, I'm sure they'll let you move back to technology." Well, here we are, six years later, I'm still in the job. It has been the most incredibly rewarding, but probably the hardest job I've ever had in my whole life.

0:04:25.0 Matt Waller: Well, I would imagine your time, leading Shared Services, IT Shared Services, you got to experience a global situation 'cause you were working all over the world. And I would imagine that probably helped, as you moved into this new role, to some degree. Did it?

0:04:44.3 Ben Hasan: A little. But probably what helped more, was my time at Dell. One of the jobs I had at Dell, toward the end of my time there, I supported the engineering function that developed new product. And so, as they began to OEM or develop product outside of the country, I had small teams outside of the country. So they went to India first, in Hyderabad and Bangalore. So I had two small teams there. Then it went to Singapore. I had a small team in Singapore. They went to Xiamen, China and Shanghai, China. I had teams there. Taipei, Taiwan, I had teams there. Kuala Lumpur, I had a team there. Put the labor in Brazil, I had a team there. And I had a team in Austin. So looking back, not knowing that I was being prepared, the opportunity I had, to meet people in those cultures, to understand that we're just one human race, to understand that people all over the world want the same things for their families and their kids and their grandkids, I look back on that and think, "What a wealth of opportunity that was." I traveled all over the world. I was on a plane six months out of the year, going to one of those countries. Amazing experiences.

0:05:56.8 Ben Hasan: And so I think that actually prepared me for the work that I'm doing now. The other thing I'll say, Matt, there weren't a whole lot of people who looked like me in the early '80s, in the technology field. And so I had my own experiences of what it's like to be included or not included through that process. And I remember, one of the promotions that... My first promotion, I got to Vice President at Dell, the Chief Diversity Officer at Dell, I went in to thank him for all the hard work and helping me get to that level. He said, "Ben, I don't want your thanks." He said, "But one time you're gonna be in a position to do the same thing I just did for you. And I want you to promise me that you'll do it." And so I think all of those things have led up to me getting this opportunity at Fortune One. I feel humbled to be able to do this job at Fortune One, particularly in the day and time and the social environment that we live in today.

0:06:52.0 Matt Waller: Walmart has... Of course, everyone knows that they've been a leader in discount merchandising, supply chain management, efficiency. They've also clearly been a leader in sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion. Walmart's operating in so many different countries. I'm curious about how you manage that, especially from a culture perspective. Do you take a country-specific approach, or the Walmart approach, or some sort of balance? How does that work, globally?

0:07:25.3 Ben Hasan: Yeah. I'm gonna mimic our CEO, Doug. We are a purpose-driven company. And our purpose is to help people save money and time, so they can live better. That purpose is timeless. And everything we do is around serving customers. So the purpose stands timeless. The values of the company also stand timeless, this notion of respect for each and every individual, regardless of who they are, where they live, what their ethnicity, gender, who they love, we wanna respect every single individual. The second value, is this notion of service to the customer, which ties directly back to our purpose, service. Everything with excellence and then on this foundation of integrity. So those four pillars stand firm. The behaviors over time, under those values, could change. And we're in a process, now, of redistributing from the behaviors that we expect today, which were different than five years, 10 years, 20 years ago.

0:08:27.4 Ben Hasan: Now, when we talk about the work of D and I, we think of it in these terms. In the US, pretty clearly, inclusion is fundamental to the work. That's what the focus is. And we've really tried to shift the conversation from one that's not always just about diversity, but this notion of inclusion of all people, regardless of who you are. Because many times, when people hear diversity, there are some groups who think, "Well, they're not talking about me. They're talking about women and people of color." But no, when we talk about inclusion, we're talking about everybody. And so we measure how we're doing from an inclusion standpoint and a culture standpoint, annually in our annual employee survey. But we also manage our representation by gender and ethnicity in the US. Now, outside the US, our model is a hub-and-spoke model. There are teams in every market, that are focused on D and I, that don't report directly to me. They meet with my team periodically, for collateral and information around the work, but they don't report to me. Consistently, we're measuring gender representation around the world. So regardless of the country that you're in, we are focused on gender representation. And then we ask each country, "You decide on what the plus one or plus two is, for your country."

0:09:47.3 Ben Hasan: So in India, many times, it's the caste system. They're focused on opportunities across caste. In Chile, they're focused on disability. In Mexico, they're focused on disability and the LGBTQ community. So in effect, we give that flexibility by a country, to actually develop their own strategies in-country, with gender being the primary one. And then they have the opportunity to pick the second or third thing that they wanna focus on. So we call it, "How do you create a framework that creates global flexibility, to allow people in-country, to decide what makes most sense in-country?" One of the things we don't wanna do, and many times Americans do this, we overly try to influence in-country issues, when we actually don't know as much about the in-country issues as the people who live in the country. So that's the approach that we've taken, Matt. And it's been pretty successful. Literally, people are going, "Thank you. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to decide what makes sense in-country, in this work."

0:10:56.4 Matt Waller: That really makes so much sense, because there's no way you could create a policy that would apply to 70 plus countries. That's great. Now, the other thing I've wondered about, from a culture and DI perspective, that may be more complicated today than it was 30 years ago, but I remember so clearly when Walmart moved to China, for example... Oh, I remember, of the other moves as well. But China is real clear in my mind, because I was involved in some of that early on. I know, Walmart, over the years, has continued to... You've been sourcing from all over the world for a long time, and you also have stores in many different parts of the world. But as an ex-patriot, going to another country, the ex-patriot has to have some sensitivity to the culture of that country. And it's hard to... Part of it, you have to learn by just wanting to learn. You go into another country and you learn. But the desire has to be in the person, to really learn. And I think some of it comes back to what you were talking about earlier, the desire to respect and value every human being. I think the more your heart is towards valuing someone, the easier it is, to adapt a little bit. But I'm wondering, do you all have processes and practices in place, to help them adapt in that way?

0:12:43.8 Ben Hasan: Yeah, we do. Literally, before ex-pats head out, we have cultural sensitivity classes that are available to ex-pats. They really get into some of the nuances that are different, country by country. But one of the things that I would also add, Matt, is, and I'm a firm believer in this, because many times when you go as an ex-pat, you're going as a change agent. But at some point, you're coming back. What I've learned in my 13 years at Walmart is, the most important thing for a change agent, is the questions that they ask. You actually begin to create this bond in that environment, where people are like, "Okay, you didn't come in here just to tell us how stupid we are and how we're not doing what we should be doing. You're actually taking the time to understand why we do the things we do." There actually may be some nuances that you don't know. And so one of the things we advise people all the time is, questions, questions, questions. The other thing that is a personal motto of mine, in going in to address change, is this notion of diagnosis dictates treatment. And just like a doctor does diagnosis before they actually treat, when you go into a new environment, you need to take the time to get proximate to the problem, before you actually start developing solutions. And so my approach has been an approach we try to tell people to use, take the time to gather the devastating data. Because there is a reason why you're being sent to address change.

0:14:17.4 Ben Hasan: And then the second step is counter-intuitive in a way, because all the change books tell you, "Then share what you found." And what I found, at least at Walmart, is when you share what you found, many times, the passive aggressive behavior begins to show up, telling you why you really don't understand what you think you found. So my second step is, after devastating data discovery, tell no one, or tell just a small group of people, so that you can actually begin to build a pilot of a better way forward. And then now, you have the devastating data, you have the data from your pilot which you actually have learnings yourself in that pilot, and now you can begin to share the data and say, "Okay, here's how we can move forward, to actually make the changes that we want, in order to service customers better."

0:15:07.9 Matt Waller: So you really put a lot of effort into alignment, getting people aligned on these things. But that's a really powerful message. Ben, I would love to hear a little bit, about what some of your priorities are, in diversity and inclusion, but also really how you address some of the discourse and dialogue that's going on right now. And there's really more of it than I can remember in my lifetime, but really curious to hear about that.

0:15:44.0 Ben Hasan: The way we're thinking about the work... And I'll get to the social discord question. It's a great question. We actually are thinking about it inside and outside of the company. And so, the first thing we've recognized is that our own people practices or our own HR practices, from recruitment to retirement, "How equitable are they? Is there unconscious bias in that system, from recruitment to retirement, that leaves some people out?" From where we recruit, who we hire, how are people compensated, who gets the key assignments, how do people get promoted? All of those things are run by human beings. And at the end of the day, we all live with unconscious bias that's on the fast side of our brain, and all of our unconscious biases live there. And the problem with human beings is we're making decisions every day, all day long with those biases. And so how do you put bias interrupters in the system, so that you can pause and make sure you think before you actually do something to that reaction? So that's a huge piece of the work that we're doing, is examining our own internal practices.

0:16:50.3 Ben Hasan: One of the other things we've learned is, transparency brings accountability. So the more transparent we can be, around representation, around our inclusion metrics, around our culture metrics, the more transparent we can be, year over year, creates accountability for leadership. The third thing we've done is we've created these groups that we call shared value networks. And shared value is about this notion of organizations doing well while doing good in the society. And so we are focused on four systems that we believe structural and institutional racism has developed over time. The education system, the healthcare system, the finance system, and the criminal justice system. And so we've set up teams to actually examine those systems. Three of those, we're actually in those businesses. We're in the education business. We're in the healthcare business. We're in the finance system business. So we're looking at our own practices internally, but we're also looking externally. What could we be doing from a philanthropic standpoint, to address issues that might make the outcomes better from those systems, for all people?

0:17:57.9 Ben Hasan: We set up a center for racial equity that's part of our foundation. We've committed a $100 million over the next five years, to address all four of those systems. And then the last big piece of our strategy has been, "How do we educate people on how we have become so situated in this country? What has caused some of this divide?" So we've been working with a team out of Greensboro, North Carolina. They're called the Racial Equity Institute, and they have a two-day workshop that really tracks the history of race in the United States, from a standpoint of the laws that have been passed from 1619, from slavery through Jim Crow, through civil rights, through the current laws on the books. If you can't get proximate, if you aren't willing to get proximate to the problem, then you're never gonna actually solve it. And so this is one of our approaches to get proximate to the problem.

0:18:50.7 Ben Hasan: Now, back to the social discord question. Here's my opinion. The far right and the far left are the loudest in the social discord, today. I believe that most people live somewhere in the middle of the loudness that happens on the far right and the far left. And I think the extremes continue to cause more and more discord and more and more separation. I also believe that one of the biggest lies that humanity has been fed and accepted, is this separation of people by race. Biologists say that mosquitoes have more difference in the DNA amongst them than human beings do on the planet, yet we spend so much time separating, when I believe society, communities and organizations would be so much better off if we talk and spent more time on the things that we have in common, than the things we have different.

0:19:44.9 Ben Hasan: The one advantage that Walmart has, and I believe it's a huge advantage. I have spoken to about 40 different Chief Diversity Officers since George Floyd's murder. First time Chief Diversity Officers, many of who it's the first time their organization has had a diversity office. And what ends up happening is, they're like, "I don't know how to make this take hold in the organization. How do I get the organization to own it and get it out of the diversity office and into the organization in a way that everyone feels accountable for it?" So June of 2020, we have an annual shareholders meeting that's usually in person, down on your campus, and we did it virtually. And so Doug gave a speech, and at the end of the speech, he talked about the social discord. And he said, "Look, we stand for equity in this company. And if you leaders don't believe you can lead that way, you need to find somewhere else to work."

0:20:45.8 Ben Hasan: So we have clipped that part of the video, and we've been using it since then, because at the end of the day, what we've said is, "In this company, in these four walls, if you're a leader, this is the way we expect you to lead. And it ties to who we are, our values. And it ties to our purpose.

0:21:03.9 Matt Waller: Very powerful. Ben, as a last question, or really request, would you mind offering some advice to our students?

0:21:13.7 Ben Hasan: Yes. So I call this the three L's. And the first one takes me back to my mother. My mom was a mother of six, a stay-at-home mom. And she used to say to us all the time, "God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately." And I remember, I used to think, "Is she just telling me to shut up?" And the older I got, the more I realized, listening is an art, listening is a skill. So that's the first L. Listen more. And here's one way you can test if you're really listening. Can you repeat what the person speaking to you, just said? So what I heard you say was, and now I know you've listened to what I've said. You're not conjuring your rebuttal in your head, while I'm talking.

0:21:58.4 Ben Hasan: The second L is, lead where you are. Regardless of where you are on your own personal journey, specifically this journey of diversity, equity and inclusion, belonging, you have the opportunity to lead exactly where you are. You don't have to lead 100 people. You might be able to just lead one or two people that you encounter everyday. So listen, lead where you are.

0:22:19.8 Ben Hasan: And the third thing I'll say is, be a life-long learner. Now, I know you're in school. I know you wanna get out. And I know you're thinking, "Oh my God, when I'm done, I'm done." But be a life-long learner. And you have the ability with technology today, you don't have to know the Dewey Decimal System like I did, you don't have to go through a bunch of dusty little draws with a hook on the front and find a card and hope somebody put the book back where it was. You actually have the ability to use a device you carry with you every day, to be a life-long learner. So carve out time, focus on the topics that are important to you, and don't ever stop learning. So listen, lead and learning, would be my final advice for the students, Matt.

0:23:03.7 Matt Waller: I think that's really great advice. I've noticed that great leaders, many great leaders adhere to those three. I think it's hard to learn to listen. Being able to even say... When you listen to someone and say, "What I think I heard you say, is this." To your point, yeah, it definitely makes people realize they've been heard. And leading where you are, I think that's a really good point of advice for our students. Because many students, they're in registered student organizations or clubs or Greek life or sports, whatever it may be, there's an opportunity to lead right there. And the more you practice trying to lead, I think, the better you get at it. And then being a life-long learner, that really does take discipline. I was interviewing someone recently, who's a senior leader in a CPG company, and he blocks two hours every morning and has for like over 30 years, for reading newspapers and magazines and various things. There's a cumulative effect to that, over time.

0:24:18.7 Ben Hasan: Yeah, Matt. I think back about this lifelong learning. I had this experience when I was at Dell. And there was a senior leader who I saw sitting in his car every morning, and he would sit in his car for 30, 40 minutes before he'd come in the building. So finally one day, I went over and knocked on his window and he rolled his window down, and he was listening to what sounded like a kid reading the Wall Street Journal. And I remember thinking, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Oh, I paid my children to read the Wall Street Journal on tape, every day. And then when I get the tapes, I listen to the tapes on the way to work and in my car, before I come in the office." And I was like, "Why do you do that?" And he said, "Well, number one, because I'm creating this learning for my kids, because they gotta read it to tape it. They're not gonna get their allowance if they don't tape it. But number two, it gives me the opportunity to actually listen to it and not have to read it myself." So that was his way of being a life-long learner. I thought it was genius. These kids today, some of them many not even know kind of a tape that was. The point is, there is a way we can all figure out our own ways to be life-long learners, Matt.

0:25:33.2 Matt Waller: Ben, thank you so much. This has been a terrific conversation. And I wish you the best in leading Walmart's DEI and culture. Thank you so much.

0:25:43.0 Ben Hasan: Thanks. Thanks, Matt. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

0:25:49.7 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching, "BeEpicpodcast," one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

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