Episode 113: Brett Biggs Discusses How To Develop Managerial, Leadership, and Organizational Skills

March 3 , 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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Brett Biggs is the executive vice president and chief financial officer for Walmart. Biggs' position has an influence on 2.2 million Walmart associates, 2,800 suppliers, and, of course, millions of customers. Matt Waller talks with Biggs about his hefty responsibilities, how to develop leadership and managerial skills, and what makes a strong team.

Episode Transcript


0:00:07.1 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to BeEPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.


0:00:27.7 Matt Waller: I have with me today Brett Biggs, who is Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Walmart. He is responsible for all financial functions, as well as global procurement. And Brett has served in a number of functions within Walmart, including being CFO of Walmart International, Walmart US, and Sam's Club. He's also served as Senior Vice President of International Strategy, Mergers and Acquisitions, as well as Senior Vice President of Corporate Finance and Senior Vice President of Operations for Sam's Club. Brett, thanks so much for taking time to visit with me today.

0:01:09.6 Brett Biggs: Yeah, thanks, Dean Waller. I appreciate it.

0:01:11.6 Matt Waller: And I've been around Walmart quite a bit. I moved here in 1994, but Walmart's grown so much over that time.

0:01:19.3 Brett Biggs: Yeah.

0:01:20.2 Matt Waller: You now have 2.2 million associates around the world, 1.5 million in the US, and that is such a huge responsibility, and you are the person responsible for finance for that enormous organization and employees, 2.2 million, not to mention, the millions of people, suppliers that are supported by the Walmart sales and then the consumers who depend on Walmart every day. It seems like a huge amount of responsibility. [chuckle]

0:01:55.4 Brett Biggs: When you put it that way, yeah, it's a... I try not to think about it that way. David Glass used to say, "It's all about... " Somebody asked him one time, "How do you run a company like this?" And he said, "You don't, you run it a store at a time." And that's pretty much how I think about it.

0:02:13.2 Matt Waller: Getting back to this point of the size, the scope of what you're responsible for, it is remarkable, and I think it's worth talking about a little bit. You've got half a trillion in revenue, which is really hard to imagine. And I can't imagine there's any other company, certainly in the US, probably in the world, that procures as much as you do globally. And as CFO, you are also responsible for global procurement, which I guess has been really challenging during these times.

0:02:48.0 Brett Biggs: Yeah, so there's another group that does global procurement, what I'm responsible for is called goods not for resale. So think about everything in a store that's not on the shelves, so bags and services and supplies, cleaning supplies now that we're dealing with COVID, all of that runs up through my organization, and it's tens of billions of dollars every year. It's amazing what it takes to run 10, 11, 12,000 stores in different parts of the world. We have a great group, they're experts in understanding not only how to negotiate contracts like that, but to centralize, and to aggregate that supply, it's a big job.

0:03:28.2 Matt Waller: Well, Brett, from the very beginning of your time at Walmart, 20 years ago, or over 20 years ago, you started with a lot of responsibility, day one, but your responsibility clearly has grown over the years. And really, all people in business, we get into positions where we grow in our responsibility, it's such an overwhelming thing when it's hitting you. How did you deal with that? I mean, I know that you're very capable and you've got a great team, but still, everyone is challenged with this when you take on new responsibility. How do you adjust to that?

0:04:10.0 Brett Biggs: Yeah, I think early in my career... I came to Walmart, I was 32 years old, and 32-year-old Brett's pretty different than 52-year-old Brett. [chuckle] 32-year-old Brett was afraid of pretty much nothing, and I always thought in ways that I was probably ready for jobs that I wasn't ready for, and I think when opportunities came up to go ahead and try those, and I had great bosses, great people that supported me and gave me tough feedback along the way, really good constructive feedback, and that helped me grow. One time I got... When I got the job as the US CFO, Mike Duke, who was CEO at the time, he stopped me in the hall, and I think I've been in the role six months, he said, "What's the thing you've learned the most in this job in the last six months?" I said, "What I've learned the most is that when I thought I was ready for this job four or five years ago, I was not ready for this job, and I appreciate you knowing that, [chuckle] and not giving me that job, 'cause I would have failed."

0:05:15.1 Brett Biggs: And having people you trust to put you in roles at the right time, and when they know you're ready, maybe a little bit ahead of when you're ready, it's just been... I've been very well managed throughout my career.

0:05:30.4 Matt Waller: And you managed constructive feedback. I mean, feedback is so important, you can't learn without feedback, but when you give feedback, some people are crushed by feedback, some people thrive on it.

0:05:44.2 Brett Biggs: Yes.

0:05:45.0 Matt Waller: And obviously, you have a lot of experience with feedback. How do you adjust the kind of feedback you give to the person?

0:05:54.2 Brett Biggs: Yeah, it's never fully pleasant and early in my career, I didn't like getting feedback, and therefore I view giving feedback almost as confrontational. But I had two or three bosses in my career that were so good at giving feedback, tough feedback. And we all have blind spots. And the way they gave me the feedback, which was tough but caring, and not only here's the feedback, but here's how I'm gonna help you solve this issue, we'll solve it together, gave me confidence in being, I think, better at giving feedback. But each individual really needs to be treated like an individual. And they all have different needs, and the way that they accept feedback and the way I like to give feedback may not be the way they wanna accept the feedback, and I need to adjust my style for that.

0:06:43.7 Matt Waller: So getting back to the scale issue once more, you mentioned quickly, when I talked about that, that you've got a great team. You've got to develop a team, you've got to pick your teammates, but then you've got to develop them, which includes giving them feedback. Would you mind telling me a little bit about how you do that?

0:07:06.2 Brett Biggs: Yeah. The team I have in place today and just even down through the organization, but just talking about my direct team, it's a good mix of people who have been here for a longer period of time. One's a proud U-of-A alumn, Brandi Joplin, who's the CFO of Sam's Club, but she's been International Controller, she's been in audit, she's been Chief Audit Executive. And with somebody like Brandi, who's so talented, just to put her in different roles that just keep broadening her out and learning more about the company to where there's really no limit on things that she could do later on in her career, that's up to me to make that happen. But I like a mix of people who've been with the company a while and some people at times that bring new things to the company, but I like also hiring people who are really broad and are able to do various jobs.

0:07:54.6 Brett Biggs: My 12 directs, I think I could almost just move them into each other's jobs and they would all function incredibly well, 'cause they're broad, they're really good leaders, they're great with people. We just made several new moves just this past week where we moved our Treasurer into the international CFO role, we moved our international CFO role into the US CFO role, we broadened a new role called omnichannel CFO in the US. And in this case, our US CFO was deciding to leave the company, which was... His name is Michael Dastugue. He's so great, but just time for him to wanna do something else. But when we did that, these broad leaders were just able to go take on new functions.

0:08:33.8 Matt Waller: Omnichannel CFO, for those that don't know, omnichannel means that... And correct me if I'm wrong, Brett, but I take it to mean that customers, shoppers, consumers can purchase in many different ways...

0:08:51.2 Brett Biggs: Yes.

0:08:51.5 Matt Waller: Through online, through pick-up, through going to the store. Is that right?

0:08:57.0 Brett Biggs: You nailed it. And the omnichannel CFO role is really focused on... Omnichannel includes stores, of course, but the part of the function that we label for omnichannel CFO is all of our supply chain, because now that's very different with a big e-commerce business. What we're doing around things like Walmart+, what we're doing around pick-up, delivery, all those things outside of the store, but still involve the store, that instigate for the most part outside the store, many times fulfilled inside the store, that's how we talk about omnichannel. 'Cause our view is that over time, and even today, consumers don't think about how they wanna shop. They just wanna get it, and they wanna get an item in the most efficient way, the least expensive way, and we've just got to be there for every opportunity that they wanna do that.

0:09:53.0 Matt Waller: With omnichannel, each of the different methods of shopping have different cost structures, but they're not given, I suppose. In other words, when you first started pick-up, your costs were a lot higher per unit than over time. So I would think that would be hard to model, to really think about, how are these things going to change over time?

0:10:16.3 Brett Biggs: It is. It's a great question. When we started looking at online grocery, so grocery pick-up, you could look at the business model and to your point, it was pretty high-cost when you start. But you see the customer reaction, and you realize that not many of your competitors are doing it or even can do it the way that we can do it. And as the CEO, CFO you look at one of those things and say, "That's up to us as a management team to go figure that out." We've certainly done that. And we talk with the investors all the time that we know obviously what it costs for a pick-up order, for a delivery order, for me to send something to your home. What I really care most about is how it adds up. My team and I spend a lot of time doing is to ensure that all those pieces around the... Not just in the US, but internationally as well, that all that can add up into a financial model that makes sense for our investors. It's a big Rubik's cube.

0:11:12.3 Matt Waller: Yeah, it seems like it would be. And I know one of the strengths of Walmart over the years has been process management, process discipline, process optimization, those kinds of things. And I remember when grocery pick-up started, 'cause I would stand around sometimes and watch what was going on, and you could see that there was a lot of learning going on.

0:11:35.9 Brett Biggs: Yes.

0:11:36.6 Matt Waller: But learning curves peter out, they level out towards the end, unless you can use new technologies that overcome that. So I suppose you've really had to think a lot about technology investment as well?

0:11:50.4 Brett Biggs: Yeah. We've invested a great amount of money over the last few years, and we'll do more over the next several years. You'll see it in our stores, if you see things like self-checkout, which was something that we added to our Walmart+ membership. If you were in the back end of our stores you would see a lot of our automation that we've done there is make it easier for associates to unload trucks, get merchandise out on the floor. There's a great deal of new technology on the supply chain side, a lot of which we are leading as a company and working with other companies to develop this technology to give us better technology on the back end of how to move goods around the back end for our pick-up and delivery businesses. I think supply chain may be the area... Other than e-commerce, supply chain may be the area where we're seeing more technology coming in the next few years than in a lot of other areas.

0:12:37.4 Matt Waller: So when you think about risk management in the CFO role... I've been to stores in China, Japan, Brazil, and I always think, "How can you manage risk for this?" It's not just big, it's sprawling.

0:12:57.5 Brett Biggs: It gets back again to... Particularly in places where you've... You just have some more inherent risk, of having people in place that understand the culture of the company, understand what we're trying to do, have your support and tools to execute what we need to do. When you don't have all those things in place, things don't go like you would want, it doesn't take much to go wrong in the size of our company to be newsworthy or really cause a problem. So we have really talented people in the controller organization and in the compliance organization, the legal organization, to make sure we're doing the right thing. And we're not always gonna get it right. I think when we... I feel good as a company that when we figure out that we're not doing something right, that we quickly correct it, admit it and try to remedy it. So I feel good from that perspective. That is one thing that is challenging about Walmart, just the complexity of the company, and always trying to ensure that we keep it as simple as we can. But we're just in businesses that are more complex, such as financial services, which we just announced a new joint venture, or things like healthcare, we can manage those in a thoughtful way.

0:14:14.6 Matt Waller: Brett, John Carter, the famous leadership guru, he often said, "Leaders have lots of things they're responsible for, but there's three things that they do: They set direction, they gain alignment, and they provide motivation." And all three of those things are challenging, and he always differentiates leadership from management. And he... What he terms as leadership is about dealing with or driving change, whereas management is more about dealing with complexity. So you use budgets and staffing and problem-solving and planning, etcetera, etcetera. But they are very different. And as the world becomes more dynamic and change occurs more quickly and there's more disruptions, people are saying we need more people at more levels with leadership skills, because you can't plan everything. Once you got a plan, it's obsolete. What's your experience with that?

0:15:19.1 Brett Biggs: Could not agree more. And we talk about leadership at all levels of our organization. We talk about functional skills that you need to... If you wanna be a segment CFO some day or you wanna be in my role some day, there's functional things that we need to get you to go do. We need you to learn treasury, we need you to learn audit. And we can get you around to do those things, but there's leadership skills, we call them soft skills sometimes; to really be successful, you've got to have these. If you don't have a great sense of urgency, if you don't have the ability to drive change, as you mentioned, you can be a really great manager, you're not gonna be a leader. When I see a situation where a ball's gotten dropped, it's typically a situation where just nobody took leadership on it. It was, "I'm gonna do my job," "I'm gonna do my job," "I'm gonna do my job." But no one picked... Dove after the ball and said, "I got it." Issues and problems are horizontal, they go across the organization. And if you can't work your way across an organization, you'll never solve the most complex problems. And that's... When I'm looking for officers or looking for direct reports, they've got to be people that can do that.

0:16:26.6 Matt Waller: Well, sometimes significant change makes the leaders stand out. You mentioned problems occur horizontally, not vertically. That's so true in every kind of organization. And there's... There actually is some research a retired professor at Ohio State did that he really was convinced that a lot of problems in supply chain management and logistics are more driven by these horizontal processes than they are the verticals.

0:17:02.3 Brett Biggs: Absolutely. John Furner and I... I think I won't say it exactly right. We were talking one day, and he said... I can't remember who he heard it from, but was, "Don't ever let the customer see your org structure." [chuckle] And unfortunately, us and others do show our customers our org structure every once in a while.

0:17:20.1 Matt Waller: But you know, the other thing... So I'd like to talk to you just a little bit about raising up leaders. And you had mentioned earlier putting... Rotating people, and that helps develop them. But it also helps them... I think, if you're in different roles, when you get to these issues of the horizontal challenges, it makes it easier for you to understand what's going on.

0:17:45.4 Brett Biggs: Absolutely.

0:17:47.1 Matt Waller: So that's clearly a way to develop leaders. But what are some other things you think of? And also for people listening to this, especially students listening to this, we have a lot of students... We've got 6600 students in the business school here. And many of them like business, that's why they're majoring in it.

0:18:11.6 Brett Biggs: Yes, that would be good.


0:18:16.6 Matt Waller: But a number of them are thinking, "Oh, I want to develop my leadership skills." What are some things that people can do to develop their leadership skills?

0:18:25.8 Brett Biggs: True. I think some is being observant, and you find people that you know, whether it's professors or executives or a pastor of your church, whatever that is, find people you believe are good leaders and watch what they do. Watch people that do it well and learn from people that don't do it well, but take opportunities in school. It's more difficult now, obviously, but take opportunities to take leadership roles in organizations, whether that's your fraternity, sorority, business club on campus, it's tough to lead among peers, that's a really... I think particularly in your 20s, there's peer pressure to not stand out, and I think learning to lead early among your peers is tough, but you learn a lot doing that.

0:19:09.7 Brett Biggs: I've got a daughter in college who I encourage to do that, and I think you learn a lot at a young age, and then as you get early into the organization, focus on those skills. I was too focused and I was rewarded, like a lot of people... Deep into my career, actually for being good at doing a certain thing, but there was a point in my career where it was... There were still some leadership skills that I needed to develop better, and I see some people come into organizations now, I'll give you a great example.

0:19:38.6 Brett Biggs: Another U-of-A grad, Allie Hazelwood, I'm going blank on her maiden name, she's been in the organization probably now about 12 or 13 years, and at a really young age, you could see... She's very mature in how she handled people, how she handled herself, how she handled situations, but she was always looking for ways to... Not in an arrogant way, look for ways to lead, but in ways to develop herself. And one of the things I've seen from people like that is they're quick to realize they're not great at everything, and quick to realize, that's okay, none of us are, and use that as learning opportunities to further develop their leadership.

0:20:20.3 Matt Waller: So Brett, values are so important, and there's a lot of research that shows that in some ways values may be more important than strategy, because as we go through difficult situations or challenges, the values can guide us, but for one thing, not all companies have strong values, it's not clear what some companies' values are, some have very clear values. Is it important, in your opinion to... As a person looking for a job, is it important to make sure your values match the company values?

0:21:00.3 Brett Biggs: So... Yeah, one of the things I like to talk about in groups like this, and whether it's students or professionals, you have to find a company that fits your values. I've worked for really good companies, I've had some that fit my values better than others. Walmart has been a no-brainer for me, from a values perspective, I knew it pretty immediately. The way we solve problems, the way we talk to each other, the way we handle situations, all of that tells you a lot about values. I'm able to do things with my kids, I've never been asked to do something that's wrong, that's even close to the line. That's a blessing. And again, as professionals and students, be really thoughtful about who you're working for and with, whether that fits your values, and there may be stress your feeling and you don't know why. I think some of that comes from folks that just aren't in a company that fits how they wanna live their life, and we all get one shot at this life, and really need to work at a place that you feel good about, and I've always felt great about Walmart.


0:22:12.2 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the BeEPIC 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 BeEPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt Waller

Matthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.

His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.