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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 176: Leadership Lessons with Marvin Davenport

May 25, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the podcast, Matt is joined by Marvin Davenport, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of VSP Global. Marvin has extensive experience working in leadership roles for a variety of companies including Walmart, Raytheon and Amazon. In the episode he shares his five core leadership lessons. He explains how these lessons helped him achieve his 10-year-plan and led to his current position at VSP Global. Finally, Marvin gives advice to undergraduate students to find internships, a company that aligns with your personal and career goals, and find a peer mentor or peer group. 

Episode Transcript

Marvin Davenport  0:00  
But last but not least, is being aware of your own worth. Is the value of what you're bringing to your company, a skill set that you possess and want to be able to fully utilize? As well, are you able to continuously build on those skills?

Matt Waller  0:15  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be EPIC podcast. I have with me today Marvin Davenport, who is Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at VSP Global. And he has a really amazing work history. He worked with Walmart for the first 12 years of his career in various positions, including programming types of positions, Global Program Management, Business Insights and integration. And he worked for Raytheon for four years in Dallas, was the Regional Diversity Leader. For Amazon Web Services, he was the Head of Inclusion and Diversity, and now he is Chief Diversity Officer of VSP Global. So Marvin, thank you for joining me today.

Marvin Davenport  1:25  
Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt Waller  1:26  
It looks like working at Walmart was your first position out of college? Is that correct?

Marvin Davenport  1:33  
 Yes, that is correct.

Matt Waller  1:34  
Where are you from originally?

Marvin Davenport  1:36  
So originally, I was born in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but never lived there. I've always been a military child. So early on, even shortly after I was born, started military travel with my dad being in the military. 

Matt Waller  1:50  
And you were with Walmart for quite a while in Northwest Arkansas. So when you first moved to Northwest Arkansas, of course, it was around 2004. 

Marvin Davenport  2:02  

Matt Waller  2:03  
And you were here during a time when Walmart grew a lot. Northwest Arkansas changed a lot. And now you're living in Dallas, which is booming beyond imagination. That's a big change.

Marvin Davenport  2:18  
Yeah, it was a big change. I think what made that transition easy though for me, was the fact that I was a military child. I moved around a lot as a kid. And so from big city, to small city, to military bases, actually, I think helped me more than I realized at the time, because it allowed me to pivot and change my environment and not feel so overwhelmed or concerned with those changes.

Matt Waller  2:45  
Now I know that VSP Global is a dominant player in optical, I really don't know much about that. If you wouldn't mind telling us just a little bit about VSP Global, that'd be great.

Marvin Davenport  2:58  
Yeah, absolutely. So VSP has been around since 1955, when a small group of optometrists had a vision to provide some access and affordable, high quality eye care to the state of California residents. Since then, that has evolved to the world. We are actually based in Rancho Cordova, California. VSP has evolved over time is now a doctor governed company that exists to create value for members who utilize our services and opportunities for doctors who are on our network. Our vision is to create a world where everyone can bring their best vision to life. And overall, our purpose is to help drive and empower human potential through sight. We are the first and only national not-for-profit vision benefits company. And that drives everything that we do. We provide affordable access to eyecare and eyewear for more than 80 million members throughout our network, and more than 39,000 doctors that support our members.

Matt Waller  4:04  
That's a huge network. At any rate, would you mind sharing a little bit about your role as Chief Diversity Officer? What are you responsible for?

Marvin Davenport  4:13  
A great question. So as Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion here at VSP, I have the responsibility for the company's engagement, internally and externally around all things diversity, equity and inclusion. So that can include designing and executing our enterprise DE&I strategy, including governance of our business resource groups, sometimes also known as employee resource groups. I consult with our executive team as well as leaders across our business to ensure that we integrate and embed diversity and inclusion into the business strategies that we drive and execute across the company. I collaborate with a number of community organizations, customers, diverse suppliers that partner with us on delivering the service that we provide, as well as our doctor network. And then that also includes measurements, because what's tracked is what's measured. And so we do a lot of measurements around our diversity efforts, our partnerships that we drive and execute, internally connected to our business strategies. We have metrics, accountability factors that we utilize across the organization.

Matt Waller  4:48  
It looks like you got some experience and performance measurement and just metric measurement. Of course, you started as an programming role but you eventually were responsible for the development and execution of diversity goals for the whole company. And you you created scorecards and metrics and so forth. That was back in 2013. So I imagine you were breaking a lot of new ground back then.

Marvin Davenport  5:58  
Yeah, there was a lot of great work that was happening then and continues to this day, a lot of what we were looking at when I was at Walmart, and then transitioning to Raytheon, was very much trying to quantify our results in our engagement, not necessarily just from a workforce standpoint, but what were we doing in the workplace, a lot of the times now, that's referenced as an employee engagement surveys, where we look at results of how employees are feeling within the organization, how they feel a sense of belonging and engagement, right. And then in addition to that, from a marketplace or community standpoint, we also started tracking, what is our engagement look like with partners? How can we start to reinvest funds, provide support assistance, to help grow and evolve the communities in which we serve. So to your point about Northwest Arkansas, it has dramatically changed since 2004, when I first moved up there from the University of Oklahoma. And it was one of those opportunities that really allowed me to see things differently. But evolution of my growth and development that I had, while at Walmart really helped transition into the work that I do today. And I think some of that definitely is connected to my technology background, I am very much a logical thinker. Some of the programming work that I used to do early in my career, I think still helps benefit my thinking to this day. So a lot of great work has been around. But a lot of that also is tied to the dashboards, the metrics tracking, that we still do here today at VSP, as well.

Matt Waller  7:43  
So you've worked for some really great companies, Walmart, Raytheon, Amazon. And now, VSP Global. And I'm sure you've been around lots of great leaders and but I'd love to hear some of your leadership lessons from these experiences.

Marvin Davenport  8:01  
Definitely, I've had the opportunity to sit and be a fly on the wall with a lot of great leaders over my time. And what I've evolved from those discussions, and the meaningful work that we've done at each of the companies I've worked at, I have five core leadership lessons that I think I still very much are connected to and help provide to my mentees that I support and help develop. And the first one is being fluid with your responsibilities. What I basically mean by that is having flexibility with change management, while ensuring that you are aligned with your leadership on the actions and assignments, projects. Within our world of work, there is a lot of movement that happens a lot of change that happens each and every day. And while we have a mission and vision, we want to be true and honest to that mission and vision. And so from time to time, there are things that will change throughout our daily activities in which we need to show that flexibility, and that ability to be fluid with our responsibilities and actions that we take. The second is around being engaged with more than just your immediate team. And so within the corporate environment, you got to know more than just your manager and your teammates, you got to know your managers' peers, you got to know their teams. And you got to know that you could count on them and they could count on you to help and support different projects and initiatives that you're working on. Because you never know when those individuals might have influence on you getting that next role, that next opportunity or being able to have a seat at the table when it's most critical. The third is being intentional with your network. I've always had a point of making sure that I connect with others on a weekly or bi weekly basis and create new relationships whenever possible, because you'll want to build those bridges and build those connectors with other individuals of like mindedness, other individuals who have diverse perspectives than your own. So you could continue to grow and develop and be challenged in different ways. So challenge yourself to continue to grow and build your network, across your company as well as other companies, we got great technology nowadays that allows for that continuation of building networks and friendships. The fourth item is tied to being ready with your game plan. I always look at having a game plan and I try to work backwards from that, saying, okay, where do I want to be 10 years from now? What position do I want? What company do I want to aspire to work with? Do I want to start my own company? What living situation? Do I want to be in geographically or just holistically? So I work backwards from there and ask myself what are the key milestones that I need to hit each year, to be able to achieve that 10 year goal? Sometimes I have to adjust to the point of number one that I've mentioned being fluid. Sometimes I have to adjust that year to year. But I keep that focus and saying where do I want to be in 10 years? And where do I want to achieve within each of the years leading up to that, and then I work backwards and start to work the game plan from there. The last but not least, is being aware of your own worth. The definition of personal worth focuses on money and possessions, but I'm talking more about value and expertise. And experience is the value of what you're bringing to your company, a skill set that you possess, and want to be able to fully utilize as well, are you able to continuously build on those skills to create new attributes and new job skills for yourself for that next opportunity that you're looking for. And so continuing to have that wealth of knowledge, that wealth of experience, will be critical to your game plan of where you want to be 10 years from now.

Matt Waller  12:06  
These five core leadership lessons sound really impressive, your first one, being fluid with your responsibilities, you're referring to being flexible, and making sure that you're aligned with the leadership in terms of the actions and assignments that you're working in. And that makes a lot of sense. Especially when you think about how fast things are changing. I think this is a really key point, it's really easy in life to get into situations where you become kind of stuck in something, your point, I mean, I really think this may be more important now than it was even 10 years ago. 

Marvin Davenport  12:53  

Matt Waller  12:54  
Because you know, technology changes quickly. Business processes change quickly. Competitors change quickly. And of course you have new direct reports, new peers, new bosses, etc, etc. And how they work changes. So being flexible is important. Some people seem to be more flexible than others, you know, but I think we all can develop our flexibility, if you learned any techniques, or are you aware of any ways that you can develop your flexibility?

Marvin Davenport  13:31  
So I try to be intentional about the work I do, and say, okay, what do I need to get done now? And what can I put off the next week, that's not as critical as my current actions. And I focus on that, because sometimes we just get overwhelmed with the amount of things that are on our plate, versus focusing in on the priorities that are on our plate. So focusing on those priorities first, and then work to complete the other actions that you might have. But the ones that are not as critical. So focus on those critical ones first, and then go from there. And sometimes it's it's good to have that network that I mentioned, because sometimes your network can help you achieve those goals a lot quicker, or those actions a lot quicker, so being fluid to sometimes just ask for help. I think we live in a society now where some individuals are reluctant to ask for that help, whatever it might be, professionally or personally. And just being fluid and vulnerable enough to ask for that to achieve what we need to achieve. You know, your your call outs in terms of some of those responsibilities and that and the fluidness of it. Some things we can directly influence and change, other things we can't, right. And so when we think about the pandemic, we would have loved to change a pandemic. So it was nonexistant, but we couldn't change it, right. So we had to work within the means of it. And so sometimes that can be extremely frustrating. Sometimes, we just need to take it day by day. But if you keep working at it, and you keep driving towards your goal and your actions, you'll cross that bridge.

Matt Waller  15:19  
Your second point about, correct me if I remember this wrong, but being engaged with,

Marvin Davenport  15:26  
People beyond your immediate team, 

Matt Waller  15:28  
Yeah, I think that's so true. You know, when I became Dean, back in 2015, I got some advice from someone that was really good along these lines that I would not have thought of, because you know, it's easy, like, for example, right now, our Business School has over 7000 students, we have about 150, full time faculty, and then quite a few part time and, about, over 100 staff, etc, etc. There's a lot going on. And it's really easy to just get so focused, right, you know, on what you're managing. But this this one person, he said, "Matt, I recommend that you make a list. About 50 people from outside of the business school, still within the university, that you may need to have connections to at some point, and go visit them and go to their office, don't, you know, ask them to come to your office, go to their office, just ask for 20 minutes and just say, you want to know how you can be of help." And so I did this, I went to certainly all the other Dean's on campus, and the other colleges, but I went to Vice Provost and Vice Chancellors and Directors of Centers, etc, etc. And I was kind of doing it in faith, because I wasn't confident it was worth the time. It took me a lot of time to do this. 

Marvin Davenport  16:56  

Matt Waller  16:57  
You know, and, and I took notes from everyone else. So I made a three ring notebook that had photos of each person and a bio, like a three ring binder, and after each meeting, and spend time writing in the binder. But looking back, I actually think that may be the best advice I received.

Marvin Davenport  17:19  
Yeah, you know, the interesting thing about that, and what you shared was, you created that playbook. The playbook that had their photos and had what they talked about, what was important to them, the connectors to the work that you were going to be doing as dean. And that probably helped you through that process of creating those relationships in that network, right. Because now knew it intentionally, what was the focus of theirs for their school? What was the focus of yours, and how you could bridge that together and work together towards a common goal.

Matt Waller  17:53  
It's funny, I'm so glad you brought this point up. Again, it's so easy to get caught up in your busyness and not do it. But your third point about being intentional with your network. Even beyond, you know, people that you're working with, it makes such a such a big difference. And you you mentioned I think, as you were talking about how technology is kind of enhanced that a bit. I really enjoy using LinkedIn. Because you know, like in your case, I was able to read all kinds of things about your background. But also, now that we know one another, suppose you were to take a job somewhere else or I was to take a job somewhere else, we would have our updated contact information. So it'd be very easy for you and I to connect and to, you know, stay connected even though we've, we've moved on. And I think it used to be very difficult to do that prior to LinkedIn.

Marvin Davenport  18:51  
Absolutely. Even growing up, you know, moving from state to state, you lose friendships back then, nowadays, you could still stay connected with individuals, friends and connections, because to your point, not even 10, 15 years ago, so that was still somewhat difficult, but 20, 30 years ago, you're writing letters and putting it in the mail to try to stay connected with people.

Matt Waller  19:18  
Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I another thing related to this that's kind of interesting regarding you're being intentional about your network, you know, I can type much more quickly than I can handwrite and part of it is just because I write a lot but, and I have for a long time, but there's this service called Postable. So you can write a note to someone in a card and it's sent in the mail, in the snail mail, and it comes to their mailbox and it has a stamp on it. And you can pick fonts that look like your handwriting. So in my case, I just looked for the sloppiest handwriting available and that was the closest, but I found, you know, it's not true for everyone, but some people really like receiving notes. 

Marvin Davenport  19:18  
Yeah, absolutely. 

Matt Waller  19:19  
You know, and and this guy told me, he said, rather than send notes at Christmas, for example, that's when everyone sends Christmas. He said, send them at like, Thanksgiving or other things. Because there's such a big stack of cards, no one goes through them. But if you send a Thanksgiving card, nobody sends Thanksgiving cards, so I actually tried that for a few years now, I've been sending these cards out using this thing called Postable. Once you get the physical addresses in there, you know, it's and you keep adding to them over time. So I've been doing it for a few years now, the last few months, I've not been very good about it. But you know, if I read about someone in the newspaper, maybe they've been promoted, or I see something on LinkedIn. In some cases, I'll just send a note, congratulatory note on LinkedIn. But sometimes I think it's worth sending a card, you know?

Marvin Davenport  21:04  
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And it's because it's also connected to, when you think about the conversations that you had with the other Deans, each of them have their own ways of working, right. And so everyone has their preferences of what they like or dislike. And to your point, there are a lot of people who still love to receive mail letters. And so knowing who those individuals are, they might be part of your network. And that's meaningful to them to receive that. And so I think it's a great example.

Matt Waller  21:40  
Someone mentioned to me that one way to tell people to determine if someone likes to receive notes, is if they've ever sent you one. It's usually an indication that they like that as well.

Marvin Davenport  21:53  
Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Matt Waller  21:56  
So I love your five points. The fourth one, you mentioned, having a game plan. 

Marvin Davenport  22:02  

Matt Waller  22:03  
That is so important. And I think it ties to your first point, as well. It's like, on the one hand, you want to have a game plan. On the other hand, you want to be flexible. Because you've got to, to actually achieve the goal, you've got to sometimes pivot a little bit.

Marvin Davenport  22:24  
Exactly. I think it's a great point, I grew up playing basketball, I was on traveling teams and high school teams and things like that. But you know, there's a reason why the coach has a clipboard, and a dry erase marker. Because what they pre-planned might not work in the moment. And so they have their list of different plays and different situations that they're going to run and execute based off how the game is going. And if they come down to two seconds left, and they're down by one, they got to draw up a play, that's gonna happen in the moment. Right? And so having that game plan down to say, Okay, I know what I want to do in this case, if something happens, and I need to make a pivot to your point, or adjust what I'm doing to ensure that my offense works against their defense. Right?

Matt Waller  22:24  
Well, speaking of basketball, we have a coach here at Arkansas. His name's Eric Musselman. Really good basketball coach and really creative person, you know, he's, he's very good at social media marketing and things like that. I had the honor of being able to go to the practice. And he had stats on every player in his brain. Plus, minus stats, you know,

Marvin Davenport  23:23  
Yeah, yep. 

Matt Waller  23:43  
And he had these poster boards, on this desk that had each player on the other team, information about them, and he said, look, we've got to make sure so and so never goes up the middle. Never. And he emphasized this a lot. But he had other, he just had a lot of things in his head. But I watched that game. And I noticed, they did it. They stopped this one player from going up the middle. They really did. And I think it made a big difference. They guys still scored a lot of points, but he didn't do as well as he did in other games. 

Marvin Davenport  24:30  

Matt Waller  24:31  
But when you're actually playing basketball, you can plan plan plan. And then at some point, you've got to pivot because something's not working. I know Eisenhower, there's that famous quote of his, he said, "In preparing for battle, I've always found that plans are useless. But planning is indispensable."

Marvin Davenport  24:53  
There you go. 

Matt Waller  25:00  
It's so true.

Marvin Davenport  24:56  
Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, the interesting thing about it is within the corporate world, most individuals are planning for where they want to be, right. And I think that's intentional, and it's something that everyone should do. Because if you are in a current position, do you still want to be in that position 10 years from now? Some people do, and that's perfectly fine, you will still need to continue to develop and evolve your skill set to stay worthy within that position, right. And useful to the company holistically as a subject matter expert. But what if you want to continue to move your career upwards? Right? What about that next position? That's going to require you to come with a slightly different mindset, take what you've learned what you've done each game before, and continue to build upon that. Because that is the only way to continue to work on the planning, and to work the plan and the execution of it. And so continuing to think through, okay, what do I need to add? What do I need to change? And where do I need to pivot, and each year that might change or might vary a little bit, depending on the position you're in, depending on change of leadership, right. Again, some things are out of your control, if you if you're connected with one leader, and that leader leaves the company, and a new leader comes in. Now you got to start from scratch again, and show your worth to that new leader. But as long as you continue to do that, then the previous leader can help that transition and help make sure that that new leader coming in that new coach coming in, is going to continue to develop and evolve your skill set to help you continue your career.

Matt Waller  26:43  
Your fifth point of your five core leadership lessons is about the value of what you bring to your company. And you mentioned, we usually think of the worth we bring as being focused on money and possessions, but you're really focusing on what kind of value add, and expertise and experience that you're bringing to the organization. And you mentioned you want to continually build on these. I think that's a really key point. How have you worked on that personally?

Marvin Davenport  27:19  
It's not easy. Because when you think about performance evaluations, you have in your mind that you've been performing flawlessly. But if you come across a leader who wants to give you some true honest feedback, you got to be open to that. Because they're calling out where there's gaps or opportunities and your value and in your expertise. And how can you continue to build upon that you have to be willing to accept that feedback. And I've had times in my career where I wasn't willing to, or it wasn't aligned with where I wanted to go from my career standpoint. And so I've made some of those hard decisions to pivot. But at the same time, those leaders, those inclusive leaders, who are very intentional and meaningful about their feedback, because they want to see me succeed, I have valued their feedback the most and taken it on the chin, and continued to work on their call outs that they've mentioned to me, because in most cases, those leaders were where I wanted to be, because they had a slightly different advantage point. And they need the ways of working within their position versus where the position I was in. I was willing to listen, learn and evolve, from their experiences from their feedback that they provided to me. And I did regular check ins, based off of what they've shared with me, "Hey, how am I doing? Six months from now, a year from now, Have I evolved in these spaces in which were called out in my previous performance evaluation? So that's how I continue to try to evolve and look at that. And it's, it's been a benefit added to me, because it's helped me see some blind spots in my own ways of working, and my own engagement. And it's helped me get out of my comfort zone from time to time.

Matt Waller  27:23  
Well it takes humility to receive, even constructive criticism you mentioned, you know, well, it's easier to receive it from people you trust, and know, 

Marvin Davenport  28:28  

Matt Waller  28:29  
I mentioned earlier that have your best interest in mind. Even then, it's always uncomfortable. 

Marvin Davenport  29:26  
Yeah, it is difficult. It is difficult, because you're like, wait a second, I thought I was doing great at that. And then they open your eyes to a couple of angles in which there was some areas of opportunity. And you got to be willing to address those if that's, you know, of importance to you as an individual. And like I said, sometimes I was willing to and sometimes I'm not, kind of just depends on where my personal values are. If it's aligned to that and where I want to be and continue to grow then I am I'm all for creating my gameplan that get over those those areas of opportunity.

Matt Waller  30:06  
So, Marvin, what advice do you have for undergraduate business students?

Marvin Davenport  30:13  
Yeah, so I was an undergraduate business student. My undergrad is in Management Information Systems from the University of Oklahoma. And one of the things I found most rewarding when I was in school as an undergrad was seeking world experiences. And that's through job opportunities. So internships, co-ops, study abroad programs, try to leverage the opportunities when you can to take advantage of those positions, those experiences because they pay off greatly, post graduation, I had the opportunity to do two internships before I graduated one with 3M, in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a computer programmer for them for a summer. And then my final senior year summer, leading into my senior year, I got an opportunity to join Walmart as an intern. And that paid off because Walmart offered me a position my last day of my internship to come back full time. And I took them up on that offer, which lasted a good 12 years post. And so the experiences I got through both of those internships were very rewarding. Even though at times during that time, when I think back, I had no idea some of the coding I was learning, and the things that they were teaching me, but it definitely was a return on investment to give up a summer for those internships. The second area or piece of advice I would provide to business students would be, find a company that values you for you. And find a company that aligns with your personal value. And where you know, you're wanting to do meaningful work. So whatever that is for you, find a company that aligns to that and pursue that company as an employee. Because when you have those two components connected and in synergy, it makes your work more rewarding, and it doesn't feel like a bear to go to work. Sometimes you hear individuals that's like, "Oh, I don't want to go in today." Right? But when those two components personal value and company value are aligned, it makes the work a lot easier. And last but not least, seek a mentor and or a peer group that will consistently and continuously challenge you to always perform at your highest ability. And so you gotta have those other players on the team within your network who are going to continue to challenge you, continue to move you forward, because they want the same thing that you're wanting and collectively you could work together to achieve those things.

Matt Waller  32:51  
That is great advice. Marvin, I wish all of our students would do internships. It's so valuable to your point. Well, thank you, Marvin for taking time, I know you've got an extremely busy week, so I really do appreciate you taking time to visit with me and share your your wisdom and your five leadership points. That's really helpful. So thank you.

Marvin Davenport  33:13  
Thank you for the opportunity. Love the conversation and looking forward to connecting with you in the future.

Matt Waller  33:19  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be EPIC. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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