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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 11: Phillip Keene Talks About Thinking Differently and Lessons Learned Outside the Classroom

February 13, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Phillip Keene is a Director of Corporate Communications for Walmart, overseeing State and Local Communications for the East Coast since January, 2016. He works out of the company's Home Office in Bentonville and has been a Walmart associate for more than 10 years overall. In addition, he has a media, government and retail operations background, along with a Masters degree in Political Studies. Phillip is currently working toward his Executive MBA at the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

Episode Transcript


00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of 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.

00:28 Matt Waller: Today, I have with me Philip Keene, Director of Corporate Communications for Walmart. He's in our Executive MBA program, and he's just finished the first semester. He has a tremendous background and very diverse background actually. He has led a Super center with $65 million in sales, 250 Associates and he also has 12 years of media and public relations experience, which really gives him a diverse background. But on top of that, he also is very involved in other things outside of work in the university. He is a child advocate for CASA of Northwest Arkansas. He's a board member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. He has lots of things going on, he's clearly very good at managing his time. Thank you for being with me today.

01:32 Philip Keene: Happy to be here, thanks.

01:34 Matt Waller: I would guess your experience managing a Super Center was a very people-intensive job, and you were managing the Super center in Chesterfield, Missouri, I think. A Super center is a lot of employees, many of them are part-time. How many employees do they have usually?

01:55 Philip Keene: So my box was mid-60 million volume, 250 associates, which included a management team of roughly 30, if you count the hourly department managers and salary assistants, about 30 folks. So, 250 overall in the box. And we were a 7:00 AM to 11 opening. But then I ran a third shift, too, so we were 24 hours for four shifts. It was a dynamic position to have, in terms of making sure that the trains were running on time, but also the layers to that job, you've gotta make sure the people on your team that you work with and I'll pause there for a second. I had 250, I was the 250th, there was 249 other people in that box that kept things running right, they didn't work for me.

02:57 Philip Keene: I worked with 249 people trying to keep our customers happy in that box day-to-day. And my mentality for them was high expectations, high support is the way I used to say it. Guys, I'm going to drive you to give me, and therefore our customers in this team, your very, very best, but that means I need to get you whatever you need to get that done. So I need you to jump 10 feet in the air. But if you need me to help you get new shoes to do it, then that's my job. I had a philosophy too where if I had someone who wasn't making it, things weren't going as well as they needed to. If someone was behind or maybe failing in the role or having trouble, I always told everyone that that's my fault first, that's on me. I run the building. So if you're not doing well in your job, that's my fault. And somebody might think, "Well, that's strange because they're doing it," and it's like, "No, I run it, which means I must have some sort of gap I need to assume in what I'm providing them to make sure that they're successful."

04:03 Philip Keene: So, I would always find that person and say, "Where are the gaps? Do you need to go train on another store that does that well for two weeks? Do we need to get you into just some training in CPLs? What is it?" We go through that, give everybody what they need to get done. Now, if we're still in the same spot after that, then it's no longer something that's on me [chuckle] That might be where they're not in the right role, and then we gotta work it out from there. I think leading a building that way, managing the personalities, in that particular box, we had a really complex interaction of people because it was in an affluent area. So, you had affluent customers that would come and shop us, we are in a rather large shopping center. My hourly management team where Missouri folks, not Missouri. Don't say Missouri around them [chuckle] They were rural Missouri and had worked at Walmart for a long time, 10-15 years, 20 years, they had on lock-down.

05:07 Matt Waller: And a lot of my sales floor associates where folks who would bus in from inner city St. Louis, literally, African-American and Hispanic majority, associates for the sales floor that would come in 'cause it was a great job. It was in a safe part of the St Louis County, the greater region. A lot of their friends work there. I had people who'd take a bus, two hours one way, to come and work at my store for their eight or 10 hour shift and then take the bus right back because it was that good of a job. But managing the complexities between the girl who's got two kids and lives in the inner city off of kings highway and St. Louis that's three and a half feet away from the wife of a doctor that is on their way home to Clayton and makes 600,000-700,000 a year. They're three feet away from each other and that engagement, and that discussion has to go well.

06:00 Philip Keene: And me and my team have to train that associate to be able to connect with that customer 'cause that's who our customers were in that store and deal with all the things that have to be dealt with to make sure that that interaction happened well tens of thousands of times a week, and that's the way I thought about my role there and what my responsibility was through my folks. Among a bunch of other things. It was single handedly the toughest job I've ever had. And the biggest challenge for sure, but I'm extremely glad that I did it, and I learned so much about...

06:44 Philip Keene: People and professional work and leadership and all of that. I will tell you that I gained just as much and learned just as much as a person, as a father, husband, son, doing that role as anything professionally, too, which I did not expect at all. But I became stretched and grew and changed through that experience home and away, so it was interesting. And in some regards, I tie this back to the company that I work for that gave me the opportunity to do that, the same company that saw potential in this program in the School of Business... I came in external recruit off the street, 10 years ago, 11 now I think, and you're able to go through these different phases of a career. I started with taking calls from stores and media just calling up with the 800 number, saying, "Hey, something happened. We need help on this," that sort of thing, working through different PR jobs and transitioning to a completely different lane. Same house, different room in terms of operations. And now, taking that total experience and coming back the last couple of years now and doing this role that's kind of a mix of everything, public affairs, operations as a client, communications, a little bit of marketing, a little bit of community relations, a little... So, it's been an interesting ride here.

08:20 Matt Waller: Part of the reason I asked that question is just my observation. Running a super center has gotta be tough. It's a huge building, a lot of employees, enormous amount of customers coming through the door. High expectations, and it has to run efficiently 'cause Walmart's known for being "Every day low price, everyday low cost." But it's also interesting to me that, wow, if you can manage a super center, you could probably manage time, because you've got so much time you've got to manage in that situation. But it's also interesting to me that you've gone from that to being Director of Corporate Communications with the Fortune one company, the biggest company on Earth. What an experience for you. And I know in the Executive MBA program, there's people from many different companies, you said, I think there's only six people in the program that are actually from Walmart, the rest are from all different companies, and they fly in from all over the place, and you all are learning from one another. But I think it's unusual to find people that have... It's hard to work somewhere where you can get that kind of experience. Just because of the scale, I would think. So, when you come into a situation where you're having to all of a sudden study on the weekends and evenings with your kids, although you're only going in one Saturday a month, the burden is heavier than that. And so, it's certainly a lot to manage. Let me change gears a little bit here.

10:09 Philip Keene: Sure.

10:13 Matt Waller: Okay, now you're getting ready to start your second semester in our two-year program. First semester, you had marketing and what was the course?

10:24 Philip Keene: Business analytics.

10:25 Matt Waller: Business analytics. Those are very different. I know at least the way we teach them they are. And then, you've got this semester Economics and Finance. And I know the faculty who teach all four of those courses, they're really good. Some of the best that we have. But I can imagine going back to the first one, the marketing course. Jeff Murray, Professor Murray, who uses a very anthropological approach, because his research methods are anthropological. And you being in corporate communications... As you said earlier, communications and marketing are related very, very much. But I would think, especially the way Jeff Murray teaches marketing, there's probably even more overlap. And I know one of the benefits that you've told me is that it stretched you in terms of how you thought about marketing. It did me as well. Were you able to see things as you were taking the course that you could apply as Director of Corporate Communications?

11:45 Philip Keene: Yes, there were several ways. The thing that comes to mind right away would be how I challenged and thought about strategy in the work that I was doing day-to-day already. The class forced me to think differently and see different layers to business approaches, marketing, accessing customer, customer acquisition, all the different things that we talked through. So having that sort of critical thinking button pushed weekly and then, especially on the Saturday face-to-faces, I found myself in a bit of a different mindset, looking at the work in front of me to think, "Well, who is that audience and can there be more audiences?" And "Okay, I think that it's the answer to who's the audience is A, well, is their segmentation in that? How do I figure that out? Is there more that we could be doing with what our strategy and our approach is?

12:58 Philip Keene: This is a smart question that I don't know that even we ask enough is, what can I stop? What's not either working or not working, but maybe not worth it, worth the squeeze. So there's those questions where I found myself being much more critical in a productive way, not a negative way, critical in a productive way around the approach to the work and the strategy because I had to think about execution on the work product that way. The other piece was the books that we read for that class had a lot to do with leadership theory and, that's what I call it, leadership theory and sociology and all these different... These things and the brand stories in terms of Howard Schultz had this question, it all started. "There's these folks out in Seattle that are selling more of my coffee making apparatus than anyone else, why and how? Let me go and ask them."

14:08 Philip Keene: And that's it, that was the start. And because he had that question and went out and ask, then everything sort of went from there, right? Super complex story, super interesting. But sitting in class and hearing the genesis of the man who built the most successful coffee enterprise in the history of mankind was sitting in an office one day and goes, "How're those people doing it? They are doing it but how? Well, I guess, I'll go and ask." [chuckle] And going and asking to the curiosity piece being able to do the analytics on it and say, "Alright, they're here and everyone else is there." So just, it has put me in a sort of different mindset in terms of thinking and I can tell you already that it's paid off in terms of returns for us, I think, in terms of stretching other folks on the team and peers to think differently about that, the conversations that we have in meetings, the things that I bring up now. There's that extra 10 or 15% that's born out of how I'm being challenged in this course to think about application of these theories in the real world.

15:25 Philip Keene: And it's interesting to be in the real world working day-to-day and then have this as something that you go back to weekly, for sure, in your own home and then meet once a month with colleagues, with other students and peers, and being able to dabble back and forth between those, for someone with a curious mind, that's been an interesting thing to be able to do. Different way to say it is, and by no means I'm waiting until I get done with the two years to then walk in the work and go, "Okay, I have an MBA now, how am I gonna do my job?" It has changed already and it's changed semi-weekly and will continue to. And in some ways, I'm already seeing the benefits of being in the program by using what I'm learning right away, day-to-day in the job that I have now. And then of course, I'll give you a piece of paper at the end and that helps, but there's no lag period, I guess, to use a business analytics, there's no lag in the application of some of the things that we're learning now and that's been great.

16:39 Matt Waller: Another thing I'd like to explore a little further, you've told me about how you, not only you're learning from faculty, but from one another. Because so many of the students have different backgrounds, they're all working professionals, but they're in many, many different fields, as you mentioned. How is it that you learn from one another? Is it during class? The interaction? Is it... I know we've got... We have a lot of rooms for case discussions and analyses where students go into the rooms and work together in teams, and then you all are communicating with one another via the internet or whatever. Is it the combination of all those things or how would you say that is working?

17:25 Philip Keene: I think it is the combination. I think the program is intentional around trying to put you in situations where you're in with a smaller group of folks. The opening weekend on some of the Saturdays, "Hey, guys. We've got these five or six problems. So let's all count off one through five. Okay, group three, go over here." And this sort of forced in a good way, sort of engagement between new people 'cause people naturally gravitate to others and there's 60 of us and there's the kind of a group that goes out and does this and people who sort of talk to each other. And being able to sort of cross some of the comfort lines and some of those zones in terms of engaging with different people, different backgrounds, different ages, all of that, I found that it's something that's intentional and built into the program, which I think is a good thing.

18:25 Philip Keene: Separate from that, people... With 60 others, we work together eight, 10 hours, we gotta talk to each other. So you are building friendships and building alliances with folks, and folks pop-up and go, "Hey, I need help with such and such. What did you say to this?" So there's a lot of that, and you balance the ethics piece of it on a group work and all that, and everyone stays where they need to be on that. But then there's also this sort of, "Hey, man, what did he say? I didn't write that down." And that sort of thing where folks are helping each other. There's a couple of folks in the class now. There's a lady who's younger, she's just out of undergrad and is early 20s, newly married, sees the world in a certain way. And all the way to a guy who's 25 years, I think in his company, is looking for something new, in his late 40s, I would assume. And no same two folks sit in that classroom and engage the material, and see it different ways and discuss it different ways. And it's interesting to just sit and hear them react to it when Professor Mary stands there and goes, "What do we think about Ethnology on... Etcetera?" The answer that comes back from several of the folks in the class.

19:46 Philip Keene: It's much different and has a lot of different reasons why, and different filters. So engaging with folks, and talking with them and learning I think is one of the benefits of the program that maybe isn't necessarily written down anywhere, but I think is valued in that they build a course for you to be able to have those months and be in groups and engage with folks and sort of make each other better so that iron sharpens iron sort of theory, for sure.

20:19 Philip Keene: But one thing that's interesting to me is I happen to be African-American, I was born this way. So being interested in an MBA program, I look around a class, and I think you all have been intentional around trying to recruit women minority but I would put diverse backgrounds on that list and you may look at me as a student and say, "Okay, African-American student, handful of folks were out trying to bring attention to draw them in." I almost view myself as the odd ball a little bit in the class based on the background. Now, having run a store, been in operations, working for a company makes sense, but the majority of my career, I was a television reporter, I worked in government, I'm in corporate affairs essentially, in a variety of ways, with a few years of OPPS.

21:14 Philip Keene: So to sit in the class across from folks who do statistical analytics for J.B Hunt and someone who's, I think, literally a surgeon in the medical school and folks who are involved in building buildings in Texas, it's been interesting to me to be chosen and accepted to be in this program. From my background perspective, and I'll say this out loud to folks who hear, who listen to this. One of the ways I think, in some ways challenge folks is talent development's a big thing for me and always has been, especially at Wal-Mart. One of the ways I thought that I could even apply to come here was sort of challenging the thought process around what you've done in the past and what you can do and I have a philosophy that it's more about your skill set in your tool box than necessarily what type of degree you got, or what job you already had. People ask me, "Why did you wanna go into operations?"

22:25 Matt Waller: And I think one of the questions that's parallel to that is, "Well, how did you go into operations from what you were doing before?" And the answer is the same answer that made me feel like I could apply to come to this program, which is it's a tool kit. So, by doing the things that I've done over the course of the years, been lucky to have great leaders who've pulled me along, and gave me opportunities. I sit here and go, "Okay, I can write, I can talk, I can lead, I can, you know, etcetera, etcetera... " A business school wants someone like that. Operators who need leadership in a building would want someone who can talk and write and lead and... So folks who may be on the fence around, do I go to any business school do I go to U of A, do I do an MBA, e-MBA program? Will I have the time to do it? The answer, as far as I'm concerned is, yes, you have the time to do it, you'll make the time because you'll love it. And two, I'm as diverse a background as you can get, I think, to come into a business program and I'm here and I'm doing fine. And the school work is meaningful to me, and the classroom engagement is great and the professors are top notch.

23:42 Philip Keene: And I feel good about what I'm doing and where I'm gonna go because I'm here, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to other folks. People are asking me too, at work, "Well, how is it?" Or "I was thinking about going." And I'm telling them, "Hey it's worth it, try it, apply, come sit in with me, I'm sure they'll let you." And give it a shot. Give yourself a shot in terms of letting them decide whether you're a good fit to be in the MBA program or not, because if you were me, you might have sat there and gone, "I don't know what they'll see." Apply, let them figure it out. And at least in my case, it's been I think mutually beneficial. I think I've brought some interesting... People have told me, some separate sort of thinking and a different angle to some of the things just based on my background, marketing class, business analytics aside, and of course, I'm getting a whole bunch from being here. So if anyone's on the fence, tip yourself to the, "Give it a shot side of the fence," and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

24:54 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, BeEpic.

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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Walton College of Business

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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