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Finding Meaning in Working at Walmart

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I have been a professor of Organizational Behavior for over 20 years, and I must say that one of the most rewarding things about my job is keeping track of my students after they've graduated. Since so many of my former students were M.B.A. students, it's especially interesting to see how their career trajectories progress after B-school. The course I teach, "Organizational Behavior," is not always the most popular course in the curriculum. Often, students chalk up the lessons to "common sense" and are more interested in learning financial, operations and marketing techniques which they think represent skills more critical to their career success. But when they come back to me one year, two years or five years later, they often mention that the biggest challenges they face are human-oriented. Thus, while I (and my lessons) may be less appreciated in the moment, I am redeemed by these comments later on. When my students return to campus for a visit or to recruit for their companies, I often have the opportunity to chat with them over coffee, lunch or dinner. These are among the moments that are most meaningful to me in my job.

I recently had dinner with one of my former students, Katharina Haynes Bethea, who finished her M.B.A. at Wake Forest University in May 2010 and went to work at Walmart's corporate headquarters in northwest Arkansas. From the time I met her, I knew that Katharina had a bright future ahead of her, but wondered if she had chosen the right job. I mean, Walmart? So when I met her for dinner six months after she started her new job as an Associate Marketing Manager, I asked her all about her work. When I got to the important question, "Do you find meaning in your work?" I was taken aback by her response. It went something like this:

Before I started working at Walmart, I was asked which areas of the business I wanted to work in. My first choice was the grocery business because I consider myself a "foodie," but, more importantly, I try to incorporate as much fresh and healthy food into my diet as possible. If there is one company that can change the way Americans eat, it's Walmart. And I knew before joining the company that I wanted to be a part of that.



What I find the most meaningful about my job is the ability to work in an area that I am
passionate about, and that is providing all Americans with access to healthier food. I'm fortunate to work for a company that is embracing this ideal and whose core customer is the everyday American. Just six months out of B-school and I know that my work, and the work of countless Walmart associates, both at corporate and in our stores, will soon be experienced by millions of Americans. Not all of my classmates can say that. I cannot wait to see the projects that we have been working on roll out in every Walmart store. Knowing that my team's work is part of a larger, meaningful project makes even the toughest days worth the struggle.

Late last month, Walmart held a major press conference, with Michelle Obama in attendance, and told the world about the company's healthier foods initiative. Among their major efforts, Walmart will reduce sodium by 25 percent, added sugars by 10 percent and industrially-produced trans-fats by 100 percent in their own Great Value products by 2015. They will also work with their suppliers to do the same by 2015. Walmart will include front-of-package seals on their products which will help customers easily identify healthier food options. And finally, Walmart's plans include saving customers approximately $1 billion per year on fresh fruits and vegetables through several initiatives designed to drive unnecessary costs out of the supply chain.

I couldn't help but think about my conversation just a few weeks earlier with Katharina and how proud she must have felt the day of that important press conference.

A couple of weeks ago, I announced in my Huffington Post blog my quest to understand the sources of meaning at work. As I reflect on my meeting with Katharina, I recognize that her source of meaning is "helping others." In her case, she finds both joy and worth as she thinks about bringing healthy and affordable food options to masses of Americans. And she found this working for a company that is both highly successful and highly-maligned.

If you are reading this blog, it's because the title intrigued you or the concept of meaningful work got your attention. Hopefully, you will reflect on your own job and think about whether or not you are finding happiness and a sense of worth at work. If you do, I would love to hear from you. If you don't, I'd love to hear from you too! Consider posting a comment or emailing me at mosss@wfu.edu if you think you'd be a good interviewee for my blog and book.

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