by Julia Dossett Morgan
President and CEO of Walmart Inc. Doug McMillon made a bold announcement in 2020.
“Today, I’m committing Walmart to becoming a regenerative company,” he declared. “One dedicated to placing nature and humanity at the center of our business practices. Regenerating means restoring, renewing, and replenishing, in addition to conserving.”
Last fall, James Cameron — Vice President, Global Leadership and Learning at Walmart — brought the multinational corporation’s executive leadership team to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute for the Regeneration Champions Retreat. While dealing with COVID-19 on a global scale, the retreat participants, or “Champions” as they’re called, knew they needed to be intentional about setting goals for how Walmart would become a regenerative company. Cameron and his team structured the Regeneration Champions Retreat experience, including selecting the location and planning the schedule.
The vistas provided atop the Petit Jean Mountain, rising at its highest point to 1,207 feet above sea level, have attracted people for 10,000 years, just as they attracted Winthrop Rockefeller to Arkansas in 1953. The Regeneration Champions Retreat marked the first time Walmart convened on Winthrop Rockefeller’s former homestead, and the beauty and nature of this mountaintop were deeply woven into the three days Walmart called our campus their own.
“I got a sense of a place in nature where you would be able to separate from all the distractions of the modern world, and that proved to be exactly what we got,” Cameron said in an interview after the retreat. “It’s very rare you find somewhere with accommodation and the space to learn and to interact…it’s unique. The thing that was particularly unique for us was the ability to be away from any other distractions. Then we learned about Winthrop Rockefeller’s personal mission, and then we discovered all the other wonderful aspects of the Institute which made it attractive to us.”
“It is not enough to contribute money. People must make the gift of themselves, of their own time, their creative talent and spiritual strength.”Winthrop Rockefeller
Cameron was intentional about using the Institute, our mission, and our vistas to put the Champions in the right frame of mind to begin their collaborative efforts. As Winthrop said in the quote above, this effort would require every Champion’s time, talent, and spiritual strength. This was no small order, clearly, and inspiration was paramount.
By convening the Champions in multiple settings around the Institute, including the Lake Abby boathouse, the President’s Lodge patio, and the River Valley overlook, they had the physical and metaphorical space to connect with their challenge and envision how they would meet it. A critical moment came at the River Valley overlook early in the morning on their first full day at the Institute.
“We got everyone up for dawn on Day One — we wanted this emotional moment where Doug McMillon told the story of why regeneration matters,” Cameron recalled. “It was amazing, and the sun was coming up…it was just perfect and everything we’d hoped for. After that, I just relaxed because I knew it didn’t matter what happened. Nothing would interrupt the feeling that they got from that.”
And nothing did. That feeling carried through their entire retreat — a feeling of hope, of being with the right people in the right place at the right time. This was a significant moment in Walmart’s existence as the largest corporation by revenue in the world. Their leadership had the desire to collaborate and a thoughtfully structured agenda to guide their work together. They were at the Institute, an organization built around and for collaboration, and with our hospitality, they were unburdened and able to do their best work.
But what they had to find at the Champions Retreat was the will to transform – to change – permanently. Cameron is a student of leadership and change management philosophies and shared this wisdom:
“One of the keys to any form of transformation is that it means you can’t go back. Change can be reversed, transformation can’t be reversed, and that’s the difference between change and transformation.
A butterfly can’t go back to being a chrysalis once it’s become a butterfly — that’s true transformation. To do that, you have to want to make a dramatic change, and then it has to be sustained, so you don’t try and revert. What we wanted from the event at your Institute was to provide [for the Champions] an emotional connection to each other, so they would support each other and not allow themselves to slip backward. This is something Walmart has done quite regularly, and you will find your place in history if you’re part of the transformation. All the metaphors of nature that your wonderful venue provided were really important because we didn’t want to be in a classroom or in Bentonville. Instead, we had an uninterrupted ability to interact with each other.”
Most people will say that change is inevitable. While that may be true, we know that transformational change must be intentional. Transformational change requires people with multitudes of opinions, viewpoints, and lived experiences working together. It requires engaging in respectful dialogue, though not without conflict, as participants wrestle with their ideas to decide the best way forward. Walmart chose the Institute as the best place to do that because of our mission to continue Winthrop Rockefeller’s collaborative approach to creating transformational change. Reflecting on that mission, Cameron left us with these words:
“Winthrop Rockefeller and his motivations to do everything he wanted to do for society, for business, for people, for agriculture, for the economy – [he had] a real commitment to the sort of values that we wanted people to understand in regeneration. It gave a depth and a reality — an authenticity to talking about those types of topics on the top of a mountain in central Arkansas.”
In keeping with Winthrop’s legacy as a convenor, we welcome organizations seeking transformational change for themselves, their people, and their communities. If you have a desire to do the same type of problem solving and imaginative thinking Winthrop did, we have space and a process for you.