August 14, 2016

Nathan Smeal

Corporate World vs. Entrepreneurship: A Striking Revelation


September 1999.  I was a junior at King’s College in Northeast PA. I was doing what typical college students do – studying, playing football and working part-time for retail company, Wal-Mart. I had to leave the following year to recover from a serious knee injury, but after graduation and a brief stint in PR, I went back to Wal-Mart as a full-time temp associate in the fall of 2001.

Talk of rapid growth was in full swing. The management training program needed associates to fill assistant manager positions throughout the company. In January 2002, I interviewed for a position in the program. I recall the District Manager inquiring, “So, you want to be an assistant manager?”

I explained that I would like the opportunity. He said that I would start in two weeks in Cortland, NY.

July 2014.  After considering many variables, I walked away from the corporate world and started my own business working from home.

July 2016. I had the privilege of attending the JD Evolution Leadership Conference. The audience was full of CEO’s and leadership teams, of all sizes, willing and anxious to learn the wisdom of the Rockefeller Principles.  As I listened to the inspiration provided by the speakers, I realized that the principals they discussed were not new to me. I lived it for 14 years in middle management for a retail juggernaut… and I didn’t even realize it!

But I now understand that there is a huge disconnect between corporate leadership teams and the people that are in the trenches every day. From someone who’s been on both sides – as well as the guy in the middle – here are my observations:

Communication is often fragmented and it’s relayed from multiple sources (Think of the TPS Reports from the movie, Office Space). From experience, this happens everywhere in the corporate world - from leadership, to middle management, to the people on the front lines.

Company structure is just as fragmented as the communication. The bigger the organization, the harder it is to maintain control of the company. Without distinct roles for supervisors and employees, growth becomes stagnant because there is no clear accountability.

- There is rarely a distinct ‘Why’ behind the ‘What.’ The majority of people can tell you ‘What’ they do, but few can tell you ‘Why’ they do it. Managers and employees do not align with company core values because they don’t know what they are, the company doesn’t know what they are, or because the company leadership is not alignment with them.

- I realize that I stuck around so long in my previous career because I knew the ‘why’ behind what I was doing. Wal-Mart believed in service to the customers and acting with integrity. I fit in with this culture. It is what I believe. I trained others to do the same.  It was my intention to serve the company, as such, and prepare my direct reports to be ready to take my job when the opportunity presents itself.

- I gave Wal-Mart a combined 14 years of service –  days, nights, weekends, holidays – while sacrificing my life with my family and even my own sense of self.  I did it because I thought I was serving the greater good.

But that company failed to live up to their core values, and because of that, they failed me. My only regret is that it took so long for me to realize it. I think about the opportunity that presented itself with the management training program so many years ago. I was hopeful, excited, and motivated. The reality is that many companies are not positioned to lead and, because of that, they alienate their best customers… their employees. Perhaps that’s why entrepreneurship is at an all-time high.

We all want something to believe in.

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