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Wal-Mart’s New Chief People Officer Has His Work Cut Out for Him

October 13, 2004
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Given that Wal-Mart is the world’s largest employer, you could say that Lawrence Jackson has just signed on for the world’s biggest workforce management challenge.
 
Jackson, 51, begins work Friday as the executive vice president of Wal-Mart’s People Division. He was most recently president and chief operating officer of Dollar General Corporation, which has been described as a sort of pocket Wal-Mart, operating small stores in rural areas or in poorer neighborhoods of mid-sized cities.

At Wal-Mart, he will report to CEO Lee Scott, and will be in charge of the full human resources spectrum: planning, training, executive development, recruiting, succession planning, human resources technology, culture change and regulatory issues.

That includes, of course, taking the lead in the company’s attempts to counter a perception that it is an employer that does not adequately provide for its employees in wages or benefits and that discriminates against its female workers.

Earlier this year, a judge certified a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit against the company that may include 1.6 million current and former female employees--virtually all the women who have worked at the massive retailer since 1998. Scott has set diversity goals for the organization and put his own and their bonuses on the line if they are not met. The retailer also has established a diversity office, and named Charlyn Jarrells Porter chief diversity officer.

Jackson, who grew up in Washington, D.C., is a graduate of both Harvard University and the Harvard Business School. He comes to his new job with a widely praised background in operations, and, according to one book, an up-front approach to confronting issues of bias in organizations. In 1992, Jackson was No. 29 on Fortune’s list of the most powerful black executives in America. And, interestingly, there’s no HR title on his résumé.

After working as a consultant for McKinsey and Co., he joined the Pepsi Cola Bottling Group in 1981. He became vice president and general manager of the company's Southeast Division in 1992 and was promoted to senior vice president of Worldwide Operations for PepsiCo Food Systems in 1994. Jackson left to become senior vice president of Supply Operations for Safeway, Inc., food stores in 1997.

He cites his early experiences learning the business at Pepsi with a night-side production crew as a key to understanding how to motivate people to create a successful organization.

"You need to be a keen observer and try to figure out what makes people tick," Jackson said in an interview with Working Knowledge, a Harvard Business School publication. "A manager's role is to hire good people and help them become extraordinary in what they achieve. I think you can do that, in part, by giving them the freedom to be themselves.”

In the book, Cracking the Corporate Code, which recounts how African-Americans have made their mark in the business world, Jackson talks about how he and a Pepsi human resources manager, Ron Parker, worked to change the company’s culture.

“None of the initiatives Pepsi has would be going down today if we hadn't worked there,” Jackson said in the book. “As the only black line manager and then the only vice president, I was in a position to protect all the corporate people trying to promote diversity. I had the power--the line results, the budget--so nobody could discredit me.
 
"If we wanted 50 people to meet, and just the idea of that kind of meeting made the upper executives go nuts, I could walk over and say, 'You got a problem, man?' Because of what I built, I was able to call them out.”

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