Exit Interview: Leslie Dach, Walmart

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who recently have left their jobs.

Leslie Dach, Walmart's executive VP of corporate affairs and government relations, has overseen the company's sustainability efforts since his arrival in 2006.  He arrived at a time when the company faced withering attacks on a host of environmental and social issues. During his tenure, the company launched a spate of sustainability initiatives, from energy conservation to supply-chain issues, partnering with a wide range of nonprofits along the way. Dach himself came from that world — he lobbied for Audubon and Environmental Defense Fund, in addition to working in the Clinton administration and for John Kerry's 2004 presidential run.

I spoke with Dach about his tenure at Walmart, which ended last month — what he learned about trying to make change, at scale and in a fishbowl. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: First, tell me what your job description has been at Walmart.

Leslie Dach: I would say overall it's been to try and help make us a better company by looking at the large issues where we can make a difference that are good for the business and good for the customer. And underneath that, being responsible globally for government relations and public policy and communication. And putting that together with what we call our Live Better initiatives, which includes finding, designing and building the work that we do on sustainability, agriculture, women's economic empowerment and job opportunities. And then our giving, which is still quite large. Last year we gave away over $1 billion in cash and in-kind.

I think the goal of the job description, in business terms, is creating our freedom to operate, improving our relationships with the key decision makers and with our customers, and continuing to position us as a good neighbor and a good partner in all the countries in which we operate.

Makower: Talk a little bit about the Walmart that you walked into in 2006, in terms of environmental and social reputation.

Dach: I felt that Walmart, like many other big brands, found itself in a position where, in a sense, the world expectation of the brand had changed. They were a company that had tremendous customer trust that went to work every day and saved people money so they can live better, and behaved in an ethical way. And they felt that’s what they needed to do. They had a great business. Their business helped people. They ran it ethically.

I think what happens is that as you get to be of a certain size and your brand reaches a certain place and you grow around the world, people understandably have different expectations of you. And the company needed to catch up with that. So when I came, it was realizing that it needed to do that, that just doing what it had done wasn't going to be all that it needed to do.

I think (Hurricane) Katrina was very important because the company responded naturally to that, and it got a lot of positive feedback for using its business in a way that people said made a difference. That allowed, when I came here and had the first conversations about, "Okay, how do we have people see us for who we really are? How do we combat some of these embedded negatives that the brand had issues like its impact on small business?” — I think the leadership made a fundamental decision that rather than just tell a better story, it would need to be a better business.

In my consulting days, there were so many companies who wanted for people to think better about them, but they were unwilling to be a better company. They just wanted to tell a better story. And they just felt that if people just knew the real facts, things would be better. That was all true for Walmart. A lot of people thought the company didn't offer health insurance, but it did. So just telling people the facts made a difference. The company said, "We're not just going to stand still and just tell people we're misunderstood. We're going to go be a better company."

For a long time, companies, including Walmart, saw this engagement with civil society — the willingness to go out there and talk about these big issues, and to put itself in the public debate on that — as a risk, and they saw addressing these issues as a risk-management strategy.

The other inflection point that the company was at, was that it said to itself, "These are opportunities for us." When you see something as an opportunity you can go much further than if you see it as just a risk-management strategy. I came at a time where those things were kind of ripening, and one could begin to both fertilize them and harvest them together.

Makower: Of all the issues on your plate, it seems that you took on environment first, at least in terms of a big public way. What was the calculus behind that?

Dach: I think the company looked at it and said, "Where are the places where our business has an impact, and where our business can make a positive difference?" And it happened to be a personal interest of some of the leaders, and I think that all came together.

And it appealed to the everyday low-cost model of the company because energy, waste reduction — those were everyday low-cost strategies as well as sustainability strategies. So it was a great marriage between the business model and the issue that was clear to people.

Makower: This is also a personal interest of yours. You've lobbied for Audubon and Environmental Defense Fund.

Dach: It was a great thing for me because it was a place that I'm personally passionate, having, as you said, worked for both EDF and Audubon, and been on the Audubon board and the World Resources Institute board. It was a place I could make a contribution, so it was a great personal opportunity. I think what happened is that the model got established there — the model, the methodology and the rewards — you could bring elsewhere. So success in sustainability gave us, internally and with civil society, the credibility to do other things.

The company learned to talk to people who it would normally not have talked to before. It learned the value of talking to people who might be skeptical. It learned the value of being transparent about these things. It learned that you could learn so much from civil society on these things. We developed this model of reaching for really big things, even though we didn't know how to get there. And we succeeded, so people inside the company saw the value of it. And then when we moved onto these other things.

I think the foundation world, the government world, the civil society world and the business world all realize that if they really wanted to do things, they were better doing them together, and people were willing to work on the upside of that and not have arguments with each other about who was more right. People were willing to stretch and find common ground. That’s made a big difference — not only for us, but I think for almost everybody who's worked in any of these areas.

Next page: The Tyranny of Brand Leadership