Conversations in Management: Claude Harris

Whatever Claude said, that’s what it’s going to be.

 Sam Walton

Wal-MartThings in the conference room were getting heated. The primary reason was that Claude Harris wasn’t backing down. In fact, he was pushing hard and the executives at Procter and Gamble didn’t like it. And why should they? Procter and Gamble was an industry leader in consumer packaged goods and Wal-Mart was a rural discounter with only a handful of stores. If anyone was going to yield, it was going to be Wal-Mart. But they hadn’t reckoned on Harris. He was Wal-Mart’s first buyer and in 1962 brought an evangelist’s zeal to the negotiations. Along with Sam Walton, he believed that by pressing for the best possible terms, he was not just representing Wal-Mart, but the consumer as well. He later commented, “You have to be fair and upfront and honest, but you have to drive your bargain, because you’re dealing for millions and millions of customers who expect the best price they can get.” And with that kind of commitment, he wasn’t about to pay a penny more than necessary. He told Proctor and Gamble to give him their best price without leaving room for kickbacks, advertising programs or delivery fees. When they balked, he threatened to bury their products on back shelves or not carry them at all. Though Harris saw himself as tough without being obnoxious, the executives were deeply offended. They decided to go over Harris’ head and negotiate directly with Walton. Much to their astonishment, Walton sent them right back to Harris.

This wouldn’t have been astonishing had they understood Walton a bit better. If they had, they would have known that he held a core belief that if you put the right people in the right jobs, they could be left on their own to do things well. He also had a little known way of keeping them sharp. He called it the Correction of Errors File. Every Wal-Mart executive had one in their desk. Each week, they’d log their mistakes and note what they had done to keep from doing it again. Walton operated on the principle that everyone made mistakes—himself included—but that you needed to know what they were and what to do about them.

The Correction of Errors File sounds a bit harsh to a 21st century ear but the impulse behind it is certainly on target. If we don’t pay attention to our mistakes, we can’t correct them, and if we don’t correct them we’re likely to make them over and over again. If we do, we’ll never experience that wonderful gift that Walton gave to Harris in 1962 when he backed him up. There’s no better feeling at work than knowing your boss has got your back and that no one can do an end run around you. There’s security in knowing that as long as you’re playing by the rules, doing the right thing and giving everyone a fair shake, you’ll be supported when you have to make a tough call. It’s a matter of trust. You earn it by being trustworthy. And you bestow trust by being courageous. It isn’t always easy to delegate authority and accountability. But when you do, you have to support the folks you’ve entrusted to do their jobs. No back seat driving, second guessing or finding fault. If we all keep our personal Correction of Errors File up to date, work can become a collaborative heaven when we trust and are trusted in return. That’s an everyday low-price guarantee.                —Ebert

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