Walmart's John Furner on the importance of a long-term perspective

NRF 2023: How faith and perseverance are central to life’s lessons
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor
January 15, 2023

As NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show kicked off on Sunday, Walmart U.S. President and CEO John Furner offered a special live edition of his podcast, The Huddle, sitting down with Harvard Business School’s James Cash for a free flowing, often personal conversation. They covered change, the importance of long-term perspective, faith and inclusivity.

But Furner also took the opportunity for a bit of ribbing about Cash’s alma mater, Texas Christian University. TCU’s Horned Frogs football team recently fell to the University of Georgia in the College Football Playoffs. Furner asked Cash what a “horned frog” even is.

“A horned frog is a very unique and special animal that — I hate to sound a little gory — but it shoots blood out of its eyes when it gets angry,” quipped Cash, James E. Robison professor and senior associate dean, emeritus, Harvard Business School.

NRF 2023

Did you miss us in NYC? Take a look at our NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show event recap.

Cash’s experiences at TCU and beyond offer a tale of great evolution and personal triumph. He was the first Black student athlete at TCU and the first Black basketball player in the Southwest Conference, and in 1965, had to have a police escort to be able to play ball, including at Furner’s alma mater, the University of Arkansas.

He went on to be the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Business School and chaired the Harvard MBA program. And 25 years after receiving his bachelor’s from TCU, he was a Silver Anniversary Award winner, invited to the NCAA Final Four. That year, the University of Arkansas won the NCAA basketball championship — and it did so with a Black coach; the team also started five Black players.

Within his lifetime, Cash has seen remarkable change. He loves sharing these stories, he said, “because all of us can sometimes get too easily caught in the challenge that we have immediately in front of us, and the context that we’re in. But in fact, with the right perspective, with persistence, with faith, we always end up in a better place.”

Cash has served on a variety of corporate boards, including Walmart’s, which he describes as his “best” board experience overall. (Walmart also holds its annual meetings in the University of Arkansas basketball arena, providing another “surreal” experience for Cash.) Noting that he had learned a lot from Cash, Furner asked what advice he might have for others, especially those in their early years to mid-career.

"Find something that you’re really passionate about. Because if you’re really passionate about something, it won’t feel like work."

James Cash, PH.D., Harvard Business School

“Find something that you’re really passionate about,” Cash said. “Because if you’re really passionate about something, it won’t feel like work. And you’ll actually outperform all the other people who are doing it, because somebody else convinced them to do it. There are so many opportunities for doing that. And certainly, have the courage to pursue things that others think are too difficult.”

There’s nothing in life that can’t be learned from, he said. “It’s really all about our perspective.”

As a man of strong faith, Cash said a piece of Scripture is at the core of his existence. “It basically says you should celebrate in tribulations. The counterintuitive sense is, when things are going really bad, celebrate. Because it is preparing you for something that is more significant in the future.”

As for retail, the two talked about how the “new normal is in fact the old normal.” Technology might have changed the way things are done, but the driving factors remain the same. Customers still want cost-effectiveness, ease, choice and a personalized experience.

No matter the obstacles, perseverance still wins the day.

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