Not everyone is a people person. But as Walmart’s new executive vice president of Global People overseeing more than two million associates around the world, Jacqui Canney is one. Canney’s position is far from ordinary, as she runs the nation’s largest private workforce, and her responsibilities are vast, as she oversees the compensation, recruiting, development and retention initiatives, as well as benefits for Walmart associates around the world.
With more than 25 years of human resources experience, Canney brings a seasoned skillset and a diverse background to her new role with Walmart. She’s proving that no challenge is too great in developing the company’s next generation of talent who embody the Walmart way of keeping the customer first.
A native of Hoboken, N.J., Canney grew up near New York City and was raised in a home with her parents; her sister, Nicki, who is 13 months her junior; and her grandmother, who became one of Canney’s earliest mentors.
A German immigrant, Canney’s grandmother had a strong sense of pride and confidence, having raised Canney’s mother by herself in the United States after emigrating from Europe following her husband’s death.
“My grandmother was a very tall, strong German woman,” Canney says. “She was very clear that if you put your mind to it and worked very hard and were a good person, you could do anything.”
Canney’s parents, too, encouraged their daughters to be ambitious and chase their dreams. “I was really blessed to have people around me who cared enough to show me I could do anything I wanted,” Canney says. “That was just the way that my dad and mom operated. And if you weren’t living up to your potential, they were sure to let you know that you could do better — in a loving way.”
This can-do attitude likely played a role in Canney’s decision to not only become the first person in her family to attend college, but to attend the well-esteemed Boston College.
“I remember visiting Boston College one October day and loving it,” Canney recalls. “The fall leaves had changed, and there was a football game going on that day with Doug Flutie as the quarterback. I came home and said, ‘That’s the one!’”
Canney’s parents worked hard to enable their daughters to attend college. “I remember sitting at our kitchen table and counting savings bonds to see if we could afford it,” she says. “I really believe there is something to investing in education, and I got to be the beneficiary of that.”
Canney moved to Boston to attend school and fell in love with the university and what the city had to offer. She promised her parents that if they helped support her attending school there, she would major in something that she could get a job with following graduation. So, she chose accounting.
Her decision paid off. Following graduation, Canney had offers from what was then referred to as the Big Eight accounting firms. She accepted a position with Arthur Andersen and began work as an auditor, traveling and meeting with restaurant, retail, utilities and financial services clients around the Northeast.
Several years later, Canney was given an opportunity to transition to the human resources side of operations at Arthur Andersen, and she accepted. With a background in finance, she grew in human resources and eventually got an itch to return to her roots near New York City. She met her husband there through her college roommate, who was working with him as a secret service agent at the time.
Canney eventually transitioned to leadership roles in Accenture, which began as the business and technology consulting division of Arthur Andersen. It was there that she gained a diverse background in talent management and employee engagement and where she learned about the value of tough feedback at times and the role it plays in career development.
Canney recalls an instance where she received tough feedback that changed her mindset. “At the time, we were going through a hard time in the business, and it was easy to blame the business or to say we didn’t have the environment to push harder and reduce attrition to raise our sales,” Canney shares. “But my boss called me one Friday and said, ‘I think you can do better. I need more out of you guys.’”
Canney hung up the phone and remembers feeling a sense of defeat. “I thought to myself, he doesn’t get it. I’m working so hard,” she says. “But by Monday, I said, ‘OK, here’s the new plan.’ And I had to go get it. Every now and then, everyone needs a reminder that they can work a little harder, a little better and a little smarter.”
That lesson motivates Canney as she oversees Walmart’s vast global workforce. As she says, the company’s strategy is to have the most engaged associates to serve Walmart’s customers. By engaging associates, stores are their best, Walmart.com is a better experience and customers have the best opportunities possible.
But retail is changing, and leaders like Canney have to account for this change and respond to it effectively. Technology has a big impact on Walmart’s talent pipeline and greatly affects how the company attracts and retains not only the best field associates but also the best merchants, operators, store managers and more.
And once hired, the company is tasked with onboarding these associates in the best way possible and making sure that they are equipped to succeed at Walmart and in serving the customer. All of this is part of the company’s larger $2.7 billion investment in higher wages, education and training to make Walmart a better place to work and shop.
Walmart’s customer, too, is more diverse today. “I have thought about this as I think about my own kids, who are 16 and 12,” Canney explains. “Walmart as a retailer has to adapt and attract them as a customer and still keep my mom and me as customers. That means offering a broader spectrum of services and more people to serve the customer seamlessly across a spectrum of generations depending on how and where they want to shop.”
It is this ability to adapt and to anticipate the customers’ needs that Canney believes is Walmart’s secret sauce and why she joined the company less than a year ago.
This purpose is certainly evident with the development of Walmart’s Grocery Pickup program. Not only do all of the correct items have to be on the shelf at a given time for an associate to grab the right items for a customer’s order, but the website also has to function, a merchant has to select the right items to be available on site, items have to be shipped on time, and so much more. For Canney, it’s a series of interlocked handshakes between associates across the company, though many of them virtual handshakes, that come together so that the groceries ultimately end up in the shopper’s vehicle.
“It’s about creating a mindset of that interlocked handshaking across the company that I see us continuing to work on,” Canney explains. “The shared accountability for the outcome for the customer is key.”
But what about diversity? Not all of these two million associates live and work in the United States, and Canney is tasked with overseeing Walmart’s associates worldwide. For Canney, the one unifying factor across the world and what brings it all together is ultimately the customer.
“Whether we’re in China or in the UK with ASDA or online, the customer is what unifies the company,” she explains. “We need leaders at all levels who emulate and remind people who forget sometimes that we are all here because of the customer. That’s the unifying piece.”
For now, Canney is enjoying her new role with Walmart and her new home in Northwest Arkansas. She spent time exploring the area when she first moved to Bentonville, but still enjoys the explosion of growth still taking place.
“This is such a beautiful part of the country that I had not seen before,” she says. “I love following local Facebook pages for the area and seeing what’s going to open soon. I find that really exciting.”
She still takes opportunities to return to her childhood home of New York and New Jersey and enjoys bringing pieces of the Northeast back to the area with her. “I like to bring these guys here black and white cookies and bagels,” she says. “And for my birthday, they, in turn, made me a big southern breakfast.”
As Canney approaches her one-year anniversary with the company, she is already well-versed in leading the nation’s largest private workforce by emulating the Walmart way. But as she will be the first to say, there is still plenty to do and learn. “You can go to a lot of companies that talk about their purpose,” she says. “But if you really want to apply that purpose, there’s no greater platform than what Walmart can offer.”
Favorite sport? Baseball
Favorite sports team? New York Jets. My mom went into labor at a Jets game.
Last book you read? Mapping the Future of Civilization
Favorite place to visit? New York
Favorite part about NWA? FreeRide. I love the barre and spin classes there. I also love Onyx, Pressroom and Crystal Bridges.
Favorite food? Italian
Favorite app on your iPhone? Instagram
Words of advice for Millennials? Push companies. I think the rap that Millennials get isn’t true. You’re hired to be smart, fast and try new things. So, be yourself, but listen and learn, too.
Little known fact about you that defines your personality? I’m Italian and German — strong on both sides.