Insights from a CHRO: Walton Enterprises’ Rustin Richburg

After a storied HR career, Rustin Richburg is bringing it home.
By: | April 1, 2020 • 4 min read

Rustin Richburg may be a country boy at heart, but he brings a global perspective to the HR teams at Walton Enterprises, Inc., and the Walton Family Foundation. As chief people officer, Richburg heads up HR for the family office and philanthropic work of Sam and Helen Walton—the founding family behind Walmart and Sam’s Club.

Richburg has led HR teams around the globe, including in Africa, the Middle East and South America. He spent several years in the United Kingdom, working as managing director at Accenture and global HR operations director at Imperial Brands PLC. He returned to his Southern roots several years ago, relocating to Bentonville, Ark.—the headquarters of Walmart, where he served as senior vice president of the U.S. HR operations until 2018.

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HRE recently interviewed Richburg—from his Bentonville home, where he is working remotely and practicing social distance—about his career highlights, the ever-changing landscape for HR leaders, and the personal and professional impacts of the pandemic.

HRE: How did you discover your interest and passion for HR?

Rustin Richburg

Richburg: I grew up on a cattle ranch in Texas, the youngest of four boys, way out in the country on a dirt road. I went to Texas A&M, and I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to work or what kind of job I wanted because it was all so new to me, given where I was raised. By chance, a lot of things fell into place early in my career, such as getting hired by Accenture. I went into a consulting practice that was focused on change management and people and that was one common thread that was always there; growing up, in school and going into the workforce, I was intrigued not just by working with and being around people, but thinking about their motivations, how to create great experiences for people around you and how to support people as they go through different changes in their lives. So that first job with Accenture in change management really opened my eyes to that combination of people and business and how you can support both of those.

HRE: In your consulting work, you’ve worked in consumer goods, healthcare, hospitality, retail. How did you have to shift your own HR mindset when moving throughout those different industries?

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Richburg: Regardless of the industry, it starts with thinking about the problem or opportunity statement. You have to seek to understand the context of the words you’re hearing—walking the halls and seeing the business in action and how it works and then looking back at the change you’re trying to instill with a better context about how everything’s actually working. Regardless of the industry I was working in, my clients liked me to bring big ideas. It shouldn’t just be rinse and repeat: “Company A did that so Company B should do that, too.” It’s about finding innovation in the sector and what separates you. It’s also important to find the opportunity to connect people together and help relationships form, whether that’s through introductions of people in the company or outside of the business as well.

HRE: What has been your proudest moment while working in HR?

Richburg: My proudest moments have been around the development of team members and leaders, and seeing their careers progress over time in ways that have astonished and delighted me. There was one individual I worked with in the U.K. about 10 years ago; at the time, her style was very direct and she had very little positioning or, we’ll say, “sugar coating.” She was a wonderful manager as far as planning the work, but I was able to coach her and help take those core management skills and add in leadership skills of having vision and creating culture and an environment where people are excited to succeed at work. Seeing her mature, lead and grow—she’s now a leader in a large consumer-goods company—is amazing to see. I had a little piece of helping her to be successful and I’ve gotten to see that success come to life.

HRE: How has your work changed because of the current pandemic?

Richburg: It’s affected every aspect. The types of questions that employees are coming up with surprise me every day, and they’re different perspectives because people have different lives. When we’ve always worked in such a steady flow—with A then B then C then D happening in a sequential way—and you start disrupting that at the level we have, [HR has] to spend a lot more time listening and helping employees get through this in their personal lives, so they can get their professional lives back in order.

And on a personal level for me, it’s trying to work out new routines. In a professional environment, you come in, you start your normal routines, you have your colleagues around and there’s just a set of expectations, whether they’re written or unwritten. Now, my husband is here at home as well, we have two dogs and we’re figuring out how to not get on each others’ nerves when we’re together 24/7, plus the stresses of work. There [was] that moment when you leave work to go home and you can decompress, and now we don’t have that, so I think it’s important to try to replicate it in a new way.

HRE: What do you think are some of the biggest lasting changes to the world of work that will be ushered in by this current pandemic?

Richburg: First is around support and planning for when major business disruptions happen, including risk management and being able to support the business and put contingency plans in place to make sure they’re reliable and regularly tested. I think most organizations have some element of that, but never globally or internationally, so that’s something new. I think we’re going to see different support for small and medium-sized businesses in the future and different expectations for large organizations.  There is much to be learned from the 2008-09 financial crisis that can be applied to our future response after the current pandemic. Business models and value chains will—and should—look different in the future.

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Also, our new ways of working may be working in some places and not so well in others, so we’ll have to think about new technology to support [the latter]; in terms of where remote work is working well, such as for knowledge workers and project-based work, I can see a lot more people moving to it. Having worked in Europe with distributed teams, where it’s more common, as long as people come together more frequently and get into a regular rhythm, it can work really well. And for those jobs where it’s not working well, we have to consider what to do in those types of instances for new emergency plans. There’s going to be some different shaping of the way work happens now and what tools we use for work, which I think is going to open up a lot more creativity and innovation. We must also ask the questions, “Do we really need to do this work? Is it adding value?”

HRE: What are a few of the skills that HR leaders of tomorrow will need for success?

Richburg: We talk about using design thinking but I think we have to use design thinking to move from focusing only on reliability—doing the same act and getting the same predictable outcome—to ultimately getting to a higher level of innovation. Even if you don’t have that reliability yet, you should be trying to find new ways of improving. Yes, you need to have consistency to have that level of stability, but you also need validity meaning that we achieve the desired outcome, where the organization is constantly moving knowledge through the knowledge funnel to test new solutions. The balance is between predicable—or reliability —and desired, higher outcomes—or validity.

Also, HR practitioners know about things like automation, robotics, machine learning, but there needs to be a next wave and deeper understanding of those and how people work. HR should be constantly learning and bringing ideas to the table to help innovate the organization.

There are also the dynamics around what our workforces are looking for. There are five generations and beyond so HR has to be in tune to how we can better understand individual needs and wants and how to align them with the organization’s goals and objectives. We cannot forget that our workforces are made of individuals, and we need to appreciate the individual needs as well.

HRE: What was your very first job?

Richburg: Working on my father’s ranch. I am youngest of four brothers, no sisters —my poor mother. The time of year would dictate the type of job I had, so summers were all about baling hay and fixing fences and the autumn and through winter was feeding cattle and getting on the tractor to roll out big bales of hay. In the spring, we’d start weaning calves and shredding pastures. Today, of course, we have different cycles going on and long, hard days, but I look back on those days and I don’t think there’s a job that’s as hard as digging a posthole with a manual posthole digger in the middle of an East Texas summer in clay soil. It was just horrible. But it gave me a good foundation from which to grow.

HRE: What do you do to unwind?

Richburg: I’m pretty consistent with some type of workout. I have a rowing machine here in the home and—when I’m not keeping social distance —I like to go to the gym. [My husband] Jeff and I have two French Bulldogs—Capote and Mona—and we like to have a nice walk with them either in the morning or evenings. We have beautiful parks and nature preserves that we go to with the dogs, and being out in the fresh air with the trees and streams and dogs brings a smile to your face. Jeff and I love to go to the movies, and there are a lot of cute restaurants here in town. Things like that and working out are all about getting the endorphins going and giving my mind the opportunity to not think about work; seeing the freshness of life around you gives you a different experience of what you might see day to day worklife. There are many opportunities—in and out of work—where you can be in an active mode, visualizing things from different perspectives and that can help you move out of your routine and add in a level of disruption and innovation.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.