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Gracious & Strong Podcast with Celia Swanson
The following is a transcription of a podcast and may contain grammatical errors.
Celia Swanson: Hi everyone. I’m Celia Swanson, and I want to welcome you to today’s gracious and strong podcast, where you can discover the authentic and resilient leader inside of you.
Welcome back to the gracious and strong podcast. This is Celia Swanson. Today, I’m excited to share part two of my interview with Gisel Ruiz, former executive vice president at Walmart, US international and Sam’s Club. If you happened to miss last week’s episode, I’d invite you to check it out and hear more about her background and the candid storytelling about her personal and professional lives.
Were ever there odds that you felt were stacked against you, that you had to overcome as you navigated your career, and even now in your life after corporate career and how you are navigating this next chapter of your life? Have there been odds that you felt you ever had to overcome? And how did you handle that?
Gisel Ruiz: I cannot think of a time where I felt like odds were against me. But in this, as I reflect back, I was probably too naive to recognize them if they existed. There was something in the way that my parents raised me, in the way that I was brought up that just led me to believe that the only challenges that would be placed in front of me would be the challenges that I put on myself. Not that other people put in front of me. So, were there times where I was challenged with problems where, you know, maybe people doubted me well, I’m sure; I’m sure; countless. But I always felt this responsibility to prove myself right. Prove it was more about me. Proving to myself what I was capable of versus proving to others. If that makes sense.
Ceila Swanson: Makes sense. I mean, you have to hold, I think one of the most important lessons for leaders is holding yourself accountable to your highest standards and not allowing yourself to succumb to the easy way of handling something or what others might say about you, but standing up for who you are. And that’s in the bright moments where the lights are shining right on you, or that’s in, you know, moments where no one’s looking. And I, that whole, you know, it, it got implanted in you by your parents and then reinforced through your career. That whole approach of just holding yourself to the highest of all standards and not giving up that power. I think is a really important theme. I’ll tell you, you made me stronger as a leader inside, you know when our careers became blended because you actually pointed out moments in time where I was maybe using too much energy on something that wasn’t going to have the kind of return that it needed to have, or just in prioritization, it was a small issue and I was focusing so much energy on it. But if I had prioritized differently and use that same level of energy on something that was going to have a greater impact, you were there to help me navigate and realize when I was not allocating that amount of energy and dedication to something, you know, and calibrating that maybe is the way to say that. And I so appreciated about thatabout you. And one story I tell in the book is, you know, I was leading the talent development team at Walmart US at the time, and they didn’t have a strong reputation in the organization for being a value-added team and function. And you asked me the question, “why does the talent development organization exist and what is important about having them as a part of our organization?” And I answered that question, you know, in a moment of clarity from my own personal self about why they existed. And you said, “wow, great answer. If I walked onto your floor, would your people be able to tell me that?” And again, it was one of these, you know, watershed kind of moments where I went, no, they can’t today because I haven’t told it to him yet. I believe it, but I haven’t shared that message. And I said, give me a couple of days, and then you can walk on the floor and you can go ask my people. And then I went all into helping them, you know, understand what I saw in them that was so special and visualizing this vision. And, you just have this ability to ask questions and to just help people reframe, so that they’re getting the best and the most out of how they’re spending their and their resources.
Gisel Ruiz: Thank you, Celia. And that’s so…
Celia Swanson: I appreciated that so much about you. And, if I ever needed that, then I would come to you, and you always were gracious in how you would, you know, describe the situation or call out a question or two, but man, tough as nails when you were holding yourself and me and others accountable to success. So this excellence, this theme of excellence was a strong one from my time with you as well.
Gisel Ruiz: Can I add an example that goes actually back to the odds?
Celia Swanson: Absolutely. Please do.
Gisel Ruiz: Okay. Think, think about these odds. My father did not go to school a day in his life, not a single day. He didn’t go to kindergarten. Spanish speaking first; he learned English by listening to the radio, baseball games, mostly. My mother, she thinks, has a sixth grade education or eighth grade education. We’re not really sure. Also Spanish was her first language. She became naturalized as a US citizen in somewhere in the early 1970s. So those are odds, right? I had great examples of parents who didn’t let those odds get in the way of their American dream to get in the way of their dreams. They worked hard, they persevered, they learned English and they went on to be owners, founders of their own businesses. So, you know, that’s, that’s the context for what fuels my fire, you know, around, around this question, we don’t know what odds are. I don’t know what those odds are. So anything that gets in my way, it’s, it’s minuscule compared to what my parents fought to overcome so that they could achieve their dreams.
Celia Swanson: Yeah. And they must have not seen the odds as insurmountable either because of what they were able to achieve in their own lives and then give to their daughters and then their daughters giving to their extended family. So
Gisel Ruiz: Not at all. And that’s you know, that’s, I think the greatest gift that a parent could give a child was they, they were the type of parents that said, all right, brush your knees off, get up. I know you fell down with it but let’s keep going.
Celia Swanson: Well, let’s move into a couple of others about authenticity. And my question here would be, did you ever feel like you couldn’t show up to be your true self?
Gisel Ruiz: I, I never did. And you know, again, I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but I’m sure it has everything to do with the way that I was brought up. Because we were very, very proud of our heritage and our, our traditions and cultures were always, always present in our home. I never, I never for a minute thought I needed to pull back on who I was. Now, I say that and tell you that I also had mentors who taught me to be how to be very observant and to learn from others. We have this great gift at Walmart. We’re surrounded by extremely talented people and you have the opportunity to learn something new every day. If you just sit back and, and, and listen attentively and watch and learn. So I don’t feel like I, I did anything but be myself at work, but at the same time, I was very open to learning and becoming a better person. You know tomorrow is an opportunity to be better than you were yesterday. And that was just the idea. And the mantra, I think that I just carried out, I never felt like I hadn’t mastered everything there was to know about being an assistant manager, being a people director, there was always room to learn.
Celia Swanson: And that’s showing up that way is a very different way than hiding behind a mask. It’s showing up to be vulnerable and willing to say, you know, I’ve got something to learn and I, I’m going to learn something every day as I navigate through, you know, what life has to offer and in the career challenges that you have. But when you think about giving others advice on leveraging their vulnerabilities do you think as a leader that there is advice that we can give others about being vulnerable and using that vulnerability to empower themselves as a leader?
Gisel Ruiz: When I worked in International, David Cheeseright, was my boss. He was the CEO of Walmart International, and he encouraged me to let my guard down. You see I had worked in Walmart, US the majority of my career. I’d worked there for over 20 years. And here I am, I go, I move over to say international. He interviewed me, offered me the job. And no one in international really knew who I was. They only knew a persona. And he wanted to ensure that when I came over, I gave people the opportunity to learn more about me as a person. They knew who I was as an executive. And that was again, late in my career, someone reinforcing how important it is to be vulnerable, how to be your authentic self. And I loved the advice that he gave me, because I thought I was doing exactly that, but here an entire segment of Walmart didn’t know who I was as a person. And he, I just love the fact that he cared enough to be able to point that out as soon as I as soon as I came over, I think leaders again, and this is a challenge that a lot of women leaders have, they want this brave facade, you know, this always on guard, always unnoticed. There’s no crying and retail and business. It is important that your people know who you are as much as what you’re capable of. And it goes back to this idea of authenticity and trust and relationships. They want to see themselves in you. They don’t want to see a robot. They don’t want to follow a robot or someone cold who doesn’t have a heart who doesn’t understand, you know, what it’s like to be in a fight with your kid or what it’s like to have conflict you know, on a team. It is all right to share those vulnerabilities and use examples of mistakes that you’ve made with your team. I think that’s really important for leaders to do today.
Celia Swanson: And I think especially today because we’re navigating a workplace environment that got disrupted in 2020 with COVID, and now we’re going to be coming back into workplaces that we as leaders need to be much more sensitive to the vulnerabilities and the challenges that our workforce is going to have in coming back into a workplace environment. And this whole concept of listening that you’ve talked about and in sharing the lessons that you’ve learned along the way, and using teachable moments is, and, you know, being vulnerable, I think is really great timely advice right now, to leaders, as they start to reconnect with the people on their team, in whatever their new workplace environment is going to look like going for
Gisel Ruiz: This, this moment in time is life changing. I don’t care where you work or what you do or what your status is in life. It is absolutely life changing. It has been an emotional roller coaster from the get-go no matter how strong you are. And I do think that this now changes the face of leadership and the, the idea that you could continue on and be a command and control type of leader in an environment where empathy now is so important. And understanding of emotion is so important. It is just, it just, it’s just not going to work. It is absolutely been a life-changing.
Celia Swanson: Yeah, yeah. Empathy is so important, I completely agree with you, as a critical competency for great leaders. Well, let’s wrap up now and talk about if you could give your 25 year old Gisel advice or encouragement, what would you say to her?
Gisel Ruiz: Well, first I have to figure out where I was at age 25. It’s a really long time ago Celia. I was a store manager at the time, married, no kids. Those were fun times, but I would say, I would say have more fun. Mike and I had a great time as a young newlywed couple, and we were both, our careers were, you know, were taking off right around that time. But, but I still, I still was kind of serious for 25 years old. So I would say, have more fun. I absolutely have zero regrets and that includes the mistakes that I made along the way. But I would tell myself to have more fun. Your life is short.
Celia Swanson: Yeah, I agree. I got described as being pretty intense and serious as I was coming up because I didn’t have my daughter until I was 37 years old. So far later in my life, and man, the advice I would get is, wow, don’t, don’t be so serious about everything. And that was hard advice to take, but I, cause I didn’t how to, how to be anything there were from that driven and serious. But I would say that’s probably what I would say to myself. If I were to look back at my 25 year old self and say, you know, don’t be so serious about things have fun.
Gisel Ruiz: It’s not that earth shattering. That advice is not that earth shattering, but in that moment in time, I I’m with you Celia. I was way too serious for a 25 year old at the time. And again, no regrets whatsoever. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d bet Mike and I would travel more and make more friends and just have a ball. The light goes by in a split second.
Celia Swanson: It certainly does. So Gisel, as we close today, I’d love to ask you what is some of the best and worst leadership advice you’ve been given?
Gisel Ruiz: Mm, well, I mentioned Charlotte Journals earlier. She also gave me the advice to hire people that are better than you. She was saying this like to the entire team as lessons that she had learned in her career. And it is a lot more difficult to do than it is to say, but it was one of the things that I think I’m most proud of in my career is hiring people that were better than me, around me to surround me.
Celia Swanson: Well, you were certainly well known for that too. And the impact that you made when you surrounded yourself with great talent allowed you the opportunity to create a path and a legacy inside Walmart and now outside Walmart in your post-corporate career of talent and ensuring that that talent was, you know, living up to its full capacity. So great advice. I can’t thank you enough Gisel for joining us today and opening yourself up and sharing some of the good, the bad and the ugly of your leadership journey. But I am thrilled to have you be a part of the gracious and strong podcast.
Gisel Ruiz: Absolutely fun, great questions. And loved the chance to be able to exchange these ideas with you Celia and with your audience. Thank you. And very honored to be part of the podcast.
Celia Swanson: My pleasure, dear friend. Thank you.
I hope you enjoyed hearing this two-part interview with Gisel Ruiz. I’m so grateful that she opened up with us to share some personal stories and insights and takeaways that I hope you can go apply in your own lives as you continue to show up as your authentic self in work and in life. Thanks to Gisel for joining me for this important conversation and thank you for joining me today on the gracious and strong podcast.