A Real Sign Of Change At Wal-Mart: The Board Adding A Google VP

Written by Evan Schuman
April 17th, 2012

When Wal-Mart announced Monday (April 16) that it was nominating Google exec Marissa Mayer to its board of directors—indeed, it was expanding the size of the board so she could be added—the retailer telegraphed an awful lot about its thoughts on social media, merged channel and, in particular, mobile. Primarily, it says the board is serious about those trends and is now conceding that Wal-Mart’s current board doesn’t have much of a viable ability to oversee such moves.

It’s striking, though, how much of a contrast the 36-year-old Mayer makes compared with the existing members—with an average age of 60, the board is heavily weighted with CEOs of non-tech companies, venture capitalists and Wal-Mart veterans. The board seems to be acknowledging that it may not be the ideal group to oversee Wal-Mart’s moves into the worlds of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, geofencing and Foursquare.

Mayer’s day job at Google is VP of Local and Maps. Think that’s an unusual title for a Wal-Mart board member? It certainly is, but no more so than the other boards—all non-profits—she sits on, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet.

Mayer has an excellent reputation in Silicon Valley, but it’s her perspective and expertise that are essential. Unlike almost all other areas of Wal-Mart operations, the board really has to fully trust its managers, given the lack of its own experience with social and mobile. Mayer addresses that.

Besides, she holds a Master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University. Somehow, I think the next few IT presentations to the board—assuming shareholders vote her in—are going to get some surprisingly different types of questions.

The backgrounds of the 15 other board members are overwhelmingly financial, with surprisingly little diversification of training. There’s a former administrator for the Small Business Administration (who used to report for the New York Post), five members in traditional finance (a venture capitalist, a finance specialist, an investment management exec, the CEO of a bank group and the head of an investment banking firm), four CEOs/former CEOs from other businesses (retired CEO of Coca-Cola, current CEO of Marriott, former CEO of Pepsi and the retired CEO of Woolworths, which is the largest retailer in Australia), a marketing specialist (former CEO of a large ad agency) and three Wal-Mart/former Wal-Mart execs (current CEO, former CEO and the former chief counsel, who happens to serve as the board chairman).

The last board member is still a numbers guy (he holds an advanced degree in accounting and is now a Harvard Business School professor of business administration) and is the only one whose official bio even references technology. He touts having performed “research focused on the strategic use of information technology in the service sector and specifically the development of a performance measurement system for large IT organizations.”

So, it’s clear Mayer would provide a very different perspective to the board.


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