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How This Children's Book Helped a Former Gym Teacher Become a Top Walmart Exec

PATRICK KOVARIK | AFP | Getty Images

David Cheesewright started his career as a gym teacher in the U.K., then worked his way up to leading the international division of the largest company in the world by revenue: Walmart. And he says some of the secrets to his success can be found in an iconic children's book.

Cheesewright spent nearly two decades with the retailer and became president and CEO of Walmart International before retiring in 2018. He says part of the business mentality that helped him climb the ranks at Walmart was actually adopted from a famous children's book: "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

On a recent episode of the "3 Books with Neil Pasricha" podcast, Cheesewright detailed the literature that was the most formative in his life. The French fable was at the top of the list. He said the tale's most prominent themes taught him a key leadership strategy, and it's one that anybody can use: Approach complexity with simplicity.

For instance, he said, while "The Little Prince" only takes about 30 minutes to read, the lessons – like "what matters [in life] is invisible" – stick with readers long after they shut the book.

"There are simple enough messages that will hit you between the eyes," Cheesewright said on the podcast. "But you could also argue it's a complex book because it uncovers trains of thought … you could spend a lot of time evaluating [and] I think that's true in business."

Pasricha, a former employee of Cheesewright's who served as the director of leadership development at Walmart Canada for nearly a decade, said he noticed his ex-boss emphasized the importance of simplicity to his staff when he was also president and CEO of Walmart EMEA and Canada. There, all his company-wide speeches included no more than three main ideas.

His staff also understood that their pitches to Cheesewright had to pass the "Grandma Test" – meaning, their ideas had to be clear so that someone outside of the business could easily understand them.

Breaking down topics into digestible "bullet points," he says, gives listeners direction. And it's something anyone can do in day-to-day conversation.

"Simplicity is about providing people with a roadmap," Cheesewright said. "I've found, over the years, that whatever topic you're talking about, if you can keep [it in] simple frameworks that allow you to explain concepts simply and concisely, you can get into more complex stuff later."

Cheesewright also took another business lesson away from "The Little Prince": Don't dwell on comparison.

One of his favorite symbols throughout the book is the prince's single rose that lives on his planet. When the character travels to Earth, he finds a garden full of 500 roses. In that moment, the prince realizes his particular flower is special because it's his personal responsibility to love and care for it.

"The [lesson] I love the most is that there's no such thing as better or worse. There's only different," Cheesewright said. This lesson is particularly relevant to Cheesewright, who managed over 1 million people at 50 different businesses across the world.

But the value of "The Little Prince's" lessons are not lost on the rest of the world – the French story, originally published in 1943, is one of the most widely translated books of all time. Cheesewright said that's likely because its themes are accessible to both adults and children.

"There are some pretty profound messages in there about how adults lose sight of what really matters in life," Cheesewright said. "What matters is the here and now [and you] can't forget to appreciate what's around you and what you have."

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