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Leadership Advice for CEOs and Entry Level Professionals from Hal Lawton ‘96, President and CEO of Tractor Supply Company

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The latest installment of the Wells Fargo Executive Leadership Series was held virtually featuring Hal Lawton, president CEO of Tractor Supply Company. The discussion was led by Frank Buckless, Stephen P. Zelnak Jr. Dean of Poole College of Management. 

Lawton’s career has spanned across a variety of roles including president of Macy’s from September 2017 to December 2019 where he oversaw all aspects of the brand including merchandising, marketing, stores, operations, technology and consumer insights and analytics. He has also served roles at Ebay and Home Depot, where he was responsible for elevating the company’s Internet business and building it to nearly $2 billion in sales. 

Lawton was named one of the 10 youngest CEOs in the Fortune 500 and he currently serves on the NRF Board of Directors and is a member of the Business Roundtable.

As an alumnus and former Caldwell Fellow of NC State, Lawton received his Bachelor of Science degrees in chemical engineering and pulp and paper in 1996. He also received a Master of Business Administration from the University of Virginia. 

Key Insights

1. CEOs are servants to their organizations

Lawton believes in a servant leadership style that resembles an inverted pyramid where customers and frontline employees are at the top and the CEO is at the bottom. 

“My role is to be a servant to the organization,” said Lawton. “Providing growth, education and empowerment will make more improvements in customer engagement.”

2. Prioritize emotional and decency quotients 

Twenty years ago many CEOs placed importance on intelligence quotient (IQ) when hiring employees. Now, candidates are on the same IQ playing field causing leaders to look to emotional and decency quotients. 

Lawton explained that these quotients look for empathy from leaders and those who can choose right from wrong. 

“Leaders are readers,” said Lawton. “I am constantly ingesting content, not just from Tractor Supply, but from trade journals and books to find insight.”

3. Apply mentor lessons to your career

Building relationships and taking away important pieces of advice are great ways to utilize mentors early or late in your career.

“I recently joined the Business Roundtable where Doug McMillan, the CEO of Walmart, is the chairman,” said Lawton. “The opportunity to see how he conducts business and his personal take on things like diversity and climate change gives me the confidence to take it back with me [to Tractor Supply Company].”

4. Consider boss leadership styles in your job search

“What is always missing from a list of due diligence is who their boss is going to be,” said Lawton. “The person who will most dictate your career is your boss.”

Many students exclusively look at location, salary and benefits when searching for their first job but many don’t look for a boss who can provide opportunities and build your network

5. Develop a good work life harmony, not balance

Many people struggle to separate their personal and professional lives and Lawton suggests blending the two to find a middle ground. 

“You want partners on the personal side that are going to support your work aspirations and you want people you work with to support your personal aspirations,” said Lawton.