I first met Mike Ullman in 2004, when he was “retired” after a successful stint as director general at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. I was working on a book about leadership, “Faith in the Halls of Power,” and he was contemplating an invitation that would bring him back to a corner office as the new CEO at J.C. Penney. “Do I want to be dealing with stock-market analysts every day? Have my name in the paper every day?” I recall him saying. “Do I want the pressure of being responsible for quarterly results? I don’t need the money, and I don’t need the fame.”
He ultimately took the position, and by the time of his retirement in 2011, two in five families in this country were shopping at Penney each year. Although the brand struggled relative to other department stores, it still earned higher customer-satisfaction scores than Nordstrom and higher employee-engagement scores than Starbucks.
Ullman’s situation today is eerily similar to our 2004 meeting, but now even more is at stake. He left J.C. Penney in decent condition when Ron Johnson took over in 2011, but there’s no guarantee that he can turn it back around after its sharp decline under Johnson’s tenure. By returning, Ullman threatens his own legacy. Why come back to a poisoned well?
Ullman’s years at the department store kick started some innovations, such as bringing in brands like Sephora, but more than anything he simply kept the helm steady. So the board’s decision to bring him back, even on a temporary basis, has shocked many.
Yet in my opinion, it’s the wisest move they could make.
Johnson’s spectacularly failed approach — which was hailed just over a year ago — underscores how mistaken our assumptions about leadership really are. We pay too much attention to the dramatic flourish and too little to mundane management. We need less shine, more substance. Continue reading…