Ron Johnson: The Tortoise or The Hare?

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\"\"The whole world has decided that Apple – everything about it, everything that touches it, and everybody who is a part of it – is omnipotently supreme, and unique throughout the entire span of the history of retailing as well as forever into the future .  Well, it is indeed an arguable fact that Apple is the fastest growing and most productive (at an average of $4000 per square foot) retailer in the history of retailing.  And that Steve Jobs, the quintessential icon of the digital era, is cooler than cool, and manages to simply “change every game” he touches, fundamentally disrupting paradigms that might have been created as recently as ten minutes ago.

So, it is no wonder that everybody’s jaw dropped and eyes popped with excited anticipation when it was announced that Ron Johnson, SVP of retail operations at Apple (and former VP of Merchandising at Target) would become CEO of JC Penney on November 1, 2011. The immediate – as in without thinking – reaction was that since he was credited with Apple’s game-changing retail phenomenon, whatever magic he spun there would be quickly replicated at JCP.  And, “quickly” is the operative word here.

First of all, one has to believe that JC Penney desperately needs game-changing magic, but not even Steve Jobs himself would be able to do it “quickly.”  So, one of the first nuggets of advice I would give Mr. Johnson is to carefully manage the  external expectations that, I believe, are over-stated and unrealistic before he even starts.

Furthermore, in my opinion, Johnson is inheriting a retail business that has great vision and well-devised long term strategies in place. Although he may want to change some strategies, and accelerate others, he would be well advised to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully, but definitely not too quickly.

My advice is not based on any critical observation of Ron Johnson, but on the fact that while he did have traditional retail experience at Target, he was not CEO, and, his apparent “genius” idea (pun intended) and resulting success at Apple, while truly commendable, were simply the result of a branded specialty store concept (albeit a brilliant experiential one) that, fortunately, just so happened to be attached to the coolest brand ever on the face of the earth.

My advice to Ron Johnson is the following: just be as smart as I’m sure you are. You know very well (so I don’t have to tell you) that while being head of merchandising at Target (where you were also extremely innovative) provided you with a good deal of experience in traditional retailing, taking over as CEO of one of the biggest and most complex businesses in the industry, the likes of which you’ve never run, merits thoughtful analysis, listening and hearing from those experienced managers from whom you can learn a lot, then carefully crafting your own vision.
You know the fable about The Tortoise and The Hare?  Slow but steady beats “quick” – even quick and brilliant – every time.

Best of luck Ron Johnson, and I hope to meet you soon.



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