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2 Higher Ed Lessons from Johnson's J.C. Penney Departure
April 10, 2013 - 9:00pm

A department store is a familiar sort of thing for higher ed folks.  What are we but a department store of academic disciplines? Bloomingdales and Macy's have housewares, men's and bedding departments - we have economics, biology and women's studies.  

Beyond "departments," a university and a department store have some other attributes in common.  

We are both bundled institutions, combining lots of different services and functions under one roof. Many department stores have salons, restaurants, and photo studios - in addition to the more traditional shoe, jewlery & watches, and beauty services.   A residential college or university combines academic departments with housing, research facilities with health services, labs with stadiums and hockey rinks.

Department stores and colleges both sit on lots of expensive real estate.

And both universities and department stores are facing some serious new challenges from new competitors, new technologies, and new business models.

It is for all these reasons that we should be asking ourselves what we can learn from Ronald B. Johnson's firing as the CEO of J.C. Penney.

The lessons from Johnson's clash with the J.C. Penney board and quick removal after 17 months at the head of the company are particularly interesting for higher ed given Johnson's background in developing the Apple Store juggernaut.  I have often felt when visiting an Apple store that we could learn something about how to set-up a face-to-face environment, with the emphasis on knowledgeable staff and the Genius Bar and the pure energy of the place.

You could almost picture someone like Ronald B. Johnson taking over a traditional institution of higher learning, much like J.C. Penney is an example of a traditional department store, and trying to apply the lessons of Apple to the organization.

What lessons can be taken from Johnson's experience for any new leader determined to bring about organizational change?

Lesson #1:  Understand the Local Culture

From reading about Johnson's swift and rocky tenure at J.C. Penney it seems clear that he came to the job with a passion to bring the company into the 21st century of retailing.  J.C. Penney was not a smoothly operating and fabulously profitable entity before Johnson took over, and it is clear that he was hired with a mandate for change. It also sounds like Johnson had a clear vision of where JCP needed to go, and he had the management skills and team in place to execute on that strategy.  What is also clear, however, is that Johnson did more talking than listening.   He was unable to re-orient the organization around the ideas of risk and medium term sacrifice in order to achieve a long-term vision for the company.  Johnson might have been able to achieve his aims if his methods had been more in line with the culture of the company, and if he had spent more time and energy getting all levels of the organization (from board members to store managers to sales people) on board with all the changes.

Lesson #2:  The Importance of Disciplined Experiments

Perhaps Johnson didn't believe he had time to road test his ideas with small scale experiments, pilot projects, or spin-offs.  But changing the operations and the culture of a large organization all at once is usually a recipe for disaster. Johnson may have been better off putting together dedicated teams to create new businesses.   Micro-departments that could reside within the larger footprint (and real estate) of the incumbent department store.  These small scale experiments would have the luxury of trying new things, and if they failed they would not jeopardize the established brand or the revenue model of the host organization.   Whatever worked could be rapidly scaled up throughout the company.

What other lessons do you learn from Johnson's rapid departure as the head of J.C. Penney?

Can these lessons about organizational change and leadership be applied to higher ed?


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