Ron Johnson, Shan Cooper, and the Three Levels of Change Leadership

I have been fascinated by the story of Ron Johnson, the Apple exec who lasted only fifteen months as CEO of J.C. Penney – from November of 2011 to January of 2013. Sales plummeted, and the stock, which ticked up as he was hired, was down 51% over his tenure. In a 2014 post on change leadership I used Paulette Corbin’s leadership at Delta as an example of excellent change leadership. Ron Johnson, in my opinion, was someone stuck at the first level of change leadership. I just heard another excellent story of change leadership – this time from Shan Cooper, Chief Transformation Officer for WestRock, and it reminded me again of Ron Johnson’s debacle.

I think I might have liked working for Ron Johnson. He seems like a really nice guy, he had fabulous experience creating Apple’s retail stores, and he came to Penney with a vision that clearly excited the board – make J.C. Penney into the Apple of retailing. Redesign the boring department store layout – build small boutiques in the stores that will excite younger shoppers. Kill the classic, stuffy store brands like St. Johns Bay. Never mind that it brings in a billion a year.

I remember following Ron Johnson during his tenure and feeling somehow guilty because I secretly hoped that he would fail. Why? Because as a leader moving into a new role he did all the things I believed a new leader should never do. He didn’t appreciate or leverage the history of the organization, and he didn’t seem to ask any questions. Like Steve Jobs, he had the vision and, by God, it was get on the train or move out of the way. (I am still trying to figure out Steve Jobs. I know his success means I have a lot to learn. But I still think he was mostly successful in spite of his out-sized weaknesses and because of his super-human gifts. Would love reader thoughts!)

Listening to Shan Cooper tell the story of moving from Lockheed Martin, where she was a beloved VP and General Manager who was named Most Respected CEO in Georgia, to WestRock, I couldn’t help but think how much Ron Johnson would have benefited from her strategies.

Shan decided to leave Lockheed Martin because she wanted to stay in Atlanta to be close to family and a new grandchild. She had intended to retire, but Steve Voorhees, CEO of WestRock, asked her to come on board after their merger to help WestRock manage growth by building the structure, processes, and standards they would need to operate as a larger company.

She finally agreed to consider it but had three asks. First, she asked Steve to tell her about the culture.  “What will it be like for an African American woman to come into the C-suite?” Neither of the two merged companies, RockTenn or MeadWestvaco, had ever had an African American woman in the C-Suite. She also asked to meet with three other leaders and to visit one of the manufacturing facilities.

She said yes, of course, and then clearly thought carefully about the right way to gain acceptance and the ability to influence change. She said, “Understandably, people didn’t understand why I was there, and what role I was going to play.”

Shan basically listened and observed for thirty days. She said, “At the first team meeting, I didn’t sit down for a while. I wanted to see where people sat, wanted to understand the way things were currently operating. I also told Steve, ‘I will sit here and say nothing for thirty days. I need to listen and get context.’”

After 30 days she said, “Now I am ready to engage. Now I am going to ask a LOT of questions.”

She also continually asked for feedback. “I would end every meeting with, ‘what feedback do you have for me?’ I wanted to normalize giving feedback. I especially wanted to align with the leadership team on how we would handle change.. I wanted to make sure people knew I was honoring the history, and the success that the company had before I arrived.” I’ll bet there are days that Ron Johnson wishes he had known that.

Why do you need to listen? Why ask for feedback? Why focus on learning? Those questions bring me to the three levels of change.

At the First Level of Change Leadership, leaders come in with a fully formed plan, brook no debate, and think that if the execution and the communication are perfect enough, all will go smoothly. Ron Johnson seemed to take that approach. It rarely works.

At the Second Level of Change Leadership, leaders recognize that if they really want to get people behind them, they have to listen to folks involved in the change. Leaders who listen to ideas and involve employees in the change get buy in and support. Second Level leaders lessen resistance.

At the Third Level of Change Leadership, though, where Shan Cooper and Paulette Cobin led, leaders don’t just listen to create buy-in – they listen because they know they will learn something. They know that the change will be more successful because they are using the knowledge of people intimately familiar with the problem.

I think the best leaders always know that learning from employees is critical. Shan said, “I wanted to be intentional about being visible, walking the floor. I want to be a leadership team that welcomes feedback from employees. You do not know what is happening in China or Brazil.”

It seems a hard thing for many leaders to figure out, but you actually learn by listening. Shan added, “When I am hiring, one of the first things I want to know is, ‘Do they listen?’”

Some people might think that month of listening was a waste of Shan’s expertise, but I wonder where J.C. Penney would be if Ron Johnson had figured out how to create change that leveraged existing strengths and brought others along? A few months after Johnson was fired I was talking with my fashion-conscious, soon-to-be daughter in-law. She was telling me about trying to find new places to shop that would be more budget-friendly. She said, “You know where I’ve found some great things recently? J.C. Penney.”  I’m thinking he might have succeeded.

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