Lessons from the struggles at JCPenney

A few months ago, I read an article about the leadership challenges facing JCPenney. Their new CEO (who has since been dismissed) was not getting the results they had hoped for and the company was struggling by just about any measure of performance. The article discussed how the CEO and many of the members of his management team did not live in Plano, Texas, where JCPenney headquarters is located. Rather they commuted to the office and then flew back to their homes in California, Boston, and New York for long weekends. They justified this by saying that they traveled most of the year anyway, so it was not important that they live near headquarters. Oh, and when they were in Plano, they stayed at fancy hotels on the company’s dime.

Shortly after, it was revealed that the company was spending thousands of dollars to upgrade offices for the key executives. Some of the expenditures included expensive furniture, pricey rugs, and a huge walk-in closet for the CEO. The walk-in closet was necessary because it was full of JCPenney clothes that he could change into before doing television interviews. Since he didn’t wear JCPenney clothes on a daily basis, this closet was indeed necessary.

What messages did these “leaders” send to the team at JCPenney? Most are NOT the messages we, as leaders, want to send:
1) I am not committed to this job and this company. I won’t move to Plano because I’m not sure I want to be with this company for the long-term.
2) It’s not important for me to be at headquarters regularly. We can change the organizational culture and orchestrate this turnaround without key leadership being present each day.
3) Although we are eliminating jobs and implementing cost cutting measures to improve the financial position of the company, we will spend what we want on ourselves. We are so important we deserve to be treated differently than the people on the front lines taking care of our customers.
4) I’m sorry that we are laying people off. We need to do this to save the company. We are asking you to do more with less, but we can’t do the same, because we are more important than you.
5) I am the CEO, but our company product is not good enough for me. I’ll wear it when I have to, but only when I have to. But I want you to believe in the product, and commit to making our company successful.

We’ve heard that actions speak louder than words. And at JCPenney, this is certainly true. The actions of the executives at JCPenney sent very clear messages to their team. As leaders, we need to be very aware of the non-verbal messages we send. Think carefully before you act, especially when you are a new leader making your first impression on your team.

Thanks for reading,


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