In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Holman Jenkins writes about Ron Johnson’s term as JC Penney chief:
Every human effort is flawed. Failure is not proof of incompetence. So don’t buy the narrative that Mr. Johnson was done in by his hubris and cluelessness about retail. At Sears starting in 1989, a new leader introduced a new strategy of dramatically reduced promotions and manipulative “discounts.” Instead, Sears would feature “everyday low prices,” in-store boutiques and jazzier merchandise. Yes, the same formula. And Mike Bozic lasted the same 17 months that Mr. Johnson did.
I agree that failure is not proof of incompetence. But failure isn’t the reason Johnson has been charged with hubris. It’s not clear to me from Jenkins’ column why we shouldn’t buy the hubris narrative.
Johnson’s hubris was that he made network-wide changes to the business without evidence those changes would help. He never considered that he could be wrong. Some folks like it when someone swings for the fences, but shareholders should be leery when someone comes in with a shoot from the hip attitude. It’s the rare occasion that ends well.
If Johnson’s strategy would have worked across the entire network, it would have worked on a smaller scale, first. He could have made the changes in a market, at much less cost and risk to business. Not testing his ideas first, when he has the ability to do that, is hubris…or stupidity, or a little of both.