June 20, 2014
Handling A Communications Breakdown

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

How true it is! It is nearly impossible to overdo communications in a day and age where the public’s privacy is quickly diminishing and the call for corporate and governmental transparency is being beckoned from every corner of the globe. Indeed, executive communication can make or break an organization.

Don’t believe it? Recall what happened to Ron Johnson in his ever so brief tenure at J.C. Penney. His tight-lipped and secretive nature nearly drove the business to extinction. The effect of his reluctance and seeming inability to communicate his vision and for the future had such a negative impact on the esprit de corps at the company that the retailer had to turn the reins back over to Johnson’s predecessor, Mike Ullman, in order to regain stability and right the ship.

On paper, Ron Johnson should have been great for J.C. Penney. After all, he is credited with reinventing retail at Apple Inc. Considered by many as a marketing guru, Johnson is also characterized as a driven, micro-manager – one shaped in the image of his one-time boss, Steve Jobs. But, unlike his mentor, Johnson lacked the charisma and communication skills that allowed Jobs to be forgiven for his overbearing leadership style and infamous tirades.

Ullman, on the other hand, is also regarded as a passionate leader with strong opinions and a sometime domineering management style. However, Ullman has something that Johnson may not: An ability to communicate, inspire and include. He has been known to walk the floors at his stores and seek out opinions from the people doing the work. It’s no wonder that Ullman has been able to turn things around at J.C. Penney.

Johnson chose to keep his vision and strategy close to the vest and it cost him his job. The store managers and personnel that he needed to engage and buy into his program were not included in the discussion. Indeed, the shroud of secrecy that covered Johnson and his inner circle served to alienate and distance them from the rest of the company. Rumors of lay-offs and drastic store redesigns sucked up time and energy among store personnel and productivity suffered. The customer experience deteriorated to the point where consumers began to shop elsewhere.

Johnson’s tenure at J.C. Penney lasted just 17 months, and the man who promised to turn America’s department stores into style-defining leaders became the object of derision. Ultimately Johnson was asked to step down and the man he replaced was brought back to replace him.

While Johnson’s story may have the makings of a modern day business tragedy, it serves to remind us of the importance of communication and employee engagement. If a leader, regardless of pedigree and past successes, cannot communicate, then the most clairvoyant of visionaries may as well be wearing a blindfold because their greatest visions and strategies will carry no weight.

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr is a partner and strategy thought leader at BlumShapiro Consulting in West Hartford, CT. He has worked with clients from a variety of industry and sectors. His latest book, The Executive Checklist is in stores now. You can contact him at

Other Articles by James M. Kerr:

Executive Presence: Are You Born With It?