Schafer: Response to Target critic shows leadership

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2014 - 7:28 AM

This letter from a Target employee posted on Gawker generated a response from Jeff Jones, Target’s chief marketing officer.

It was just a 750-word post on the social networking site LinkedIn, a response under the heading “The Truth Hurts” to an anonymous online broadside fired last week at Target.

But this post, published late Tuesday on the personal LinkedIn page of Target Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Jones, was easily the best communication that’s come from Target in months.

It’s evidence that Target’s senior leaders are not just in maintenance mode until a new boss arrives, as the recruiting firm Korn Ferry has just started looking for a CEO to replace the recently departed Gregg Steinhafel.

What made it particularly effective was that Jones was not quite polished — and so he came across as authentic in a way that a canned statement that’s been run through the general counsel’s office never does.

It was a remarkable thing for any officer of a Fortune 500 company to write and share publicly, but these are remarkable times for Minneapolis-based Target. And genuine leaders need to step forward.

Jones, who’s been at the company for just a little over two years, was responding to what’s reportedly an anonymous Target employee’s e-mail posted on a website popular with people in their 20s and 30s called Gawker.

The e-mail said the company is in “desperate need of help, direction and vision, starting from the top down.” Jones was singled out as the only member of the senior leadership team who shouldn’t immediately be fired.

The e-mail talked about the bungling in last year’s expansion in Canada as a serious strategic misstep, and boy, oh boy, did the writer ever unload on the subject of Target’s culture.

He described a “Targetized” workplace characterized by mediocrity and conformity. It is a place, he said, where people got promoted for being popular, not effective, and where the expectation to be fun and friendly means the real professionals have to sneak out to a coffee shop with a laptop computer just to get real work done.

It was the kind of e-mail that frustrated people write, immediately feel better and then never click “send.” Of course, this one ended up on Gawker.

It has been up on the Gawker site for nearly a week, but it was Tuesday when Jones replied. He did so in his Linked­In account, not a company blog. LinkedIn is a social networking site, sort of a Facebook for professional people, and Jones has about 8,000 followers.

Jones replied that, yes, it would have been far better to have had this conversation face-to-face and not over the Internet. But he added, “the reality is that our team members speaking with honesty is a gift. Because much of what they are saying is true … and challenging norms is exactly what we need to be doing today and every day going forward.”

“In the coming days and weeks we will embrace the critiques of Target — whether it’s from outsiders or our own team — like an athletics team puts the negative press on the wall in the locker room,” he continued.

There’s a lot going on in Target now to make the decisionmaking faster and innovation quicker, he explained. “Yes, the truth hurts,” he wrote. “But it will also set you free. Our job now is to create a new truth and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Jones’ post on LinkedIn was what he reported from an earlier conversation with his marketing team leaders.

Looking ahead, he acknowledged that Target has enormous challenges. Part of what needs to be done is acknowledging that what’s worked best in the past may no longer work. Everyone has to perform better, and the enemies are “apathy and indifference.”

Jones only hints at this, but it’s a point other executives have made when faced with more than the usual set of challenges. Trying to meet those challenges is the best, most interesting work in a working life, rewarding in a way that a normal week in the office just can’t be. And the most challenging work brings teams together.

The message he delivered to his team, he wrote, is “if you don’t believe this, if you are not reinvigorated at this very important moment in time, if you are too tired or too cynical for this work, please leave.”

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