Exec's 'Truth Hurts' post hits the mark at Target

  • Article by: KAVITA KUMAR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2014 - 1:32 PM

Chief marketing officer’s piece sparks discussion about “Target culture” and the need to innovate.

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A Target employee's complaint on Gawker.com generated a response from Jeff Jones, Target's chief marketing officer.

It was a LinkedIn post heard around the world — or at least one that was shared all over social media.

In an unusual move, Target’s chief marketing officer posted a 750-word candid commentary titled “The Truth Hurts” on the networking site late Tuesday. By Wednesday, it was blowing up on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, sparking discussions about the “Target culture” and the need for the Minneapolis-based retailer to innovate.

The piece served as a rallying call for Target employees who have been battered for months with one piece of bad news after another — from missteps in the retailer’s expansion into Canada to the massive data breach to sluggish sales in the United States. And then last week, Gregg Steinhafel, the company’s chief executive, stepped down. Amid so much turmoil and public scrutiny, Jeff Jones’ words struck a chord. He wrote frankly about Target hitting a “rough patch” and of the urgency to challenge the company’s way of doing things in order to resurrect the brand.

“The culture of Target is an enormous strength and might be our current Achilles heel,” Jones wrote. “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.”

Jones declined to be interviewed through a Target spokeswoman.

For the most part, though, his commentary was met with praise.

Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with Edward Jones, said this is the first time he’s seen a Target executive make a statement like this — a surprising decision given that Target is known for being a rather tight-lipped place.

“Now that Gregg is gone, maybe people think they can speak their mind a little more,” he said.

He added that he’s encouraged by the fact that Jones owns up to the fact that there are issues that need to be fixed.

“They recognize what they are doing isn’t working or at least are willing to change perspective and bring in some fresh ideas,” Yarbrough said.

Jones’ post was partly a response to a critique from an anonymous Target employee posted on Gawker last week. In it, the worker listed a litany of problems with the culture at Target’s headquarters. For example, the person wrote that the company values socializing over productivity and doesn’t have any fresh ideas to run a 21st Century business.

“The Target culture is very Minnesota — it’s very passive aggressive,” the worker wrote. “They expect you to conform to them, to be ‘Targetize’ and drink the Kool-Aid. If you aren’t super bubbly, super social and passive aggressive, you get told that you’re a problem.”

The employee went on to say that the company’s headquarters are in dire need of new vision and suggested that the entire executive team should go with the exception of Jones.

In his response, Jones said he felt compelled to speak out because he was called out by name — even though, of course, the anonymous worker seemed to approve of Jones.

In any case, Jones said he was initially angry when he read that account, but came to realize it was valuable because “much” of that and other recent critiques are true. Jones didn’t elaborate on which parts those were or how the Target culture made it vulnerable. Instead, he focused on the fact that the company needs to challenge the status quo.

“But the very real fact of the matter remains, we have hard work to do,” he wrote. “The kind of work that is unafraid to challenge what we’ve known and what has worked in the past … The kind of work that will be uncomfortable, in order to make Target irresistible.”

He added that Target is already accelerating its innovation pipeline, simplifying how decisions are made, and searching for a new CEO.

“But in the meantime, we’re not standing still,” he said. “Yes, the truth hurts. But it will also set you free.”

Target employees immediately rallied around the piece.

“So very #proud to see such bold leadership!” tweeted Dustee Jenkins, a Target spokeswoman, soon after the post.

Even Target retweeted the link.

On Wednesday, Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman, said the company can’t speak for Jones’ decision to write this piece or why he decided to post it the way he did.

“These are his words,” she said. “But it really is in line with what our leaders have been saying in the last week and a half. We as a company are committed to moving forward and continuing to innovate and evolve.”

She added that the piece has received a tremendous, enthusiastic response from Target employees.

Carol Spieckerman, president of retail consulting firm Newmarketbuilders, said it’s an interesting departure for Jones to pen this kind of response since he’s not been as front and center as a company spokesman as some other members of the executive team.

And she noted that the Gawker piece didn’t necessitate a response — after all, discontented employees often vent about their employers anonymously online and plenty of those go unanswered.

“I just can’t believe it was a spontaneous inspiration on his part,” she said. “I think it was very calculated. I think it was a way of messaging that he wants to see the organization go in the way of change and a new vision.”

So she wondered if this message could portend some drastic changes in leadership and plans for the future.

If Spieckerman had one criticism of the piece, it’s that once again, she said, Target’s leaders are in a reaction mode — reacting to a blog post — instead of being proactive. But overall, she was heartened by Jones’ words because they showed an openness to change.

“Target has an opportunity to depart from this insular concept of culture and to actively pursue opportunities to shake things up,” she said.

 

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113

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