As Target Corp. pulls out of the slump that hit bottom with the ouster of its chief four months ago, its leaders now want to do more than get back to where things were.

The retailer's same-store sales in the U.S. have been in the positive column for the last nine weeks, hitting internal goals. But at the company's annual fall meeting with employees last week, executives signaled Target should aim higher.

"That plan has been too modest of what we need to do over time," John Mulligan, chief financial officer, told the 14,000 store managers and headquarters employees who gathered at Target Center for the annual preholiday conference and sales rally.

In some of the most candid and spirited remarks at the event, Mulligan, who served as interim CEO from May until new chief Brian Cornell arrived last month, repeatedly noted improvements but insisted that Target should aspire to be better than it was before the troubles of the past year.

For instance, he said that while Target and its customers have moved beyond the "dark days" of the data breach last December. "This has been a battle back to a baseline that was already too low for our standards."

And while noting that rivals Macy's and Wal-Mart had recently joined Target in forecasting lower financial performance for the rest of this year, Mulligan told employees to look at a more successful competitor.

"We've always considered ourselves the leader among peers, in a class with the Costcos of the world who perform well quarter after quarter regardless of economic or consumer conditions," he said. "Right now, we're too far back in the pack. And we need to get back to leading."

At Wednesday's meeting, he noted that he saw a story a few months ago about how the human face has evolved to withstand punches. He applied that idea to what Target has endured in the last year. It's reassuring to know that the company can absorb blows and hang on during tough times, he said.

"But no one I know came to Target to muddle through," he said. "All of us are feeling that competitive impulse to get back on offense and regain our swagger. We need to start delivering punches instead of receiving them."

Cornell told employees that Target's story going forward will be one of growth and he expects to see progress in this holiday season.

"We've got to get to work," he said. "Our future starts in the fourth quarter of this year."

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113