When Ron Johnson took over JC Penney, the company was already in deep trouble, hemorrhaging sales and losing market share.
Now, a year into his tenure, things aren't looking up and there are legitimate concerns about both the company and Johnson's job.
The company just announced in its annual report that its turnaround will take longer than initially expected, and warned that results this year are likely to be "materially worse than planned."
Despite all of that, Johnson and 9 other senior executives, many of whom came with him from Apple, commute to the company's Plano headquarters via private jet. It was actually part of his agreement with the company that he be permitted to continue living in Palo Alto.
A source told the New York Post's James Covert that Johnson's at headquarters four days a week, "if that much."
That's not a good message to send to employees.
Johnson is asking everybody at the company to believe in him and his strategy, to make sacrifices, and join in a long and painful effort towards rebuilding. But he's not willing to take a basic step to show his confidence and long term commitment in the company.
Culture isn't just about mission statements and perks. It's about the way a place feels. Johnson was something of a rockstar, recruited after great success at Apple by a billionaire hedge fund investor.
That may have excited employees at first, but the sheen has worn off. The company's struggling. Johnson hasn't acknowledged that yet by where he lives or the way he speaks in public, and that really matters.
He's having a negative impact on the culture at headquarters by making it seem like his comfort and family's convenience are a higher priority than the company, and on employees in stores by spending far more than an average sales associate makes in a year on flights each week (a round-trip flight on a Gulfstream from Dallas to San Jose costs an estimated $41,817).
Employees appear to be responding to the message. According to the New York Post, employees at the company's Plano headquarters are getting in later and clocking out earlier.
Many already feel that Johnson paints too rosy a picture of a dire situation and doesn't really understand JC Penney's business, evidenced by the his decision to end discounts, then change his mind.
He's already an outsider, and he, and the top leaders he brought in, can't afford to appear detached.
The reasons given for the long commute are reasonable; Johnson has school-age children, and the life of a high-profile retail executive involves frequent travel anyway. But being visible to employees matters.
Yes, moving to Texas would be largely symbolic. But it's the kind of symbol that matters when people legitimately worry that a CEO has one foot out the door.
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