It's been popular for quite some time to pile on Ron Johnson. After all, the one-time Apple and Target wunderkind botched things badly at J.C. Penney. Sales plummeted, thousands lost their jobs, customers were disaffected, vendors were frustrated and share prices fell during his tenure.
Current and former CEO Mike Ullman has, by all appearances, done his best to lay the blame for all of Penney's problems at Mr. Johnson's feet. Recently at the Women's Wear Daily CEO Summit, he said he identified a long list of things that were wrong at Penney when he returned to lead the company last April.
"Penney's had 400 days going in one direction. Now we've had 200 days going the other direction," Mr. Ulmman told the WWD audience. "If we had two things [wrong] and we couldn't fix them, we'd be in trouble. We have 30 things wrong. They can all be fixed, and we have the time to fix them."
For his part, Mr. Johnson has been largely silent since leaving the department store chain. He did respond to a Forbes contributor's e-mail recently by saying he thought analysis of his time at Penney was "lacking in depth, largely inaccurate, and surprisingly uninformed."
As I see it, the biggest operational mistake made by Mr. Johnson was that he didn't test his ideas before rolling them out chain-wide. The result was that many that needed to be tweaked or abandoned were implemented on a large scale, burning through cash and failing to generate revenues.
He clearly made other mistakes, as well. Most important of these may have been a display of leadership hubris. Namely, he failed to win his fellow stakeholders (employees and vendors) over to his plan. Perhaps they failed to understand it. Maybe they were simply resistant to change or just weren't sold on the vision. Whatever the reasons, Mr. Johnson was looking to move a mass of people in one direction, without ever giving them sufficient reason to follow.
In the end, there is no way Mr. Johnson comes out of the Penney experience looking good. If the chain fails to rebound, he will be blamed for putting it in such a large hole it couldn't recover. If the chain returns even to where Mr. Johnson left it, Mike Ullman will get the credit.
Mr. Johnson had some good ideas that didn't work at Penney. Some may have worked given time, but that was not a luxury they or their creator enjoyed. In the end, he will take the blame. But maybe he shouldn't take all of it.
Do you agree or disagree with Ron Johnson's view that analysis of his time as CEO of J.C. Penney was inaccurate and uninformed?