Ambition And Ego – A CEO’s Downfall?

Recently, I wrote about two high-profile CEO’s who set out to aggressively transform stalwart corporations, Ron Johnson at JC Penney and Marisa Mayer at Yahoo. After less than two years at the helm of JC Penney, Ron Johnson is out. There are many factors that contribute to his demise. As a leadership coach and marketer, what strike me are the effects of ambition and ego.

Ambition: Is this a case of too much too fast? His vision – refashion JC Penney as a brand that is a hybrid of Target and Apple (his two previous employers). He pushed through this transformational vision that changed the customers shopping experience without testing, a high-risk proposition. The elimination of all couponing and in its place everyday low prices turned out to be too drastic for customers to accept so they left in droves. Furthermore, trying to appeal to a new younger customer base was not resonating, as the store experience did not sync with marketing and advertising promises. The result, significant declines in sales, share price and customer engagement. Sweeping changes on such a large-scale rarely produce positive results.

This had me thinking about two other two others leaders who transformed companies, Tom Ford at Gucci and Steve Jobs at Apple (the second time). They both started their turnaround efforts with one signature initiative. Tom Ford re-designed the Gucci loafer and Steve Jobs re-imagined the visual aesthetics of the desktop computer by adding color. From there, both of these leaders revitalized brands that people had written off. In hindsight, it seems such a simple strategy. Start small, do it well and build from there.

Ego: I do not envy Ron Johnson’s remit when he took the reigns in late 2011. However, recent articles about his extravagant spending on himself when he started were disheartening. As a leadership coach, I see the dangers of one’s outsized ego and its negative impact especially when it creates a lasting first impression. Leaders who are not in touch with their key stakeholders will struggle to execute their vision. Leaders who can effectively employ humility have the best chance of bringing forward transformational change.

Finding the right balance of ambition and ego is never easy but when done well can reap great rewards for all those involved.