The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Federica Marchionni was forced out as CEO of Lands’ End Inc. after only 19 months on the job. The news did not surprise me given the faltering performance at the firm and the controversy surrounding her leadership. Six months ago, I wrote a blog post about her effort to turn around Lands' End. In that post, I referred to some comments by Columbia Professor Rita McGrath, who questioned whether the Lands' End scenario would unfold much like the situation at J.C. Penney when Ron Johnson tried unsuccessfully to engineer a turnaround. I was particularly taken aback at the time by Marchionni's choice to work out of an office in New York, while only spending one week per month at the firm's headquarters in Wisconsin. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported, "As part of her contract, the Lands’ End board agreed to let Ms. Marchionni work primarily from an office in New York’s garment district—an arrangement that rubbed some in Dodgeville the wrong way, according to former employees. Her employment agreement says she must be in Wisconsin for holiday parties and other social events that the Lands’ End CEO “historically has attended.”
To me, the scenario at Lands' End reminded me of the old saying: Culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a bold vision, but you will not succeed as a leader if you can't build buy-in and commitment from people throughout the organization. How could working from an office halfway across the country have sounded like a sensible way to build support for her turnaround? There's a bigger issue here though. Like the J.C. Penney scenario with Ron Johnson, Marchionni did not spend sufficient time understanding the culture, building a coalition of supporters, and making people feel a sense of involvement and ownership with regard to the turnaround plan. The best turnarounds involve people throughout the organization believing that it's their plan, not simply the CEO's plan. Sometimes, the CEO has to set the organization on a new course. Still, the CEO can consult with employees to determine the best way to make that shift, to execute those plans, and to achieve key goals and objectives. You can tell them what to do differently, but still ask for their input as to how to implement that strategic shift.