No “One Size Fits All” When it Comes to Values: Lessons from Ron Johnson and J.C. Penney

Once a week or so, LinkedIn sends a list of job openings that might be a good fit. The little black box algorithm combines geography, past job history, current role, network, and the skills/expertise listed. Clicking on one of the opportunities yields a tremendous amount of information about the organization, the role, and the responsibilities. Leaping over to the employer’s website yields even more information about the company.


As an employer, we can follow a similar path. Post a job opening, get a resume, look up the candidate’s profile on LinkedIn, and search the websites of their former employers to learn more. By the time the two sit down to an interview, a tremendous amount is already known. In essence, with platforms like LinkedIn, we’re all as visible as Ron Johnson and J.C.Penney were to each other during their courting phase.


This makes their very public breakup a relevant lesson for potential employees and employers everywhere. On the surface, it looks like this breakup is the result of 1) Johnson’s failure to lead J.C. Penney through a difficult time and into a brighter future and 2) J.C. Penney’s failure to give Johnson full rein. In reality, what has happened is a clash in values.


Where J.C. Penney is traditional, conservative, and sensitive to change, Ron Johnson is innovative and risk-oriented. From a values perspective, they were an unworkable partnership. The breakup is a result of that unworkability.


That clash in values didn’t have to happen and there were warning signs.


Warning Sign Number One: They are desperate for someone else to fix them.

J.C. Penney’s sales were lagging, performance was down, and stock prices were suffering. They knew they needed to do something. They didn’t know what. They were looking for a miracle worker. Desperation leads to less than optimal decisions when it comes to hiring.


Warning Sign Number Two: You think you can fix them.

Ron Johnson is part of Apple’s remarkable story of success. Until recently, we talked about the people and products of Apple as though they were gods. Unfortunately gods think they can fix anything and sometimes they act like they can do it all on their own.


Warning Sign Number Three: Fixing requires core values to be violated.

J.C. Penny’s core values might include words like tradition, stability, persuasion, and predictability. Ron Johnson’s core values might include words like: innovation, risk, transparency, and change. When the values are that disconnected, the partnership just won’t work. It doesn’t matter how big the opportunity, the prestige, or the potential gains to come.



If you find yourself like Ron Johnson and J.C. Penney, ignoring the warning signs at your own peril, start making use of your core values. Here’s how:

  1. Identify your core values using the the Mountains and Valleys Exercise (if you haven’t already done this). You know you’ve gotten there when you’ve identified three-to-five values that you are unwilling to violate for money, prestige, or opportunity. 
  2. If you’re the potential employee, interview the organization for its core values. Look for something more, much more, then a list of values on the wall. Ask the team of people interviewing you for examples of the values in action. Ask what happens when values are violated. Ask about the connection between the values on the wall and the core values of each employee.
  3. If you’re the employer looking for the right candidate, use the Click Down Hack to uncover their core values. You’re looking for more than just a list here – ask how the values influence actions, ask for times when core values were violated and what happened, ask for the connection between their core values and yours.
  4. Ask yourself if working together violates any of your core values. If it appears that doing so might, negotiate until core values are no longer violated.
  5. If none of this works and you know that working together violates even one core value, don’t walk away, RUN.


This is such a crucial lesson that one of our team members and entrepreneur, Becca Ordonez, became inspired to start a new company. Mustered’s mission is to change the hiring process for the better and help companies build effective teams with great workplace cultures by connecting job seekers and employers through core values, strengths, and interests.  Its very first app is nearly ready for its beta launch. Sign up to get notified when it launches.


In the end, the biggest learning here isn’t about the warning signs themselves, it’s about the perils of ignoring core values. Fortunately, it’s easy to stop.


Have you ever had a core values mismatch with an employee or a company? If so, please share your experience in the comments.

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