Target CMO on Why He Embraced That Anonymous Gawker Critic

Jeff Jones Penned 'The Truth Hurts' Amid Reports of a Culture in Crisis

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Jeff Jones
Jeff Jones

Target has been mired in bad publicity for months.

It began with the massive security breach that impacted millions of shoppers just in time for holiday shopping. But with the aftereffects still lingering this month, CEO Gregg Steinhafel stepped down, and Gawker published an anonymous rant by someone described as a mid-level employee that detailed the company's "passive aggressive" culture. The author called for a "serious change in their leadership and culture," suggesting every top executive except CMO Jeff Jones should be shown the door.

"They expect you to conform to them, to be 'Targetized' and drink the Koolaid," the Gawker post read in part. "If you aren't super bubbly, super social and passive aggressive, you get told that you're a problem. Being direct, wanting to actually get your work done, asking questions and pushing back are all viewed as bad things and you'll be told to tone it down or you'll be pushed out."

So last Friday, Mr. Jones pulled together his leadership team for a serious talk, or "strong coffee" as he phrased it, telling them that while Target is one of the "most admired brands in the history of brands," there's a lot of work to be done. "I tried to get a commitment from my team that they were in," Mr. Jones said.

Then he decided to take on Gawker's post in public. Although it initially made Mr. Jones angry, he said he started to see it in a different light. "I truly had a moment with myself where I just said I can't be mad about this," he said. "This is exactly the opportunity we need. And a chance for me to set an example that candor is essential."

That weekend Mr. Jones penned "The Truth Hurts," a therapeutic manifesto of sorts that acknowledges the difficulty of the last five months, including the reports "that paint a picture of a culture that is in crisis." He ran the post by Dustee Jenkins, VP-public relations at the retailer, before it was posted, but there is nothing sugar-coated about it. In fact, in an unusual move, he acknowledged to the world that much of what that unnamed employee had said was, in fact, true:

While we would have preferred to have a conversation like this with the team member directly, speaking openly and honestly, and challenging norms is exactly what we need to be doing today and every day going forward.

To quote French novelist Emile Zola, "If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way."

Mr. Jones chose to post his response on LinkedIn, he said, because he's been a part of the company's Influencer program, and he felt Target's experience was something other leaders could learn from. (His first and only post until now was in October, a note to his two daughters that was inspired by a conversation with Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg about "Lean In.")

"I've worked at enough different companies to have perspective on how awesome this one is, and I've also worked with enough companies to know that a lot of companies face tough times," said Mr. Jones, who joined Target in 2012. "I always tell my team Target is the best jersey you can wear in retail."

In 48 hours, his response to Gawker garnered 220,000 views and 430 comments. Mr. Jones said he's been overwhelmed by the feedback, the notes of thanks from employees and the media requests. But don't expect him to become a regular on the circuit. "This is not about me," he said. "It's about Target. This is a company that's all in. ... We have enormous, great days ahead of us."

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