Tech Guest Viewpoint: Mike Ullman’s Thoughts on Digital Change

[Editor's note: This article is based on a discussion moderated by Shah Karim with Myron E. Ullman, executive chairman of J.C. Penney, held at the Executive + Scholar lecture at the University of North Texas on October 8, 2015.]

This exclusive article is based on a discussion moderated by Shah Karim with Myron E. (Mike) Ullman, executive chairman of J.C. Penney, held at the University of North Texas
To tackle the challenge of digitally-driven customer change, retail leadership in the digital age needs to identify and practice what works. Here are some useful goals, courtesy of Mike Ullman, to keep in mind:
Lay out a common and inspiring vision with your team: Whether starting a new company or rebuilding a revered brand, great leaders have to build an inspiring vision together with their teams. This cultivates trust and an enduring relationship. A leader can have a definite point of view and know when to step in, but also must encourage consensus so the entire team is committed to a single vision.
Listen to the customer: Respect customers for who they are, and understand that they have to sustain their families on a budget. Whether they can afford a $15 price point, or $500, respect and work with that. Help customers meet their basic needs first before trying to move them on to aspirational items. The best way to predict the customers' future actions is to understand their actions now.
Outstanding in-store experiences give shoppers a reason to come back. Communicate effectively with customers to keep them informed about items and special offers, provide platforms that help them share this with family and friends, and make the store experience extraordinary so they want to visit again.
Harness the fact that we are globally connected: There is a dramatic and global increase in the use of both social media platforms and smart devices. Facebook now has more than 1.3 billion users, Skype and Instagram each have 300 million users, and Twitter has 280 million-plus users. Just for 2015, Gartner predicts worldwide shipment of more than 2.2 billion smartphone and tablets. We are truly globally connected.
Measure, analyze, and improve your business: By being self-observant we can improve ourselves, and the same applies in business. In this digital age, there are many, many haystacks of data that can yield insight, which can be good and bad. Good because it's possible to gain the insight. But bad because it's not easy to know where to look for the needle. Analytics can help make sense of what's successful and why, to separate out what's working from what's not.
Shepherd people by being inclusive: Research informs us that different people learn in different ways. This also means that you'll uncover leadership talent in unexpected places. Leadership arises from inspiration and deep insight. It requires an ability to set fear aside, and meet challenges in the 'uncomfortable' zone. You never know where you will find the unknown person who'll excels at this. So provide opportunities and be inclusive to help new stars emerge.
As a leader, it is important to be transparent and let people know where you stand, and the values you stand for. You've also got to retain and develop talent, so be fair and reward people according to their contribution.
Train the next generation: In larger companies, there's often a management culture that focuses on making plan each year, and there's a hierarchical aspect of getting ahead. A leader takes the team beyond that, and sets the vision. Effective leaders go beyond winning for the self.
We must have ways to train the next generation, this is a necessity for retail companies. This includes teaching the team to face adversity. In life, we have to be able to pick ourselves up after a defeat. It's the same at work. As long as we keep your eyes and ears open, we can learn and improve from both success and failure. These lessons increase the chance of future success.

Shah Karim is CEO of Saferock. You can reach him at or visit

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