After he masterminded the launch of Apple’s wildly successful retail stores and Target’s hip reinvention, Ron Johnson was snapped up by JC Penney with the hope that he could reinvigorate the struggling retail outlet. But thus far, Johnson’s golden touch doesn’t seem to be working at Penney. Which begs a question about the cult of personality: Can any company’s success be attributed to just one person, or should it be considered in a broader context?
As the always astute James Surowiecki writes in a recent New Yorker piece on Johnson:
At Target and at Apple, Johnson was running with the wind, not against it. At Penney, he’s trying to do something very different: remake a company’s DNA. Penney’s board no doubt believed that Johnson’s record guaranteed that he’d succeed. But this perception probably reflects what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error”—our tendency to ignore context and attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to inherent qualities. (People who watch one basketball player shoot free throws in a poorly lighted gym and another shoot in a well-lighted gym attribute the latter’s greater success to ability rather than to conditions.) Skill is important, but so is context: being great at selling cheap fashion or cool technology products doesn’t mean you’ll be great at turning around a middle-market retailer.