Unconventional choices in the CEO succession race

Kohl’s recently announced that its “chief customer officer,” Michelle Gass, is taking over the helm of the merchandise organization. This puts her in position to become the chain’s next CEO, despite her relative lack of “general merchandise” background. (She spent most of her career at Starbucks.) She may compete against the “chief operating officer” to be named, who will have oversight of stores and logistics. It’s an interesting recent topic for discussion at RetailWire:

Kohl’s has had only three CEOs in the past 35 years, and all of them have been promoted from within. (Full disclosure: I worked for Kohl’s for 24 years, until 2006.) So it’s important for the company’s board to be thoughtful about the most important decision it can make, and to weigh the merits of store-operations vs. merchandising backgrounds…among other things.

The broader question facing huge national retailers (and not just those who are publicly traded) is how to identify the right forward-looking skill set for an effective CEO. Is it simply the traditional retail background of “merchant” or “store”? Or do more intangible skills like leadership, brand building and change management in an omnichannel world matter more today?

Among recent examples, JCPenney went for the more conventional choice of a CEO with a strong background in store operations. Target, on the other hand, opted for a CEO from the CPG industry with less grounding in a traditional retail career path. The next few years will be interesting to watch at both companies, but the early read is that Brian Cornell is acting like the change agent Target needed.

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