What Lessons can a Christian School Learn from J.C. Penney?

The unusual comparison of a retailer and an educational institution may seem to be a bit strange.

However, they have a lot in common and there are some clear corollaries which can be instructive considering the challenges and changes facing both sectors.

Mission, Culture, and Leadership will be discussed in this article.

Strength of Mission

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is the mission statement that guided J.C. Penney and his company when he was actively involved. Changing consumer behaviors, challenging employee hiring, Wall Street profit pressures, and a dramatic increase in competition from e-commerce challenged the commitment to that mission and to profits. People are shopping elsewhere—many online.

Many of these same factors are creating tremendous pressure on Christian schools who were founded to provide a Christ centered, biblically-directed education. Parents have ever increasing choices. The NCES says conservative Christian School enrollment has decreased 29% in the last 10 years. Charter schools, for profit schools, online schools, home schools, and classical Christian schools have experienced significant growth at the expense of the traditional Christian school. Financial pressures do not come from Wall Street but rather a highly competitive landscape centered around the “arms race” for new facilities, new academic programs, and more co-curricular programs. Faculty recruitment and retention has never been more difficult. This is made worse by financial realities that often limit the hiring pool and pull experienced teachers (and leaders) away. These factors and others can easily lead a board and leadership team astray from the original mission.

Mission drift or decline typically does not reveal itself immediately but rather over time through a myriad of clearly discernible factors (enrollment, finances, leadership, faculty retention, and recruitment), which are not proactively addressed by the board and leadership. Mission fulfillment must be measured, reinforced and resourced for the school to thrive versus merely survive.

Power of Culture

The culture of an organization is a direct reflection of the ability to deliver the mission. In 2011, J.C. Penney hired a “star retailer” at Apple and Target (Ron Johnson) to become the CEO with a mandate to radically overhaul the department store chain. “His plan failed miserably” and sent the department store chain’s annual sales down $6 billion, led to the firing of 40,000 people, the closing of 137+ stores in 2017, and caused a major cash crisis before he was terminated. Johnson largely blamed the company’s stagnant culture for the failure, saying people there were entrenched…. He stated that the problem was not with the plan but “When I got to Penney’s, I had no choice because I was told people wanted to change, but the truth is nobody wanted to change. The team there was very comfortable with their place in the market.” He was fired after 2 years.

There are many similarities to Christian education in the statements above. The Board and Administrative team must create an effective culture by being mission focused in discerning “what must change and what must never change.” Leadership faces equal risks of jumping on the latest trend or ignoring obvious changes in the marketplace of educational choice. The result is that the Association of Christian Schools International reports an average of 150 Christian school closures each year. Most Christian schools are struggling to maintain enrollment and many have increased financial aid to a point where it is not sustainable. Until Christian school leadership can develop a plan focused upon parental choice, new educational models, student needs, effective biblical integration, and sustainable financial models; school cultures are perpetuated which wind up defending mission and past practice at the loss of families, faculty, and finances. In other words, schools will weaken their accomplishment of mission due to the fact they will have less students to impact.

Education, including Christian education, has not been noted for effective innovation, nimble structures or dealing with cultural trends. Rather, schools stand on past practice, structured schedules, orderly classroom, nurturing (and Christian) faculty and a lack of sustainable financial models. Leaders must create a culture willing to change and willing to follow through with people and plans that bring needed change.

Vision and Leadership

Marvin Ellison became the 4th J.C. Penney leader is as many years in 2015. J.C. Penney has had 11 quarters of losses in a row. Their stock was $4.54 a share on May 19, 2017 compared to over $40 per share in 2012. Clearly, Ellison was brought in as the leader to define for Penney’s “what must change and what must never change.” The recovery is still “fragile.” The Board, Wall Street analysts and shareholders will continue to evaluate the ability and effectiveness of leadership to implement the vision through mission and culture.

Christian schools have often struggled to accomplish the essential steps of hiring the right leader and empowering them to bring the needed change. Too often the board is willing to accept a leader with the right heart but without the capacity to lead in a changing environment. The results are stagnant schools and a staggering three-year average tenure for Heads of Christian schools. Leaders feel safer maintaining instead of leading.

Christian school boards and leaders must provide both vision and leadership which creates a value proposition for parents and students with the same level of planning, accountability and communication.

Summary

J.C. Penney has not “figured it all out.” However, they are looking at their core mission, committing to e-commerce as at least a supplement to stores, and developing clear strategies to guide their employees to better serve their customers. Very few Christian school leaders, even those with strong current enrollment and finances, would state that they have “it all figured out.” Many, in fact, are pursuing the same strategies and priorities, and expecting different results. Change can be hard.

Yet, Christian schools are preparing their students with a biblical worldview, with a faculty committed to modeling their faith, and a leadership team who are fulfilling the worthy mission of Christian education. However, change is needed to ensure Christian school success in the coming years.

Board agendas, leadership team meetings and planning retreats must move from reactionary solutions to improving current practices, while also developing ideas for an “envisioned future” which can meet the expectations of parents and the needs of students in our 21st century context.

To read more about the comparisons discussed (and others) and the research behind this article, please check out the expanded version of this article in the whitepaper:

What do J.C. Penney and the Traditional Christian School Have in Common? (PDF)

This article originally appeared in The Online Educator on June 15, 2017. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.

One comment

  1. Mark Blankespoor says:

    Very interesting corollaries between the retail business & Christian education. This makes a lot of sense.

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