What makes a great corporate white knight?

June 22, 2011, 3:53 PM UTC

When it’s time for a major change, many companies seek salvation in a new CEO from a headline-heavy company: someone who is not just a leader, but a star that can swoop in and save the day.

Last week, JCPenney (JCP) announced that Ron Johnson will take the helm at the retailer on November 1, after making his mark as an executive at Apple (AAPL). Johnson is a high-profile hire, brought on to snatch the retailer from the jaws of mediocrity. His move is yet another example of an executive who has come down with a case of “white knight syndrome,” a scenario in which a successful executive feels that he or she can translate their previous victories at an entirely different company (and sometimes in an entirely different industry) to rescue another company.

While this kind of scenario certainly comes with its fair share of pressure and expectations, it can yield success. “But for every example of it working, there’s one that fails,” says Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

So what kind of an executive makes for an ideal white knight? Companies in need of a corporate rescue should look for a couple of traits to avoid hiring a leader that trips over all that shining armor.


Clearly, a new hire’s track record is important, Useem says, but a singular success within one industry might not be good enough. Consistent performance across industries is a good marker for a white knight, he adds, because it means that an individual is capable of leading in general, not just managing specific industry challenges.

Take Laurence Golborne, Chile’s minister of mining who facilitated the rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners earlier this year. He had a retail background and was a relatively unknown politician until the rescue, Useem says. “The main point is, he took a look, decided on the underlying ways to solve a problem, and used his management skill set.”

To be sure, most CEOs will not have to coordinate a mine rescue, but many have to dig companies out of financial holes. In fact, corporate America has its own knight in shining armor in that category: former Delphi CEO Steve Miller, who’s made a career out of last-minute rescues of ailing corporations.

Miller guided auto parts supplier Delphi through bankruptcy in 2005. Before that, he had worked in the steel, construction, waste-management and auto industries. Miller was hired at companies in each of these industries to turn them around.

Just the same, it’s one thing to pull a company out of the ashes, and quite another to fix it mid-stride.

“If something’s broken, you have to go in and start ripping it apart,” says Jeff Sanders, vice chairman of leadership advisory firm Heidrick & Struggles. “Whereas if it’s not [broken], if you rip it up, it might fall apart.”

Cultural flexibility

Hero hires can certainly fail. AOL (AOL) CEO Tim Armstrong has struggled to turn the company around after leaving his position as head of Google’s (GOOG) U.S. ad sales two years ago, Useem says. Ed Zander, a star at Sun Microsystems, was brought in to revitalize Motorola (MSI) but floundered there before leaving in 2008.

“Most often, the problem is a cultural one,” Sanders says. But cultural problems can be difficult to diagnose until a new CEO is dropped into the company’s pool.

Hot new hires often fall into the white knight trap. This has been a problem for GE (GE) executives, Useem adds, many of whom have left their old jobs for new positions at other companies. “The outside companies know anybody from GE ought to be good,” he says, and while they were good at GE, they didn’t perform as well outside of GE’s unique environment.

Apple also gives departing executives rock-star status, a la Ron Johnson. No doubt, Johnson gained valuable experience at Apple. But delivering new ideas to JCPenney will require a very different approach. “If you think you’re going to run JCPenney like you ran Apple, that’s probably going to be a complete, unmitigated disaster,” Useem says.

Clear eyes

“We’re all given to the mantra we have to reinvent ourselves, but boy, it’s incredibly hard for the human mind to do that. That’s what JCPenney has decided to go for,” Useem says.

To avoid botching a rescue job, new CEOs need to introduce a fresh take on the company without attaching any turnaround to their egos. That can be especially difficult amid job changes that generate media buzz, Useem says. “Glamour lasts for maybe 12 hours once the person arrives at the new job,” and then it’s a matter of working hard and delivering results.

One key way to stay grounded is to spend the first part of the job taking stock of the company from within, Useem says. In Johnson’s case, he adds, “Probably the first 50 days, he’ll need to spend some time really getting his hands on what the underlying value drivers are. What does he want to keep and what needs to be jettisoned?”

Johnson’s odds

So what are Johnson’s odds at JCPenney? He has a solid shot at success, Useem and Sanders say. “The fact that Johnson had been at Target before is really interesting,” says Useem. “That says he could go from Target to a very non-Target-like company and do well — this guy’s already proven he can move across a pretty big divide successfully.”

At Target (TGT), Johnson introduced a program to incorporate designer, low-cost products, which boosted sales. At Apple, he is credited with the vision behind the tech company’s widely-lauded retail stores. His track record seems to align with what JCPenney needs: “What they really wanted was somebody who could help them think through a lot of the things they were doing at Apple stores,” Sanders says, like jump-starting an innovative approach to retail.

It’s a daunting task for any leader to spearhead corporate redemption, or even a well-managed uptick. But if Johnson succeeds, we just might feel as psyched about buying our next pair of affordable khakis as we do about springing for an iPad.