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Be Like Mike

"Change is vital, improvement the logical form of change." --James Cash Penney

Myron Ullman wants his employees to call him Mike. It's not that the CEO of J.C. Penney Co. doesn't like his given name. It's that he trying to break with tradition.

Upon his arrival at Penney, Ullman encountered a culture with rules so archaic that employees were compelled to address their bosses as Mr. or Ms. He discovered corporate office guidelines that prevented employees from having personal items on display in their cubicles and barred most workers from setting foot anywhere near the executive suites. At a company that sells Dockers to the masses, he found a dress code that prohibited casual attire. And, not surprisingly, he inherited a company losing the war on employee .

That stifling culture dated back to the early 1900s, when founder James Cash Penney opened a store he called The Golden Rule. Penney's father was a minister who taught him the importance of strong moral discipline. So, after changing the company's name in 1913, Penney established "The Penney Idea," a mission statement outlining the values of honor, confidence, service, and cooperation. Those principles endured through the company's century of growth, and Ullman has no intention of tossing them out now. But he has updated the code of conduct and relaxed some of the rules. Employees are now encouraged to call each other by first name, decorate their offices, visit the executive floor, and dress casually.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, Ullman says, "If I had a choice to honor the past and lose, or move forward and win, I pick winning." Shareholders support that approach: Penney's shares are up 80 percent from two years ago. And Ullman is confident that he also has the support of his late predecessors, adding, "I think our founding fathers would want us to compete in today's market."
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