Cornell: Female leadership is Target’s ‘culture in action’

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NEW YORK — Brian Cornell, Target Corp.’s chairman and chief executive officer, led a discussion of the company’s culture in a marquee session at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show earlier this month. Joining Cornell on stage were four of the company’s leaders: Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief growth officer; Kiera Fernandez, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer; Alexis Sheppert, group vice president of stores for Virginia/North Carolina; and Cara Sylvester, executive vice president and chief guest experience officer.

“This is really our culture in action, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, because at Target one-third of our board of directors are women, half of our leadership team are women, and of our almost 2,000 stores, over half of them are led by female leaders,” Cornell said in introducing his fellow panelists.

“Cara, I’m going to start with you. Every company has a culture, whether they write it down or not. We spent a lot of time defining our Target culture, why don’t you talk about why that was so important, and the approach we took to bring our culture to life?”

Sylvester, who joined Target 21 years ago, succinctly defined Target’s culture as “the ability to care, grow and win together.”

Added Sylvester: “Our culture really fuels us. And because it fuels us, it’s a deep part of our brand. And that absolutely shows up to our guests. When you interact with the Target brand … we want you to feel something. Those feelings that are evoked are because we think about designing our guest experience around a deep emotional connection with our guests, not a transactional, linear one.”

Hennington said the culture guides decisions, big and small, that she and other company executives make about the business.

“That’s all in pursuit of our purpose, which is to help all families discover the joy of everyday life,” she said. “One of our core values is inclusivity, and of course this is about who we hire and the environment we create, so that everyone can have a sense of belonging to Target, but it’s also about who set the terms of expectations for our guests.”

Target’s culture extends beyond the store and into the community, Sheppert said. She noted the response of a store leader in Buffalo, N.Y., after a raging pre-Christmas blizzard deposited four feet of snow and left residents trapped in cars and in homes without heat.

The store director quickly decided to open the doors for those who needed shelter. The store offered coffee, hot chocolate and coloring activities for the kids, Sheppert said, infusing a sense of community into what otherwise was a harrowing time.

“One of the things that I loved as I was hearing the story was we didn’t just have the guests come in the building, we still created those special, magical Target moments,” Sheppert said.

Hennington added that Target’s culture also guides the retailer’s relationships with partners, vendors and others.

“We’re able to sustain that expectation of our guests because of incredible partners that we’ve embraced and thought about as a collective,” she said.

Cornell said rarely a day goes by without conversations among Target team leaders about how the company can care, grow and win together.

Fernandez agreed. “It’s genuine, and it’s real, and you can feel it. And it makes a difference,” she said.

“We hear all the time from guests that we’re their happy place, and we’re showing up in a way in their life that is really, really meaningful,” said Sylvester, who said roaming the aisles of a Target store has become a form of self-therapy for some people, especially young women.

Sylvester cited a Los Angeles Times article from September about one such shopper, Shamita Jayakumar, that was headlined, “I need to go to therapy soon, and by therapy I mean Target.”

“Another one of our guests, Joyce, reached out to me right before the holidays on LinkedIn,” Sylvester said. “She’s a Black mom of two young girls, really similar to my girls’ ages, she lives in the U.K. and she was in the U.S. for work. She ran to Target and actually stumbled upon our holiday assortment, bought some ornaments that were inclusive skin tones.”

The ornaments allowed her two young daughters to look up at the tree and see themselves for the first time, Sylvester said.

“These moments don’t just happen by chance,” she said. “They happen because our culture of care and our core value of inclusivity run deep in all of us. And by all of us, I mean all 400,000 team members. It absolutely shows up authentically to our guests. When our guests feel seen, when they feel heard, when they feel cared for, that all adds up to more joy in their lives, which is what we’re all here to do.”

The ability to care, grow and win together helped Target get through the coronavirus pandemic, Sylvester said, and it will continue to propel the company to do big things.

“So much of that was a sense of family, connection, how we come together,” she said. “So care, grow, win together is our phrase that captures our culture because it captures the voice of the team. Then at a time when we all needed to care together and grow together and win together, (it pulled us) through one of the most challenging experiences of any of our lives in the pandemic. I feel very honored that my team and I got to lead that work, and was really the voice of our over 400,000 team members.”



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