January 26, 2023

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #155 – How Target Wins with a Purpose Driven Formulaic Culture

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Gina Acosta’s article in Progressive Grocer on January 20th, 2023

We are always on the hunt for meaningful research that will assist our clients in building peak performance cultures. In last week’s edition of Progressive Grocer, Gina Acosta’s article on Target highlights the need for organizations to keep cultural health front and center, while simultaneously pursuing advances in technology, strategy, and other forms of innovation.

While many companies in the grocery industry and other sectors are laser-focused on strategy, Target Corp. says sustained success — especially during uncertain and challenging times — is only possible when an organization has first developed a strong and positive culture.

“For companies going forward, you have to have a great strategy, you have to have great capabilities, you have to have really talented teams. But culture plays such an important role in driving results for Target, and so many of us,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell, who moderated a session at NRF’s Big Show examining the relationship between the company’s strong culture and its overall success. Participants included colleagues Christina Hennington, Chief Growth Officer; Cara Sylvester, Chief Guest Experience Officer; Kiera Fernandez, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer; and Alexis Sheppert, Group VP for Stores.

“We use culture as a guidepost,” Fernandez said. “We use it as a set of filters for decisions we make in the business, both big and small. And that’s all in pursuit of our purpose, which means to help all families discover the joy of everyday life. So, 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 what we set in terms of expectations for our guests.”

Target has clear goals regarding its representation in its assortment of products so that the company meets the diverse expectations and needs of guests across the board.

“When you interact with Target brands, whether you’re walking in our stores, whether you’re picking up a Drive-Up order, whether you’re seeing our marketing in the world, we want you to feel something,” explained Fernandez. “And 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 or linear one. And 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.”

Fernandez provided an example of a Target guest who shared with the Los Angeles Times that she roams the aisles of Target to destress and practice self-care.

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

Hennington explained that Target’s culture extends well beyond the internal team and shoppers.

“We think of our partners, whether it’s vendors, suppliers, or other partners in technology or marketing, etc., as an extension of our team,” she said. “And so therefore, our culture of care growing with together is meant to represent the entire ecosystem of people we’ve worked with. Culture is not something you build in one day. And so the strength of our relationships and the investments we’ve made in connecting and building winning strategies together is what got us through and allowed us to grow at the rate that we did.”

Sylvester shared some advice for other companies battling through challenges.

“My most simple and practical piece of advice that’s gotten us through is when you care for your team first, they will care for your guests, for your customers, for your community,” she said. “And I mentioned this, but every single one of us, all 400,000 team members plays a critical role in ensuring that our guests have an amazing experience when we walk through the doors, that’s where you can feel the culture, right? And our guests can actually feel our culture when they’re walking through our stores or interacting with us.”

So how do you show your team that you care?

“First of all, you invest in your team and you invest in your team first,” said Sylvester. “Second, you listen to your team. And I would say we listen to our team deeply and continuously just as much as we listen to our guests, if not more, that’s where we can actually understand what’s going on in their lives so that we can appropriately assess their wants and their needs and make adjustments. And last, I would say actively look for ways to make your team’s job easier, especially in retail, when things are complicated, your guests, your customers, they can feel it. We actively look for removing that friction from our team.”

Cornell ended the session by emphasizing that culture isn’t something that you can put aside for a day, a week, or even a moment.

“We embrace that Target culture each and every day to be great role models for every part of the organization, for our guests, and for our communities,” he said. “Those are the things I think about every day; how we make sure that culture isn’t something that sits on the wall, but it’s part of who we are. It’s how we lead, it’s how we think about running the business and driving the business. We always wake up thinking about the importance of culture here.”

From our perspective, Cornell, Hennington, Sylvester, Fernandez, and Sheppert are poster leaders for what we refer to as a culture of peak performance. When Fernandez said that Target uses culture as a guidepost, a set of filters for both large and small business decisions, she used the language of a leader who deeply understands how mission, vision, values, and strategy flow from a powerful and meaningful purpose. It is all in pursuit of purpose, a quest to help all families discover the joy of everyday life.

When Fernandez spoke of wanting their guests to “feel something,” regardless of whether they’re experiencing a brick-and-mortar encounter, an e-commerce transaction, or an order pickup, that is a clear sign of a leader who fully understands and delivers a purpose-driven, carefully choreographed customer experience. When Hennington referred to Target’s vendors, suppliers, and tech and marketing providers as partners and extensions of the team, that is a clear sign of a leader who understands stakeholder engagement and the concept of caring for the entire “ecosystem” of people with whom the company interacts. This is huge, as companies we’ve studied that perform at the top of their sectors have similar mindsets. The strength of their relationships and the investments they’ve made connecting and building winning strategies is what has allowed them to emerge victorious and grow at the rate that they have.

Sylvester spoke of investing in their team first by listening deeply and continuously to members within the organization as much as those outside of it, which provides the opportunity to remove friction from and add value to each team member’s life. That’s another clue you’re listening to someone who really gets it. Cornell wrapped up the session by saying they embrace that Target culture each day to be great role models for their organization, guests, and communities. That’s a sign of a CEO who truly understands the essence of great cultures and the peak performance that results from them.

I hope you find this piece of research as valuable as I have. As a regular Target customer, I’ve seen a rather dramatic improvement in the overall customer experience. It’s fun and rewarding to watch peak performance cultures evolve right before your eyes. Give us a call, and let’s talk about how we can help you build your own peak performance culture.

Warmest Regards,


Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory