A Disruptor Who Lost Their Way

I was struck this week by the announcement that Sears is filing for Chapter 11. Not because I was surprised, but because of the stories that have since been written about their heritage. This one in the New York Times articulates it best in my opinion.

It’s true that every successful company was disrupting something at some point in time. In Sears’ case, introducing catalog shopping to customers after the Civil War was a groundbreaking way to make shopping a convenient experience you could have at home. In later years, significant profit-sharing was their trademark -- making every employee a part of their growing success. Convenience for your shoppers and gratitude to your workforce are pretty strong core values. What an incredible example of understanding the needs of the marketplace at the time and filling the gap.

So what happened? Obviously, a lot of experts are postulating about this, and I don’t need to retread that ground here. What I’m more interested in is why, when there was such a clear value proposition, do companies like Sears lose their way? Making shopping convenient is now Amazon’s role in the marketplace, and if Sears had embraced change while staying true to their core value – it’s quite possible Amazon would have had some serious competition to contend with.

While the financial decisions and market dynamics played a significant role in the story of Sears, it’s hard to ignore that straying from their core values was at the center of their fate. If Sears (like Apple, for instance) met every market shift by returning to their ultimate north star (customer convenience + employee appreciation), things may have ended differently. When navigating challenges through the lens of their values filter, I expect they would have charted a different course – making different decisions about leadership, business, technology advancements and culture practices. Instead of always playing catch up to their competitors, they might have set a new industry standard – leading the way with consistent growth and reputation.

It’s a good reminder to those of us focused on building business in the age of disruption to stay close to our values. Innovation only gets you so far, because without consulting your compass, it’s hard to know what bets to make when changes are coming at a breakneck pace. 

So here’s to Sears and the brilliant moment when their founders changed the world with their desire to add value for their customers and employees. Without their vision we may not have known a world where we could order our books, diapers and dog food with just one click and free two day shipping.

Mory Fontanez