How Target Wins With Culture

At NRF, senior execs discuss inclusivity, community and caring
Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer
From left: Target CEO Brian Cornell; Kiera Fernandez, chief diversity officer; Christina Hennington, chief growth officer; Alexis Sheppert, group VP for stores; and Cara Sylvester, chief guest experience officer.

While many companies in the grocery industry and other sectors are laser-focused on strategy, Target Corp. says sustained success especially during challenging and uncertain times  is possible only when an organization has 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 on how the company’s strong culture plays a huge part in 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.

[Read more: "NRF’s ‘Big Show’ Offers Inspiration, Innovation"]

"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 about what it wants to represent in its assortment so it meets the diversity of expectations and needs of guests across each category.

"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 shared an example of a Target guest who says she spoke to the Los Angeles Times about how when she's stressed, she actually roams the aisles of Target for a little bit of self care.

"These moments don't just happen by chance. They happen because 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 commented that Target culture also 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 care for your team? 

"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 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." 

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