Hubert Joly

The age of the 'recycled CEO'

June 5, 2013: 11:52 AM ET

Companies like J.C. Penney and P&G are looking to former top executives for their rescue. Will it work?

By Elizabeth G. Olson

J.C. Penney CEO Myron Ullman

J.C. Penney CEO Myron Ullman

FORTUNE -- For all the talk of new executive blood, some big, but flailing, companies like J.C. Penney (JCP) and Procter & Gamble (PG) are looking to former top executives for their rescue. Turning to the tried-and-true can seem like a failure of vision or lack of a talent net, but corporate history shows that grabbing the familiar old ring actually makes sense.

"When the company needs someone who can fix very specific things quickly and effectively, it can work," says Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Famous examples include Steve Jobs at Apple (AAPL) and Howard Schultz at Starbucks (SBUX).

"It's a combination of great passion and detachment, so they are able to cut what needs to be cut -- like Howard Schultz who first closed stores, then laid off people, and stopped reporting same-store sales," Koehn said.

"He could move quickly because he knew where all the bodies are buried and was able to move past that jungle posturing that always accompanies a new executive and the people around him. It's necessary anthropology, but it's very time-consuming."

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To revive its consumer products business, P&G brought back former CEO A.G. Lafley, 65, but the Cincinnati-based giant quickly moved to quell any criticism that it failed at succession-planning by making known that four current executives would be moving into major new roles.

Before retiring in 2009 after nearly a decade at P&G's helm, Lafley chose his successor, Robert McDonald, who struggled to right the giant goods purveyor in the unsettled economy. In the past, P&G has chosen its CEOs from its own ranks, although there is no public guarantee that will continue to be the case.

"Lafley is coming back to continue a successful strategy," noted Rosabeth M. Kanter, a professor of leadership, strategy, and innovation at Harvard Business School. Johnson "had to deal with the financial crisis and a lot of volatility," and Lafley's return will see him "accelerating restructuring to respond to that volatility.

"That makes sense," said Kanter, who also is director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative and author of several books. P&G has been undergoing a $10 billion revamp, begun under McDonald.

Recycled CEOs don't always work out -- the late Kenneth Lay being a major case in point. He was brought back to revive Enron after a brief stint under Jeffrey Skilling's leadership. That ended badly. A different, but embarrassing, scenario beset Xerox (XRX), when nine-year veteran CEO Paul Allaire was called back by the board in 2000 for a stint.

He became mired in federal regulators' charges that senior company executives engaged in a major accounting fraud. (He stayed less than two years then went onto another high corporate position, but the accusations cost him that job as well.)

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The company later enjoyed a major turnaround, but his stint underscores that no matter how well intentioned -- or necessary -- bringing back the boss can be problematic. Founders, in particular, can want company operations to return to his, or her, original vision or operating style when the marketplace has moved on. The return can also be the Band-aid the board of directors need to dodge responsibility for failed strategies and plans, or to deflect blame.

Certainly, there are the over-the-top success stories like Jobs and Schultz, but there are yet-to-be-concluded sagas including whether Richard Schulze, who founded electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY), will succeed in breathing new life into the wounded company.

Schulze has returned as chairman of Best Buy, which has been walloped by online competitors offering cheaper prices, and recorded a loss in its most recent quarter under the leadership of CEO Hubert Joly.

No one knows yet how Penney's CEO change will work out, but Kanter noted that "the CEO brought back was one said to have failed previously, which was why (recently replaced CEO) Ron Johnson was brought in -- to be a dramatic turnaround.

"I'm scratching my head about why they brought someone back that the whole board felt had a failed strategy needing updating."

Penney's has been struggling to hang on to its core audience as online retailers, with low prices and flashy offerings, have exerted a stronger hold on the public. The company has foundered while Johnson, a former Apple executive, tried to apply some of the electronic company's marketing know-how to the century-old American retailer.

Then in May, Johnson was moved aside, and former CEO Myron Ullman was returned to the helm by the board. The board was thinking: "We need a Smokey the Bear, someone who is well known and very experienced, not just to put out the fire," said Koehn.

"He's a serious retailer who needs to recapture Penney's relevance while holding on," she said. "He needs to plant some new trees and to grow a forest.

He has a chance to resuscitate the company so "it's not time to play Penney's funeral march," she noted. "But no brick-and-mortar retailer can now afford not to be playing for keeps."

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