Leadership changes

What makes a great corporate white knight?

June 22, 2011: 11:53 AM ET

Companies vying for a turnaround may bank on hiring a high-profile CEO to save the day, but not all corporate heroes are suited to the task. Here are some key ingredients in a corporate knight in shining armor.

By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter

Apple's Ron Johnson will take the helm at JCPenney on November 1

Apple's Ron Johnson will take the helm at JCPenney on November 1

FORTUNE -- When it's time for a major change, many companies seek salvation in a new CEO from a headline-heavy company: someone who is not just a leader, but a star that can swoop in and save the day.

Last week, JCPenney (JCP) announced that Ron Johnson will take the helm at the retailer on November 1, after making his mark as an executive at Apple (AAPL). Johnson is a high-profile hire, brought on to snatch the retailer from the jaws of mediocrity. His move is yet another example of an executive who has come down with a case of  "white knight syndrome," a scenario in which a successful executive feels that he or she can translate their previous victories at an entirely different company (and sometimes in an entirely different industry) to rescue another company.

While this kind of scenario certainly comes with its fair share of pressure and expectations, it can yield success. "But for every example of it working, there's one that fails," says Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

So what kind of an executive makes for an ideal white knight? Companies in need of a corporate rescue should look for a couple of traits to avoid hiring a leader that trips over all that shining armor.


Clearly, a new hire's track record is important, Useem says, but a singular success within one industry might not be good enough. Consistent performance across industries is a good marker for a white knight, he adds, because it means that an individual is capable of leading in general, not just managing specific industry challenges. More

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