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Taking Risks, Failing Fast, and Making Data-Based Decisions

Kohl’s CFO Jill Timm on what it takes to lead finance at one of the nation’s largest retailers

By Paul Smirl

October 18, 2021

Overcoming walls of obstacles

When Jill Timm started working for Kohl’s 20 years ago, the retailer had just 200 stores in the Midwest and no website. As she moved from accountant to director to VP and ultimately to CFO, Kohl’s grew to 1,200 stores nationwide, developed a robust web strategy, and took an omni-channel approach to serving customers.

In the crowded retail space, Kohl’s has outlasted competitors like JCPenney and Sears, and grown a devoted customer base. There have been ups and downs along the way, but even after a year-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is primed for growth and success with Timm on the executive leadership team.

Timm recently shared her leadership insights with Wisconsin MBA students as part of the M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series.

Leading through the pandemic

“Retail isn’t for the faint of heart,” says Timm. “I’ve always had this big growth mindset, wanting to challenge myself and keep continually having new challenges in front of me.”

Timm became CFO in November 2019, so major challenges arose just months into her C-suite tenure. Timm and her colleagues decided to close all Kohl’s stores in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit the U.S., leading to the heartbreaking furlough of 85,000 associates. Kohl’s suddenly went from ‘how do we grow our profits’ to ‘how do we survive and generate cash?’

Timm led the finance department in making unprecedented transactions to keep cash flow going until stores could reopen. Kohl’s leadership team never stopped going to the office. When stores reopened, Timm traveled across the country to meet with Kohl’s store associates and see how they were doing. 

Kohl’s leadership needed to keep the company afloat, but that didn’t mean pausing on their strategic plans. In the midst of the pandemic, the company signed an agreement to add Sephora shops to 850 locations by 2023, with 200 locations already open. Kohl’s had long been looking to enter the beauty space, and adding Sephora was a win-win for both companies. Timm kept the deal on track while continually surveying the uncertain financial landscape that retail found itself in.

She credits her past mentors, like former Kohl’s CFO Wes McDonald, for lessons in leadership. 

“One of things that [McDonald] had said to me is, ‘When you’re in this role, you are not going to know all the answers, but you’re going to have to make all the decisions,’” says Timm. “And boy, did that come true for my first year-and-a-half sitting as a CFO during a pandemic.”

The ideal mentor

There are three qualities she says make up a good mentor:

  1. Explicit trust
  2. Brutal honesty
  3. Willingness to challenge

Finding a mentor should feel natural according to Timm. You should find someone with whom you can freely be who you are, and encourage them to tell you the honest truth about your professional strengths and areas for improvement. A good mentor challenges their mentee to go beyond what they are comfortable with and strive for more.

It’s not going to be about your expertise at these levels. It’s going to be about how you mentor, how you lead, and how you decision-make.

Jill Timm,
Chief Financial Officer, Kohl’s

Take risks, fail fast, and make progress

Mentorship is continually on Timm’s mind. She’s received great mentorship on her way to becoming CFO, and she actively seeks to mentor others. 

For Timm, failure is a necessary part of the journey to success: “Innovation comes through failure, and you learn, and you move forward.” She likes to use FAIL as an acronym—First Attempt In Learning. If you can learn from your mistakes and use the data gathered from failures to inform future decisions, you’ll be in a good position. 

On the organizational level, Kohl’s constantly tests different strategies with its stores, merchandise, and promotions. This allows the company to take risks and go against conventional wisdom at times, because the company’s leaders know what works and what doesn’t down to a granular level. 

Kohl’s inclusion of Amazon returns in its stores is a particularly noteworthy example of taking risks. While many people doubted Kohl’s for partnering with its greatest competitor, Timm says being able to return Amazon items to Kohl’s stores is bringing in newer, younger customers for Kohl’s, with many people shopping in the store after they return their items. Kohl’s knew this strategy would work after first taking the risk and testing Amazon in a few stores, then expanding the partnership. 

On a personal level, Timm also sees growing from failure as a key attribute to becoming a corporate leader: “It’s how you react to those failures that I really think defines you as a leader and as a person.”

Navigating a career as a leader

Once someone is in a leadership role, Timm says that your core competency is no longer the driver of your job. You should be trusted to deliver in your functional area—finance, marketing, or operations for instance—but it’s your skills in taking risks, failing fast, and overcoming challenges that will help you stand out.  

“It’s not going to be about your expertise at these levels, it’s going to be about how you mentor, how you lead, and how you decision-make,” says Timm, who is quick to point out that your career will never go on the timeline you expect. 

For someone who loves a challenge, Timm has found many in her 20 years with Kohl’s. She’s taken a lot of risks, received some great mentorship, been empathetic with coworkers and customers, and believed in her abilities in finance and her vision for leading a major company. 

Watch Jill Timm speak with Leslie Petty, assistant dean of the Wisconsin Evening, Executive, and Professional MBA Programs.