Tension, Kmart Shoppers

If you dislike Kmart and Sears, at least you have less and less to dislike.

Sears Holdings Corp., the owner of the two chains, will be closing up to 120 stores. The Wall Street Journal commented harshly today that Sears Chairman Edward S. Lampert‘s “plan to build a reinvigorated retail giant from the crumbling ruins of Sears and Kmart is turning into a mess.”

Lampert, prior to taking on Sears, had helped steer Kmart out of tough waters, but his primary experience has been that of an investment specialist. “Mr. Lampert has been a hands-on manager at the retailer he built, often managing its day-to-day affairs from the Greenwich, Conn., offices of his hedge fund, ESL Investments Inc.,” the Journal noted. Meanwhile, Sears Chief Executive Lou D’Ambrosio is “a former tech executive who had no retail experience prior to assuming the job in February.” [EXPAND More]

Could the problem be one of mismatched backgrounds? We’ve written before about the importance, in some eyes, of possessing “domain knowledge”—that is, of having bankers run banks and chemists run chemical companies. Among those who hold this view is William Hopper, a writer-in-residence at the Drucker Institute.

At the same time, Peter Drucker didn’t seem especially concerned by people working outside of their traditional domains, because he thought that other qualities were every bit as important. “One hears that the government is doing research on new job descriptions based on subject knowledge,” Drucker wrote in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “But I think that we probably have to leap right over the search for objective criteria and get into the subjective what I call competencies. Do you really like pressure? Can you be steady when things are rough and confused?”

Drucker also believed that not being a subject-matter expert could have its own advantages. “Ignorance is not such a bad thing if one knows how to use it, and all managers must learn how to do this,” Drucker once told his students. “You must frequently approach problems with your ignorance, not what you think you know from past experience, because not infrequently, what you think you know is wrong.”

What’s your take: How important is it to have prior experience in a business you’re managing? [/EXPAND]