Headshot of Bill Cunningham, Vice President of Marketing, J.C. Penney.
Bill Cunningham, Vice President of Marketing at J.C. Penney, discusses the imprint of his mentor. — J.C. Penney

How to be a great mentor, according to J.C. Penney’s VP of Marketing Bill Cunningham:

  • Don’t be afraid to share. By always sharing stories, learnings, and experiences, you are helping your mentee to be the very best at their job.
  • Don’t forget—it is not your mentee’s job to adapt to you, but your job to adapt to your mentee.
  • Don’t forget to have fun.

Bill Cunningham, Vice President of Marketing at J.C. Penney, has eagerly set himself up to try to accomplish a big task: make 120-year-old J.C. Penney relevant to Gen Z. Not only has he learned to deal with the challenges of the department store’s emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under new ownership, but he’s still navigating J.C. Penney’s rebranding to take it past the scars of the pandemic.

How to accomplish all this? In part, by bringing a heavy dose of performance measurement and data to J.C. Penney’s marketing. Cunningham is credited with helping to lift the retailer’s image by implementing a new marketing strategy, even as the very landscape of retail continues to shift.

Above all, he says he has learned to laser-focus on J.C. Penney’s core customer — something he directly learned from his mentor. The brand’s recent “Make it Count” ad campaign highlights four key promises to consumers: making fashion accessible, providing emotional and financial rewards for customers, standing with local communities, and treating customers as the company would like to be treated.

Cunningham tells CO— of the sometimes surprising roles that his mentor played in helping him handle the enormous challenges of meshing the promise and familiarity of the 122-year-old J.C. Penney with the contemporary mindset of Gen Z.

CO—: Who is your mentor and why?

BC—: It’s Kirk Waidelich, now Chief Marketing Officer at Fleet Farm, who I worked with for eight years while he was here at J.C. Penney. He ‘found’ me in my early years here at J.C. Penney when I was a young, undeveloped leader. Kirk saw the potential he wanted to tap into and approached me about joining his team. At the time, I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Finance (six months on the job) and he was the Senior Director of Marketing.

CO—: What was your mentor like?

BC—: He is someone you would definitely not miss if you walked into a room. He is a very outgoing person. He’s very quick to make new friends and someone who most people relate to. Of all the mentors I’ve had in my career, he is the one whose mentorship transcended my business life into my personal life.

[Read: Execs From PepsiCo and Macy’s to Salesforce Reveal Their Mentors’ Best Advice]

CO—: What have you learned from your mentor that’s been key, valuable, or even game-changing to your career?

BC—: I learned about true leadership. As a leader, he was more focused on the levels of people below him than the levels of people above him. That is rare. Who you are investing your time in, as a leader, says a lot about you. He taught me my superpower as a connector. I connect people, information, and ideas to make them bigger and better. I have the ability to bring different perspectives together in the same room to create a bigger idea.

Just as importantly, he taught me to never fear being replaced. If you are doing your job as a leader, you are building people who are very capable of replacing you. He taught me to create a team whose very purpose is to make yourself obsolete.

Just as importantly, he taught me to never fear being replaced. If you are doing your job as a leader, you are building people who are very capable of replacing you.

CO—: Have you actually mentored someone to replace you?

BC—: Yes. Kendra Horne was working for me. She came to my organization right as we emerged from bankruptcy. She had never been in marketing before. She has since grown to take a leadership position and is now my peer as Vice President of Marketing Communications. She is no longer working for me. She is my peer.

CO—: Show your mentor’s imprint in action.

BC—: As J.C. Penney had to navigate through COVID-19 and then through bankruptcy, I tried to keep the team focused on the changes we had to implement. My mentor taught me how to do that. He frequently used the expression, “Slow, steady blows.” As you go through life, you always hear people talking about three-year plans and five-year plans. But he taught me an approach that’s counter to that. He always wanted to know: What are your short-term goals? What do you need to do in the near term? He showed me how to be adaptable and flexible and to anticipate what’s next instead of always looking out in the far horizon.

CO—: Is there a recent project at J.C. Penney that reflects your mentor’s imprint?

BC—: Yes, it’s our current marketing slogan, “Make it Count.” As I think through the body of work, it was large in nature and involved all of the marketing department. There were lots of twists and turns in its development and lots of tight timelines. In the end, it was a series of “short, steady blows.”

[Read: Execs From Hershey’s to Microsoft Reveal Their Mentors’ Best Advice]

CO—: Do you continue to speak with him or see him?

BC—: Yes. He called me this morning out of the blue. We talk every three to four weeks.

CO—: Please complete this sentence: Had I not met my mentor, I most likely would not have…

BC—: Had I not met Kirk, I don’t know that I would have ever recognized my true potential.

CO—: Are you a mentor?

BC—: Yes. But it’s never one and done. If you have the mindset of mentoring, you’re constantly looking for people in whom to invest. I have formal and informal mentees who may not even know I’m mentoring them. I’d say at any moment I can point to at least six people I’m actively mentoring. As people come and go, I’m always looking for opportunities to invest in others.

CO—: What surprised you most about mentoring?

BC—: I found a friend. That’s something I would never have expected. And not just Kirk, but I know his whole family — his wife and kids. So he’s [influenced] my church [life]; my associations outside of work; and even my kids’ schools. It far transcends my work.

CO—: Why is having a mentor important?

BC—: You receive candid feedback on things you can’t possibly see yourself; you get perspective on how to look at things differently; and it encourages you to grow like nothing else.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

CO— Exclusives: Insider Strategies

How the buzziest brands and hottest startups are solving today's biggest business challenges. CO— brings you advice from startup founders and top executives for thriving in a new world.