When you first meet Justin Kerr, “Corporate America Big-Shot” is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind — and we mean that as a compliment. (To be sure, he’d definitely take it as one.) He’s in sneakers, rolled-up chinos, a t-shirt, hair casually mussed, usually with a big smile on his face. He’s got that look in his eyes of someone who’s always got an idea (or in Justin’s case, probably several) bubbling in his brain.
But the fact is, Justin is kind of a Corporate America Big-Shot. He got his start right here at Gap Inc. and has spent the last 18 years working at some of the largest retail corporations in the world (Gap Inc., Levi’s, and Uniqlo to name a few), running some of the biggest businesses in our industry.
But he’s also spent a good portion of those years rebelling against a lot of the expectations and shackles of Corporate America. In fact, he’s made a career out of finding ways to work against “the system” and still be wildly successful inside of it. And as a result, came up with the MR CORPO platform and began writing books like How to Write an Email, and How to Be a Boss, and started his rogue podcast, MR CORPO, to share some of his rebel tactics with the rest of us.
He’s a wealth of information and inspiration, which is why we sat down with him to pick his brain, learn how to write the best email possible, and find out why he says everything he learned he learned at Gap Inc.
Tell us what you currently do for a living — without the corporate lingo! Or in other words, how would you describe your job to a toddler?
For the record, I would never talk to a toddler about my work — I don’t even talk to my friends about work! But this made me think about what I could tell my mom she could say about her gainfully employed son when she’s at a cocktail party: “I’m President at Imprint Projects
and we’re a creative agency with offices in New York, LA, and San Francisco, that helps brands like Google, Nike, or the Museum of Modern Art, do awesome things in the world.”
What was your first job with Gap Inc.?
I was a part of the RMP (Rotational Management Program)
at Gap Inc. It was my first job out of college.
I went to Princeton University, and at the time, the only question was whether you were going to become an investment banker or a consultant — those were your two choices. So I went to the job fair to try and get all the free stuff. And as I was walking out of the gym, with all my free pens and stress balls, someone grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “You look like the person for us.” I’ll never forget his name — Rob Bloom — and he said, “I’d love to talk to you about Gap Inc.”
He asked me if I had a resume, and I of course said yes even though I actually didn’t have one yet, so I immediately ran back to my dorm and wrote up a resume right there. Then I ran back to the gym, handed him my resume, and that was that. That was the only job I ever applied to out of college.
What brought you to Gap Inc. (and Old Navy) in the first place?
The reason I joined Gap Inc. is that the RMP
is an absolutely incredible opportunity, and a reflection of Gap Inc.’s commitment to teaching and nurturing the next generation of leaders.
I graduated from college and had no idea what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, and to be able to go a world-class organization and be told, “we’re going to give you four different jobs and four different brands to help you find your place” — there are few opportunities like it for someone fresh out of college.
Gap Inc. took a chance on me and allowed me to get in there and see who I really could be. And I don’t know of any other program in the world that does that.
What was it that you learned at Gap Inc. that took you to your next step, and ultimately to where you are today?
The truth is, I learned everything I know at Gap Inc. And I would put a period at the end of that sentence and not feel a need to further explain.
These were the 11 most formative years of my life. Gap Inc. gave me a safe place to make mistakes and grow up. That’s a gift that’s above all other gifts. I don’t know of another company that can give that opportunity quite like Gap Inc. does.
I had an incredible 11 years running up the flagpole there, and I felt after those 11 years, that I needed something different. I didn’t want to be the person who said, “We already tried that.” I think that retail and the Gap Inc. brands are best served by fresh ideas and optimism, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose mine.
It was a good time for me to jump out and try something new. At that time, that meant I needed to go beyond those four walls and prove to myself that I could succeed at other things and at other places.
I made the strategic move to go to Levi’s and run their women’s business. In the apparel industry, you always need women’s experience to be at the top of the heap. At Levi’s, I was in charge of every pair of women’s jeans sold everywhere in the world. There were over 10,000 points of distribution. The international aspect of that job was really compelling to me. It allowed me to get out and see the world.
How did your time at Old Navy prepare you for your role at Levi’s?
Old Navy is a place that taught me how to be action-oriented. There was a hunger and a pace to that culture that I was at first intimidated by, and then became addicted to. It has a flywheel effect because success begets success, and you develop a taste for it. It’s not by accident.
Three words to describe your career path:
Surpassing unreasonable expectations
. They’re very loaded words, but I think they encompass a lot of what my experience has been — expectations for myself and expectations of others.
The other way I’ve described my career path is “accidental tourist.” I never had an affinity for apparel or retail. It was never what I set out to do and because I never had that emotional need or psychological connection, I was able to have a critical distance that I think really benefited me, because I wasn’t emotionally wrapped up in, “Does that need to be a blue polo or a red rugby?” It didn’t matter to me. And I think that gave me a different perspective than I think a lot of my peers, who grew up in the industry, wanting to do this their whole lives. It’s a much different point of view.
Do you do what you love and love what you do?
My quick answer to that is no, but I would say I’m working on it. My happy place is sitting by the pool in Palm Springs and writing spy novels.
The work I do with MRCORPO.COM
and MR CORPO podcast
— that is something I love because I feel like I’m giving back, and I get a lot of satisfaction in feeling like I’m helping other people.
As it relates to my work, 18 years of working in Corporate America or my current job — I don’t care about it whatsoever, and I don’t take any particular pride in it. And I don’t know that anyone in my life has heard me talk about my work, outside of work.
If I’m being totally honest, the thing I’m struggling with the most in my life right now, is that I think deep down I’m an artist, but I am so afraid of my dad, and of what society says or will say about that, that I’m afraid to say it out loud. But I think these books are me starting to express that side of myself.
You’ve built an entire career on endeavors in efficiency, and ultimately, success. What was it in your career that sparked that passion?
I call myself an efficiency monster because it’s a little bit scary. My obsession with efficiency is born from necessity.
I made a deal with myself that I would leave work every day by 5pm to feel like I was “winning” in my invisible, eternal struggle with the idea of “selling out.” So I became obsessed with this question of, “How do I write the perfect email, so that people will reply right away, and I can get the answer I need, and get out of here by 5pm?” My drive for efficiency wasn’t for the business, it wasn’t for the results; it was out of self-interest.
But it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can look after yourself and
serve the business. It really just comes down to: do such
a good job that you get to do things on your
terms rather than other people’s.
What’s one thing you do every day to be efficient? To be successful?
I get to the office early.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Two things come to mind:
- I was at Old Navy Men’s and our business was on fire, and we thought we were untouchable, to the point that my team and I were playing ping-pong in the middle of the day, taking long lunches… And I’ll never forget, Sheryl Clark, who was the EVP at the time, came into the room and looked around and said, “Your day will come.” She didn’t say anything else and she didn’t have to. I walked away from that moment with an understanding that I needed to be grateful for when things are going well. Don’t let the business results dictate your own self-worth, good or bad. I still have a relationship with Sheryl to this day, and I still reflect on that lesson and say thank you to her once a year for that. I’ll never forget that.
- My other piece of advice is from another really incredible woman at Gap Inc. (Michelle Sizemore). She told me whenever anyone offers you a raise or you’re negotiating salary, never say anything, and don’t react in the moment. Silence is your power. Walk away from that meeting and say you’ll think about it. That will allow you the space and the position to go back and negotiate.
Also, how DO you write an email?
Has anyone ever given you really bad career advice? What was it? What would you say you learned instead, or what advice would you give instead?
I’ve gotten really bad career advice from my dad. He told me never to leave work before your boss does.
The advice I would give instead is to get to work early. Turn your work in early. And leave early. People who work late suck at their job. It means they can’t keep up. It means they’re falling behind, and it means they don’t have a good work-life balance. It’s not about appearances. Let go of all of the posturing and the positioning.
Anything you’re currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
I’ve got my new book How to Be Great at Your Job, which just launched with national distribution. I’m really proud of the fact that through a lot of trial and error in writing all of these books, I finally have a big publisher behind me like Chronicle. Check me out on Instagram @mrcorpo. Invite me to come speak to your team, to your whole office. I travel anywhere to talk about how to be good at your job because I’m really passionate about it. That’s my happy place (that, and writing spy novels poolside in Palm Springs).
Bullet points. We could solve half the world’s problems, just by using bullet points in an email.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The one goal I had for myself was to be able to buy a refrigerator that has crushed ice in the door. I’m still working on that.
We’re proud to call Justin a Gap Inc. alum, and love the legacy he's built here. We can’t wait to see what he does next. Interested in building a career with us? Check out our open roles here.
Want to hear more from Justin? Visit MRCORPO.com and use the discount code ILOVEGAPINC for 20% off your purchase of any of his books!