Justin Kerr knows how to get the job done right, and he knows how to get it done fast. He’s successfully worked his way up to be the youngest senior executive at some of fashion’s most well-known and highest grossing companies (we’re talking the big guns here: Old Navy, Gap and UNIQLO). He says it’s not about how hard you work, but rather, how you go about working. For him, it’s all about efficiency which is apparent in his long list of accomplishments. In addition to climbing his way to the top of the corporate ladder he’s still managed to find time to write 14 books (including one of our fave’s: How to write an email), travel the country for speaking engagements and host the podcast, MR CORPO.
He’s successfully worked his way up to be the youngest senior executive at some of fashion’s most well-known and highest grossing companies (we’re talking the big guns here: Old Navy, Gap and UNIQLO). He says it’s not about how hard you work, but rather, how you go about working. For him, it’s all about efficiency which is apparent in his long list of accomplishments. In addition to climbing his way to the top of the corporate ladder he’s still managed to find time to write 14 books (including one of our fave’s: How to write an email), travel the country for speaking engagements and host the podcast, MR CORPO.
Currently living in SOHO (and still under the age of 40), we caught up with the young businessman to talk about what it is that has made him so successful, how he’s never worked past 5pm and what rookie mistakes he can help you never make again. Read on to simplify your work life, CORPO style.
You grew up in Newport Beach, what interests did you have as a child?
Growing up the oldest of three brothers I never realized you were allowed to disobey your parents, so I was in bed every night by 8pm until I went to college. I was Student Body President (Newport Harbor High School), got A’s, played cello (hated it), and didn’t drink or do drugs. So the only thing that kept me from being 100% nerd was the fact that I was athletic and basically played sports every weekend from the age of five until I went to Princeton University on a soccer scholarship.
What was college like for you?
My biggest surprise at Princeton University came after I injured my knee and couldn’t play soccer anymore. I started acting in plays and quickly realized that the “drama dorks” I’d been making fun of my entire life were actually way more interesting, way funnier, and partied way harder than any of my “jock” friends. It opened my eyes to another side of life that had been previously off-limits to me. It changed my life forever.
How did you first get into the apparel business?
It was the first job I applied for; the first job offer I received. Without any negotiation and against my Dad’s wishes I accepted it right away based solely on the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do, so why not just try this? ($40K and San Francisco).
When I started at Gap Inc. in their training program it’s safe to say my interest in fashion was at a 2 on a scale of 1-10. I think this “outsider” approach was critical to my success because I didn’t really personalize anything. I didn’t grow up wanting to work in fashion so I was able to maintain a certain critical distance from the drama of it all.
Besides that critical distance what else has made you so successful?
I’m not afraid to admit that being a straight male in a female-dominated environment was also beneficial to setting me apart from the crowd. I somehow found the only occupation where being an upper middle class white straight male would put me in the minority in the workplace.
You’ve written 14 books, host a podcast, and travel the country for your book tours, as well as serve as the Chief Merchandising Officer and Director of Marketing at UNIQLO. How do you manage your time?
I like to describe myself as an efficiency monster and if I throw out all the pomp and circumstance it basically comes down to a willingness and ability to get into work early — meaning 6 or 7am early. I’ve never worked on a weekend, I’ve never checked email after 5pm, and I’ve simply made a point of prioritizing my time outside of work to get sh*t done.
Who inspires you? Are you often compared to Tim Ferriss?
Artists inspire me. People who are doing what they love inspire me. I think deep down I’m an artist, or at least a writer, and I’m just too scared to admit it so I’ve been hiding out in corporate America for the last 17 years trying to rebel against “the man” while equally seeking the approval and warm embrace of “the man.”
Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Could Be Your Life changed me forever because for the first time in my life I was being told that there were no excuses — if you wanted to do something, you could do it yourself. It was this (now mainstream) DIY punk ethos which changed my life, especially the chapter on Minor Threat and Ian MacKaye.
Oh, and to answer your question, I’ve never been compared to Tim Ferriss but I’ll take it as a compliment, so thank you! (P.S. He’s a fellow Princeton Tiger!)
You are a talented public speaker and have had previous speaking engagements at places like Airbnb and Deutsche Bank, what is one of the main points you try to convey in all of your speeches?
My superpower is creating simplicity out of chaos, so when I talk to an individual or a group of people, I’m mostly interested in identifying really small, really easy things that anyone can do to improve their work life.
The title of my book is How to write an email, which is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but my point is that life (and work) is simple if you will just focus on getting a few small things right.
What’s a rookie mistake that people often make that you have the solution to?
People don’t work late because they love what they do – people work late because they write sucky emails (technical term) and lose hours of their day waiting for people to reply to them.
My advice is to never use EOD as a deadline. It is the “white noise” of corpo-speak. In-one-ear-and-out-the-other. Instead, use off-rhythm deadlines such as 4:37 or 3:22. It’s a simple way to break the routine and get people’s attention. Watch what happens when you set a weird deadline: due Wednesday, 11:11. I promise everyone will reply with the information you need when you need it.
Here’s another favorite:
When your boss asks, “How’s it going?” what they are really saying is “I don’t trust you.” Most people don’t realize this, and no matter how hard they work, they’ll never get credit for everything they do because the boss’s experience of each project is that it wouldn’t get finished if they hadn’t babysat and checked in on them.
I believe in efficiency through over-communication and this means giving constant updates, writing good bullet point emails, and building trust by turning in your work early (by 5pm the day prior).
What is it that you hope to help people achieve?
I have two goals when I talk to people.
On a practical level I hope to give people an hour of their day back by helping them achieve efficiencies in their work-life through simple changes in their behavior. This is the basis for How to write an email.
On a higher level I hope to inspire people to remember that the results of last quarter aren’t going to be written on their tombstone so don’t lose sight of what’s important: friends, family, fun. By helping people be good at their job I’m trying to help them maximize their efforts while they are at the office, and at the same time, trying to help them get out of the office and get on with their life.
What is your favorite part about the work life you have created for yourself?
I’m constantly struggling with the question of whether or not I have just wasted 17 years of my life by working in corporate America, but the truth is that I have found a balance I’m happy with. I’ve been able to travel and live all over the world as a result of my jobs at Old Navy, Levis and UNIQLO. I’ve also made a lot of money which I’ve poured into buying art, making art and buying as many frozen margaritas as my heart desires, so I think I’m doing okay.
How did the name MR CORPO originate?
About eight years ago I started a gang called LOS CORPOS as a tongue-in-cheek expression of my struggle with “selling out” and working for corporate America. Our symbol was the red push-pin that art galleries use to symbolize when a painting is sold. The idea of MR CORPO is an evolution of this idea combined with a vision of myself as a punk rebel in disguise. I know all the secrets of CORPO-America and I’m giving them away for free.
Your podcast is very informative indeed. How long does it take you to create each episode?
I usually write an outline for 45 minutes in the morning while I’m at work. The recording itself usually takes no more than 25 minutes and then we edit slightly and share it to the world.
In your podcast about networking you said you never really thought about the topic until you got a midnight text asking you to cover it. The next morning you got up and wrote 20 pages about the topic. Does this type of thing happen often for you?
Yes, I’m constantly drawing inspiration from the people around me and everyday situations I’m going through personally or reading about in the news.
At what point did you realize that writing books about business and making a podcast would be beneficial for your readers/listeners/fans?
I think there are three levels to my work with MR CORPO and the books and podcast.
On one level, it’s simple, I love teaching and wanted to help other people grow and succeed in the workplace. I wanted to share everything I learned in a way that was fun, easy and practical.
On a deeper level, I think writing the books and doing the podcast has been cathartic for me. Early in my career I was not as nice as I should have been. I lacked empathy for people around me, and as a result, didn’t always have the positive impact on others that I might have hoped for. I think these podcasts and books are a way of me trying to set the record straight, admit my mistakes and come to grips with the things I did well and the things I’d do differently.
I think the last piece is me letting go. I believe the entire MR CORPO platform is a vehicle for me to let go of this part of my life in preparation for something new and completely different. I’m shedding my skin (so to speak) by sharing my knowledge — in hopes of finally finding the courage to spread my wings and admit that I’m an artist.