How CEO Mark Parker Runs Nike To Keep Pace With Rapid Change

“The World’s Most Creative CEO” says Nike’s culture is perfectly suited for the new, unpredictable age of business.

“The last thing we want,” says Nike CEO Mark Parker, “is to be a big dumb company that feels we can put a swoosh on something and people will buy that.”

I first met Parker three years ago, at a quiet lunch in New York. He’s a tall man, a former college track star and competitive marathoner. He’s designed enormously successful sneakers. He’s hung around with every bold-named athlete you can think of, at venues around the globe. You might expect him to be a larger-than-life presence, an intimidator. But he’s not. He isn’t without confidence, certainly, and he’s highly competitive. But he’s more inclined to listen and reflect. He doesn’t fit the expectation of a traditional big-company CEO.

We profiled Parker two years ago, calling him “The World’s Most Creative CEO.” How many chief executives sketch out product designs as a form of relaxation and engagement? How many meet with street artists and collect their work, not simply for personal pleasure but to evolve their understanding of our global culture?

Parker and I had dinner after my first Generation Flux feature, and he encouraged me to continue the thread of coverage. So I reached out to him when I embarked on the second installment.

Business At The Speed Of Swoosh

“Things are accelerating,” Parker says. “But it’s not as if we’re in a speed-up, slow-down world. It’s a high-velocity world, we’re digitally connected, everything is changing.”

This type of climate, he contends, fits into Nike’s longtime culture. “Our management approach hasn’t come from studying and reading business books. It’s more intuitive, from the culture of sports. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve. How do you adapt to your environment and really focus on your potential? To really go after that, you have to embrace the reality that it is not going to slow down. And you have to look at that as half full, not half empty.”

“Companies and people look at the pace of change as a challenge, an obstacle, a hurdle,” Parker notes. “We like to look at it as opportunity: Get on the offense.”

How To Be Goliath In A David Market

I asked Parker if being a big organization was a disadvantage in an era of rapid change. “I don’t think it's true that size by definition limits adaptability, flexibility,” he says. “We’re a big global brand, we have great resources. We break the business into definable subsets based on different consumer cultures and go deep, to be meaningful and relevant to them.”

But he acknowledges that size can have complications. “At a big company, often size turns into constipation, it fogs the lens about what’s really happening. Sometimes with size and success comes the notion that since we’ve done things to be successful, we have the formula and can institutionalize it. That can be death.”

“You have to challenge what’s worked,” Parker observes. “If we said, okay, we have the formula for design and manufacturing footwear—that’s a myopic and short-term view.” They would never have then pursued FlyKnit, a new Nike technology that allows shoes to be sewn from thread instead of cut from sections of fabric. “One of the challenges of innovation is challenging a set model. A traditional way to manufacture footwear existed for hundreds of years. Now we have a whole new way.”

Aren’t there people within an organization that resist changing? “It’s natural for people to be comfortable the way things are,” Parker says. “My job, our job, is to not close the mind. With FlyKnit, I was very involved. You look at the potential—it could be game changing—you encourage it, it creates momentum.”

Top-Down Vs. Bottom-Up

At Nike, Parker says, “It’s a mix. Traditional hierarchic top-down is archaic, it’s just not real. On the other side, everything is not bubble-up. That ratio, top-down to bubble-up, will shift based on situations. I’m a big believer that there’s no one single approach.”

“Sometimes, you need to go hard and fast,” he allows, “and [from the top] we can make that happen. Ideas may come from the bottom up but the direction and support can go top-down.” Parker looks for bottom-up ideas, by walking the halls at Nike. “I’ll see something on corner of someone’s desk and ask, ‘What’s that?’ All of a sudden, a new thing is on the priority list.”

“You have to be open to ideas from different parts of the company, from different parts of the world. The biggest sources of opportunity are collaboration and partnership. And today, with digital communication, there is more of that everywhere. We need to expose ourselves to that as a matter of doing business.”

Making Choices From Infinite Possibilities

“That’s one of the greatest challenges,” Parker admits. “We are an idea-rich organization. Never have I seen more opportunity. How do you pick? You don’t always pick the right things, you have to edit out.”

Parker has a term he uses to describe the requirement: Edit and Amplify. “The ability to edit and amplify is so critical. It is consuming for me, the choices we need to make in every part of our business.” Earlier this year, Parker noted that Nike’s R&D group had 350 ideas being explored. He recognized that the number was too high. “We had too many projects. Some are clearly more important than others.” So he pushed the group to make some hard choices. He got personally involved—not specifically selecting projects, but working with the R&D team to set up criteria to evaluate. “What are the things we want to accomplish? How do these rate against those criteria?” They cut the idea list down to 50.

“There’s a real discipline to this,” Parker says. “It’s going to sound bureaucratic, but it's not. There’s a difference between discipline and bureaucracy.”

“You can’t always predict the winners,” he continues. “I end up asking a lot of questions, so the team thinks things through. I don’t say ‘Do this, do that.’ I’m not a micromanager. I don’t believe in that. My father, when I was growing up, would say to me when I had to make a decision, ‘Well what do you think?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I think this.’ And he’d say, ‘That seems like a good idea.’ And over time, I started picking for myself. I didn’t need to go to him. At Nike, we have incredibly strong people. They know what to do.”

How To Model A Modern Leadership Team

“You don’t need to be here four or five years to have great ideas heard. I go out and seek ideas from lower parts of company, maybe a new designer fresh out of school. Sometimes its good to see raw ideas at a basic level. I like to pull that out, put it in the spotlight, celebrate that ideas come from everywhere. There’s real value to show everyone in the company that you can make a difference. In many cases, things that happened off the grid have become a massive success.” Parker’s own career was elevated by what he calls “a little side project”: the idea of “visible air,” or Nike Air as you likely know it, which drove massive value for Nike for many years. A more recent example, he notes, is Nike’s line of Free footwear, which also came out of a side project. “Now it’s a billion-dollar franchise,” Parker notes.

Parker recognizes that perfection is not possible in a world of flux. “We’re not always right,” he says with a laugh. But as long as they go with change, instead of fighting it, Parker says, the company moves in the right direction. “We try to help accelerate the change ourselves,” he explains. “If you get that it’s an opportunity, you’ll want to.” He repeats his early exhortation: "Play offense."

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11 Comments

  • Ellen Lin

    I fully agree with his no single approach in managing such a huge company with a combination of top down to provide directions and support and bottom up to get innovative ideas

  • Joe Laipple

    Great article and perspective on Mark Parker’s approach to rapid change.  In my experience as a behavioral consultant, I see a few key signs of success in this article as it relates to how leaders can successfully accelerate the rate of change.  They don’t spend too much time theorizing, talking and over planning.  Instead they get something started and fine tune it.  They ask questions to help hold individuals more accountable for figuring things out on their own.  Processes are used to provide discipline rather than bureaucracy.  In my recently published book, “Rapid Change: Immediate Action for the Impatient Leader” I highlight ten case examples of how companies have figured out how to get change to occur and make it stick.  The Nike story could certainly be another example.   Take action today.  Use questions to help others figure out the answers on their own.  Do so in a positive way that creates a competitive and motivated work force rather than a micromanaged one.  I am pleased that you are taking the time to feature this kind of work. 
    Joe Laipple, Senior Vice President, Aubrey Daniels International

  • Jim Nowakowski

    Parker is a smart guy. What he says about change is, of course, true. It's hard to believe that it's just about shoes. It's not of course, and he's a lucky guy to be directing a company that is Nike. But I'm sure he works hard too (the harder you work, the luckier you get). Let's hope can continue to avoid the constipation he speaks of that big companies get.Good interview.

  • Chuck

    good luck catching Nike. Having worked with them over the years they are hungry and hardwired into sport and culture like no other brand on the planet.

  • Charlie Matz

    A great look into a man who follows his true gifts. Each leader is different so each of their approaches should be different according to their gifts. It's refreshing to see someone with such confidence in his approach, instilling confidence in his followers. I like how he relates some of that back to his Father... a great example of our we can build the right kind of thinking from a very early age. 

  • Scott Span, MSOD

    Great real world example. As a
    change agent, I have also found that companies that have the most success are
    also those that share your view “Companies and people look at
    the pace of change as a challenge, an obstacle, a hurdle,” Parker notes. “We
    like to look at it as opportunity: Get on the offense.”  “It’s not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” — William Edwards Deming

  • Michael Griffin

    Rapid technological change is inherently disruptive and disruption tends not to favor established companies. Nokia and Netflix both played highly successful offensive games - taking advantage of technological change - only to far behind soon after. I've been impressed by how Nike has kept up so far but feel that their challengers will increase very soon.

  • Rvery

    true wisdom in his words. continual progression and humility in your design and dev culture is key.