I ran a marathon, once, when I was 16. I trained for several months with my dad, who'd run a bunch of them before. After I finished the race, I felt so crummy that I yelled at him, "How could you let me do this?" But within a few hours, I felt better. And having survived the experience gave me a certain pride and confidence that helped carry me into adulthood.
When we set out to profile Nike CEO Mark Parker, senior writer Ellen McGirt had a theory about Parker's own history as a marathoner (way more illustrious than mine). Nike's iconic leader, Phil Knight, was a miler — his best time was 4:10 — and his career was marked by a certain impatience; he was an entrepreneur on the prowl. Parker, on the other hand, was a long-distance guy, and rose steadily through the Nike ranks over three decades.
But as McGirt relates in "Artist. Athlete. CEO," Parker is anything but a plodder. He has been a player in most of Nike's key wins, even when Knight was at the helm. Parker championed the Nike research lab, designed the company's best-selling running shoe, holds the patent on a key technology that boosted Nike from the doldrums in the mid-1980s, and helped recruit celebrity endorsers, including Tiger Woods. He still collaborates on shoe designs with athletes like Kobe Bryant, graffiti artists like Mr Cartoon, and designers like Japan's Hiroshi Fujiwara.
Parker's public persona is so understated, many people have never heard of him. But his distinctive approach to management, to company structure, and to product development has shaped Nike as much as Knight did. It's not just that Parker has shown an uncanny ability to connect with a broad range of people — Wall Street analysts and superstar athletes, street artists and Asian manufacturers, high-school track runners and Steve Jobs. It's how he's integrated all of those constituencies into one thriving global brand.
Maybe there is something to that marathon theory. After all, Parker is calm and even-keeled; in a half-dozen meetings, I never saw him lose his cool, even when I pressed him about Tiger Woods's recent travails. Parker is also intensely competitive. It's no accident that Nike's stock hit an all-time high earlier this year; during his tenure, shares are up more than 50% while the market is down 14%. It's not because Parker checks the ticker constantly. On the contrary, he seems almost bemused by the demands of the investment community. He takes the long view.
I ran that one marathon. It was enough for me. Parker finds ways to keep himself and his company motivated and moving. He keeps running and running.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.