For insight into the art of winning, it’s hard to think of two better guides than Mark Parker, the head of industry dominating apparel brand Nike, and Serena Williams, one of the best athletes in the history of sports. In addition to ruling their respective universes, the duo has worked closely together on Williams’s line of Nike products. In this Q&A, moderated by Fast Company editor Robert Safian, they reveal some of the secrets of their powerful partnership.
Fast Company: Serena is the No. 1 female tennis player in
the world. She wins a lot of matches. What are the other attributes that she brings that make her particularly appropriate for Nike? Or is just being No. 1 enough?
Mark Parker: Where do I start? Serena is—a simple statement is she’s awesome. Obviously as an athlete she is not only the best in her sport [but] arguably one of the best athletes in any sport of all time. She has been so dominant. But I don’t just define her as a tennis player. She is so much more. We were texting when she was playing at the Australian Open last year, and I said, ‘What are you doing between matches? You’ve got a lot of time.’ And she goes, ‘Well, I’m taking some premed courses.’ And then she paints, she’s incredibly creative, she is a designer.
For me, personally, coming from design, I love collaborating and connecting with Serena on new product ideas. She’s fantastic. At Nike, we listen to the voice of the athlete. That’s where we get the insights that ultimately drive the innovation that is so important to who we are as a company. And she is really the ultimate, not just as an athlete but in all the other dimensions of who she is. So I’m a fan. [Laughs]
FC: Serena, you could work with any company. So why do you choose to work with Nike?
Serena Williams: Well, that’s a very simple answer. When you’re the best, you want to work with the best. Also when I was younger, you dream of being with Nike because they built such a great brand. My lifelong dream was to be a part of the Nike brand and the Nike family, because I wanted to be the best at what I did.
MP: By the way, she’s incredibly demanding.
MP: And I say that as a compliment. I really believe that the athletes who demand a lot of themselves demand a lot of us. In that process, we get better. Helping Serena realize her potential makes us realize our own.
FC: Mark, I know you personally collaborate on Serena’s designs. How does that work? Where do the ideas start?
MP: It’s really iterative and organic. We go back and forth. Serena has a million ideas and very strong opinions about what she likes and doesn’t like, or what she wants to portray of herself and how she wants to project. So all that comes into the conversation, but it’s incredibly organic. I’m not sitting there with a list of questions and checking them off.
SW: Mark has known me for several years now, and he knows, for instance, something simple: I like roses. So he was able to put that in the design. He showed me different designs of a shoe that were inspired by some of the things that I like. Having that collaboration and being sensitive like that really helps across the board for all athletes.
MP: It does get very personal in terms of what the athletes are into. I mean, good design, I think, you’re going deep. You’re really going beneath the surface and trying to pull out bits of inspiration that are coming from the athlete and that can inform the design, so ultimately it means something to the athlete both functionally as well as aesthetically.
To do that you really need to get the insight, and the insights come from personal relationships. We have a saying at Nike, sort of a guiding principle: Be a sponge. It came actually from my grandmother, who taught me at a young age to look around me and observe. It’s having wide peripheral vision and taking in everything, because you don’t know where inspiration is going to come from.
FC: Nike is No. 1 in its business, far and away ahead of all your competitors, and yet there are hundreds, thousands of competitors who are out all day trying to take a piece out of you. Serena, every time you play a match against anyone, it is the match of their life. Being the target of that competition, is it exhausting? Is it distracting? Is it motivating? How do you manage that constant assault?
SW: When you’re on the top, you like it there. You aren’t necessarily like, "Oh, I’ve gotten here and I’ve arrived, and now I’m ready to go back to the bottom." I’m not answering for Nike, but I feel like that’s something that we really have in common. And I see every day new sports brands coming out. Nike still manages to be on top, do everything better.
Just looking at that is inspiring for me. Like, Wow, this is a company that doesn’t need to do anything and has completely proven itself over the years, but they keep reinventing themselves and trying to come up with new ideas. And I want to continue to be the best, so I have to always continue to reinvent myself. And like you said, when I’m playing an opponent, yeah, they literally play the match of their lives every time they play against me, so I have to always be not one, not two, but several levels ahead.
MP: Competition for us is actually quite motivating. We are a sports company—we like competition. But we are actually more motivated by our own potential, where we think we can be. That’s where we like to spend our time and energy and focus: How much better can we be than we are? And you’ve got to prove yourself every day. We don’t take our success for granted by any stretch. You’re as good as your last . . . not quarter, but week. You can’t live on your laurels. You’ve got to keep moving and innovating. That’s what gets me motivated every day.
FC: There is so much about performance that is mental. When you’re at the top and you don’t want to go back down, that can breed a lot of pressure. And pressure can make it harder to be creative and take risks.
MP: That’s true. Pressure can be a good thing. But you also need time and space to really stretch and experiment. We have a culture at Nike where we move, we try things, we fail, we learn, we try more things, and we eventually get some things right. But we’re trying to edit more because there are so many ideas, so many opportunities to pursue, so many different paths, that you’ve got to be able to edit fairly quickly. We have a very open environment where people can riff and play off of each other, but then we have to lock in and go and really commit. We’re not successful all the time, but that’s part of the process. It’s okay to fail as long as you learn and keep moving.
FC: Do you feel like it’s okay to fail, Serena?
SW: Oh, yeah. I don’t think you can succeed unless you fail. You have to fall down a lot. I think not only does that help you, but it also creates character and it builds strength in you and it builds a determination—so when you do get on top, it works. The first shoe wasn’t made perfect. It had to be done more than once. My first match I lost in 50 minutes, or actually I think it was less. And look at me now, Annie Miller! [Laughs] You have to have that opportunity to fall down and rise up stronger.
And to what you were saying about pressure, I always say pressure is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be in that situation where you actually have pressure on your shoulders, as opposed to not having that pressure. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Do you stare at your trophies when you walk in your house? Are they all there?’ I’m like, actually, no. Because the second I win the tournament, yeah, for a few hours I’m in that moment. But if you’re always looking behind you, you’re never going to see the competition ahead of you. There’s always next week and there’s always another phase. I do want to continue to get better and I do want to be known as the greatest ever.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.