Discussing Modern Leadership at Nike with Bert Hoyt

Carola: Welcome to the Modern Leadership podcast and PurpleBeach Radio show where we look at how leadership is changing in the face of accelerating change and disruption.

My guest today is Bert Hoyt, who until recently was VP/GM EMEA at Nike. Bert had a progressive career in the sporting goods industry, initially spending 10 years with Puma and then 22 years at Nike. Stepping back from his executive career, Bert is now working as a strategic board advisor and non-executive director with midsized and often founder/owner-led businesses.

Welcome Bert. You’ve had an incredible leadership journey with Nike. Besides delivering exceptional growth and transformation at Nike EMEA, you also led the global football business based at Nike’s global head offices in Portland/OR.  How have you seen leadership change in your career?

Bert: First of all, thank you Carola, and thank you for those kind words. It’s great to be here with everybody today, and I’ll try to do my very best to share some of my experience and learnings over the past 30 years in business, primarily the sporting goods and lifestyle industry. I’ll do my best, and you hit me off with a real easy question, I would say.

I think leadership has certainly evolved. Since I go way back, sometimes I have to really go back in my mind. I started my first job in 1989 and you know, then it was a much different type to operate. Just because in those days the things you didn’t have that you have today are just much, much different. So people were much more focused on purely the business and the financials and much less about the things that mean a lot to consumers today.

I do think, though, that there are certain things in business and in companies that never change. The most important thing is always to focus on the consumers because at the end of the day, the consumers are the ones that decide if you have a compelling product and if you have a compelling story to tell, and consumers are the ones that you’re addressing your messaging to. So therefore, if you keep consumers top of mind, you usually get to a pretty good place.

Carola: How the consumer is changing really drives how business is changing today.  And yes, you’re absolutely right.

What we see with Modern Leadership is, that Modern Leadership is really over layered to leadership as we’ve known it. The strategy, the hard KPIs and financials, and also the structures and processes that really make organisations very productive and run well – they are as relevant today as they’ve always been. What we’ve seen with Modern Leadership is that human values-led leadership is coming in as human values are much more important to the world now, whether it’s the consumer or the employees.

So what does Modern Leadership mean to you, Bert?

Bert: Well, I think that when I go back and then look forward, I think that probably the most revolutionary change has been in the last five years. Consumers have expected companies to do much more than what they have done in the past, which was to produce a product, market a product and sell that product. There’s been an expectation that consumers [companies] have to step up and be much more inclusive and I think that starts to go back to the notion of always putting people first, putting the consumer first, but also putting the people in the teams first.

A lot of people talk today about servant leadership. It’s not about leading only from the front and being the brick wall for the team. It’s also being somebody that is listening, that’s showing, compassion and vulnerability. [Someone who] is actually encouraging the team to create a culture of driving change and being there for their people is creating this purpose led organisation.  I think that’s what the consumers want today. And so a leader today is much different than the leader back even 10 years ago and obviously 20 years ago.

Carola: Right. Yes, human values-led leadership is agility, creativity and innovation, and equity, diversity and inclusion they are all softer subjects, but they do have an impact on the actual performance or value of a business.

So, what’s your point of view on that? How does or can Modern Leadership really impact the performance or value of a business?

Bert: Well, I think that the first thing is that there are certain fundamentals to leadership and to running and operating a brand and a business that you can never lose focus of.  And in addition to those, you need to then layer in the new purpose-led people expectations, consumer expectations that are there today.

So, I always went back to you: You always start with the consumer and for the consumer you try to solve a problem and create a solution for that consumer. It may be a product, but it might also be a service in today’s world, with everything being so digital. And then you market that to the consumers, and you try to focus on doing fewer things, but doing fewer things better with this ability as a team to execute at a very high level, very similar to what a coach does at a high performing sports team.  They basically manage and stress the fundamentals, and then they rely on their teams and their talent to be able to execute at a very high level. Now, a business today is not just a sports team. There are many external factors that come into play. It’s not just about sustainability. It’s not just about human rights and doing the right thing. It’s a combination of all of it. I like to try to think that the people in the team really want to work for a company that adds the value beyond the financial and the business results and the share price.

And that’s actually driving a tremendous amount of value.  Some of the great companies have crated value like never before. Now that also means that you’re under some criticism. So you always have to live up to expectations and therefore, it’s imperative that purpose led organisations evolve and continue and always try to do the right thing.

Carola: Now, you’ve experienced and led significant transformations at Nike and digital transformation is powering Nike’s business growth and has been doing so in the last years?

In the podcast and programme notes, listener, can find a great article that really talks about how Nike has been doing this, and why it’s gone so well.

Bert, what are the leadership mindset, skills and behaviours that enable a business to master such transformation?

Bert: Well, you know, Nike is a legacy company, and I used this a lot when I was still actively working there.  What I mean with a legacy company is, it grew up over 50 years ago, and the world wasn’t digital at that time, and everything was done face to face, in a more traditional way.

So, we’re not a company like Amazon, or Microsoft, or Google. The way they evolved was only through the digital lens. And so we have to go through a massive learning curve. The team has to go through a learning curve, and the capabilities have to be rebuilt and rewired. It’s a little bit like a house, right? A house that was built 30 years ago never had any wiring for any kind of digital enablement. So you’re lucky if you get your Internet put in.

But a house that’s built today is a smart home. You can operate your house from your mobile device. So with that analogy, digital transformation at a Nike is quite a large undertaking.  People may say, ‘Just give me the financial resources and we can make it happen.’ Well, you can’t, because there are certain skill sets that you need. You have to build a tech stack and you have to build your digital capabilities. We’re not just talking about e-commerce. We’re talking about the whole way consumers interact with brands, and it all starts on their mobile device, and it all starts in real time.

And so you have to really build a technology foundation. So if you go back to the house analogy, you have to build a smart home and you have to wire and rewire the old Nike into the new Nike, a smart Nike. And from there, you have to bring in talent. You have to bring in people that know how to do that. You have to bring in talent, and there’s definitely a shortage of some of those talents, or there’s a lot of companies all trying to do the same thing at the same time.  It’s quite tussle for how you get the right results.

However, you know if you’re patient and if you’re focused and you’re committed, which Nike is, you’re able to do that and there’s been a huge shift.

At Nike, when I left, our CEO said, ‘Hey, we’re really great at marketing, we’re really great at product innovation, and we’re really great at sports marketing. But when it comes to technology – the technology foundation, we’re not so good when we compare ourselves to our peers, and therefore we need to get better at that, and we have to invest in those areas, and then it’s just a matter of time.

But you know, there’s progress made each and every day, which is very, very encouraging, and therefore you see the results. But digital transformation is only because consumers are expecting it. So you just have to do it.

Carola: Great. Well, thank you for sharing. This is great insight.

So, what advice would you give CEOs and their leadership teams who tackle change on such a scale? It’s probably a very hard question to answer since it’s so broad. Since leadership will always be contextual there cannot be a playbook for Modern Leadership.

So how would you complete the two sentences? First If you only do one thing, make sure it’s…..

Bert: I think, put your people first, would be the first thing I would put down, to make sure that you do.

Carola: And: If you are still doing…., stop!

Bert: I would say, don’t take your career and yourself too seriously.

Carola: Right. Thank you. Great.

Good, next I’d like to talk about ithe next generation of leaders, not just executives who are on their way into VP- and C-level positions, but also people who will have leadership roles on projects or on assignments, or not in the business world at all.

So how is the path into leadership different today compared to, say, 5-10 years ago?

Bert: Well, first of all, you know, as I said earlier, there are certain things that stay very, very consistent, and I’d like to think of it as this kind of the foundation of leadership. So, you know, you can’t listen enough to your people and you can’t listen enough to consumers. And, I believe, the answers to many of the issues or the problems that companies are trying to solve, are actually [solved by] listening to the voice of their people and listening to the voice of their consumers. That remains pretty constant.

But what’s really changed is that you can listen to those consumers today without having to do a focus group. You can do everything by going on your social media feeds.  You can get consumer information at your fingertips.

And then you can see how you’re doing. And you can measure yourself. And I think this is super, super important.

So I would start – I always kind of use this notion of trying to be a sponge as a leader. Try to absorb as much as you can.  And learn not only from your peers.  In the old days, everybody said, Yeah, I just want to please my boss and you know, he’s the one who, or she’s the one that was going to give me all I need to manage my career, so I’m going to only learn from her or from him.

But at the end of the day, you learn from everyone. You learn from your teammates; you learn from the external world.

So, learning is happening across your lifetime and its constant.  If you think of the consumer at the centre of everything that we as a company do, they will be able to give you some of those answers.

And then I think show some vulnerability because as a leader you have to be to be the captain of the ship, but you also have to be vulnerable.  Because not everyone is perfect and you’re not perfect.

And people want that there’s an authentic and genuine side to a person that’s behind the title, and that goes a long way in today’s world. I think that some of the things that people are really starting to realise are that there is a human being behind the title.  It’s good to see that and to show some emotion I think it is fine.

Carola:  Amazing. So basically, put into your own lifelong learning what’s at the centre of the business and what’s at the centre of any business today and in the case of Nike and many or any consumer brands is consumer centricity. Bring that to the table. Bring that commitment to understanding it, working with it, and share your insights. And then, collaboration. Collaboration and not having to know everything is a big aspect of Modern Leadership, as I’ve seen it. Unfortunately, the education processes and system doesn’t teach us that. It teaches us to be on our own, only our results count, and you’re not encouraged to work with others when you’re sitting your exams. So, we probably will see quite a lot of change on that side as well in the years to come.

So now last, Bert, I’d love to touch on culture and mindset in the context of Modern Leadership. Nike obviously has a very strong culture. What role do culture, mindset, behaviours play in developing and supporting strong leaders?

Bert: Well, I think as you know, Nike has a strong culture, and these I kind of call them power brands, you know, Apple, Google, Tesla, Amazon – they all have a strong culture, which is good.

Always take the good things out of the culture and avoid that it gets too inclusive and to hindering. What I’ve found is that a lot of people in a company with a strong culture feel like they have to fit in so much that they lose a little bit their independence.

I think the recipe today is that there is not one way to lead, there is not one way to be a good employee, not one way to be a good parent, not one way to be a good student. There are multiple ways and you need to create an environment and a culture that allow empowerment and self-expression. A cultural mix is much more powerful than a monoculture where everybody is trying to adapt themselves to fit in. I think that’s an evolution that companies with strong cultures go through and have to go through.

You’re seeing that now with the pandemic.  With flexible work and working from home, things are a little more free, less rigid. That’s already a step in the right direction and that’s how you get into the mindset. I think this is a mindset that we need to embrace. You know, it’s alright to have role models and try to emulate, but it’s more important to learn from role models. To learn from their successes, but also learn from some of their fears.

Because, you know, making mistakes in business is actually a good thing. It sounds odd, right? Nobody wants to make mistakes, but making a decision that’s maybe not perfect, but you can adapt it along the way and fix it is better than not making decisions at all and trying to fit in. And so, I always encourage people to try things, to learn, to make some mistakes and then to try to improve and always get better. You know, it’s like an athlete. Why are some of these athletes still doing their sport at 34 or into their late 30’s. You would say they should retire, but they still have a passion for it, and they believe that they could still improve and therefore they’re still playing their sport and living the dream they want to live.

I think it’s a lot like a leader. You can always learn, and you’d be surprised, even when you think you know everything – you don’t. Never think that you know everything because no one does.

Carola: Right. And, you know, with human behaviour and human mindset, the question is really, how do you spot the potential and recognise whether someone has a Modern Leadership mindset and leadership potential? I mean, the whole talent development and recruitment processes have evolved over time and technology’s come into it, also different assessment tools are there. How do you spot, you know, people who can really be leaders, who have it to go forward and become a strong leader?

Bert: You look at the kind of the ingredients or attributes that people have. It’s not about who has the loudest voice in the room. It’s about the people that are able to listen, when they do speak, it really has substance, and they have an ability to create this ambiguous and so-called followership. You know, a leader has to have people that follow him, or she has to have people that follow her.  And how you create followership, you know, if I had the recipe for that I would probably write a lot of books. But I think it starts with being accessible and let people get to know you as a person. People need to know who you are outside of your world and business and in work. They need to get to know you personally, your family situation. They need to get to know a little bit about you. So it’s good to open up and tell people who you are, and so they can understand.

And then as a team, I think one of the most important things as a team is you figure out how to create vision and a strategy that is realized by the team because they helped develop it, they developed it. It’s not yours, it’s theirs. You look at those kind of attributes in leaders: do they listen, do they really want to get to know you, are they accessible, or do they just listen and then are off to the next meeting and they never care about you. Do they return your phone calls, do they return your emails. Those are the type of people [who create followship]. Obviously, you need the skills and the vision, but if they create that, then people will follow.  And once you have followership, you become a leader in today’s world. Not because you have the biggest stick or the most authority. You need to be the one that they’ll follow because they believe in you. You’re the type of person that they can admire or embrace.

Carola: Right. That’s why Modern Leadership is human values led leadership, really.  It is People showing themselves authentically, engaging with each other, working with each other, caring for each other. And then if that happens, then it feels like the organisation is also caring for you, the employee and the consumer.

Amazing, wonderful, Bert. Well, thank you so much for giving us your time and for giving us your insights. Exciting to talk to you about all this and thank you for sharing it.

If you would like to get in touch with Bert, then would you please email me at carola@modernleadership.net and then I will pass messages on to Bert. He would love to hear from you.

Bert, thank you again. It was great to have you here.

Bert: Many thanks, Carola and I hope I was able to impart a little bit of knowledge and tips that all of you can use in your future career journeys. I wish you all the very, very best in these challenging times. So stay safe, stay well and would love to chat with you.

Carola: This podcast is produced by a Nadine Daniel. Music is by www.kateybrooks.com

Podcast Notes:

Digital Transformation is powering Nike’s Business Growth. In the Podcast and Programme notes, listeners can find a link to an article (by infotechlead) that provides insights.

https://infotechlead.com/cio/how-digital-transformation-is-powering-nike-business-growth-64623

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