A Participatory Leadership Style: Nike’s CEO Mark Parker

Nike photoMark G. Parker at the age of 61, is the third CEO of Nike. He joined Nike as a footwear designer in 1979, advanced up the chain of command and was named CEO in 2006. Since coming to the office, Parker has more than doubled Nike sales, and has been described as the world’s most creative CEO.

Now that Nike is no longer the feisty underdog to brands like Adidas, Parker has the tricky task of finding growth in a wildly successful company. He says that often size turns to “constipation.” Size fogs the lens about what is really happening. He believes that turning size and success into a formula and institutionalizing it “…can be death.”

Nike is, today, the world leader across many athletic shoe categories. It holds a 62% market share of the U.S. athletic shoe market. The company focuses on technology in design, in manufacturing, in marketing and increasingly in retail.

What is Mark Parker’s famous leadership style? He is known for a thoughtful if demanding leadership style. As an introverted CEO, he is something of an oddity in the world of headline-grabbing CEOs. He takes a meticulous approach to product development known as “design thinking.”

Always surrounded by an eclectic mix of contemporary art and sculpture (including lots of miniatures of Nike shoes), Parker believes in art, not only for personal pleasure but as an aid to his designs, achieving a view of world culture. Parker describes himself as “…inspired by visual stimulation.” He equates his managerial style to being like an editor. He focuses his process on helping his subordinates hone their ideas. He also hones and sharpens his own words and ideas as he expresses them. He describes his leadership style as an “edit and amplify” approach.

mark parkerWhen Parker noted that Nike’s R&D department was exploring with a total of 350 new ideas, he recognized that this number was too high. He told the group that they had too many projects. He pushed the staff to make some hard choices. Then he got personally involved, not in personally editing out projects but working with his department to set up criteria to evaluate what things the company needs to accomplish. With Parker’s involvement, the R&D team cut the idea list down to 50.

Parker has built a corporate culture from the culture of sports (he himself was a competitive runner). He encourages his staff to continuously look for ways to improve, to adapt to the environment. He sees the pace of change is an opportunity and tells his staff to get on the offensive. Parker is personally involved with the development of new technologies.

If Nike had stuck to its successful formula they would never have pursued FlyKnit, a new Nike technology that allows shoes to be sewn with thread instead of being cut from sections of fabric. He sees this as “challenging a set model…that existed for thousands of years [and introducing] a whole new way.”

At Nike, Parker uses different leadership approaches, depending on what circumstances demand. Sometimes, he says, you need to go hard and fast. Top down leadership can make that happen. Ideas may come from the bottom but the direction and support can be top-down. Parker looks for ideas from the bottom. He walks the halls at Nike’s facilities and sometimes sees things that bring possibilities to mind. He believes that Nike has to expose itself to deals from anywhere, including different parts of the world.

“I end up asking a lot of questions,” Parker says he doesn’t believe in micromanaging. He elicits ideas from his staff and then encourages people along to refine them. He trusts his staff to know what to do. He goes out of his way to solicit ideas from junior members of the team. He likes to pull raw ideas out and put them in the spotlight. He likes to celebrate the fact that ideas can come from anywhere. Little side projects can grow into multi-billion dollar franchises.

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