Author: Phil McKnight
Topic: Autobiography, Business
Appropriate for: Athletes, Coaches,
Overall rating: 5/5 – go out and get it now!!!
Obviously I have heard of Nike. Everyone has. I’d even heard a little bit about how Nike came up with their famous “Waffle” shoe, but wasn’t sure whether that was urban myth or truth! I’d heard this book referenced a few times on different podcasts that I listen to and while away wit he Scotland U16 Ruby team, I came across the book at an absolute steal and decided to give it a read. I wasn’t disappointed.
The book is equal parts memoir, business management guide and good all round entertainment. I found it a real eye opener. We often see the behemoths that companies like Nike are in their present form, without knowing the real story of how they came up fighting from the very start. I found the rise of Nike to be really inspiring and informative. I took away some of the following key points
It’s clear that Nike Owner Phil McKnight didn’t start Nike because he wanted to sell products. Additionally, he points out that when he started the company, the culture of running or going for a jog was downright unusual and weird. People went out of their way to mock runners. He repeatedly discusses the passion of himself and those around him for running itself.
“Driving back to Portland I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling. I’d been unable to sell encyclopaedias and I’d despised it to boot.I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because I realised I wasn’t selling I believed in running. I believed that if people went outside and ran a few miles every day, the world would be abetter place and I believed these shoes were better to run in.”
He also surrounded himself with other people who shared his passion for running, which translated itself into shoes. His previous mentor Coach Bowerman was constantly experimenting with customising the make up of his athletes’ shoes, the athletic track and even an early type of Gatorade, inventing many influential improvements. Additionally he describes another of the staff:
“In his heart of hearts, Johnson believed that runners were God’s chosen, that running, done right, in the correct spirit and wit the proper form, is a mystical exercise, no less than meditation or prayer, and thus he felt called to help runners find their nirvana.”
So, before Nike was the monster of a company we know today, it was “Blue Ribbon” – a company made up of passionate runners, aiming to serve runners the best way they knew – by improving shoes.
There are numerous moments in the book were it is obvious that Phil McKnight has a Growth Mindset. He recounts a conversation with his banker at the time:
“Life is growth’ I said. ‘Business is Growth. You grow or you die…You Might as well tell a runner in a race that he’s running too fast.”
Later he gives an insight into his mindset during the pivotal start up phase:
“If Blue Ribbon went bust, I’d have no money, and I’d be crushed. But I’d also have learnt some valuable wisdom, which I could apply to the nest business…But my hope was that when I failed, if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years, to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant ‘Fail fast’.”
Following on from the growth mindset, the business journey of Blue Ribbon/Nike was not without it’s challenges. Repeatedly, when faced with challenges that others might shirk from, Phil McKnight was tenacious in his pursuit of success.
An initial example is on his first visit to Japan, before even having any company set up, he arranges to meet the executives at Onitsuka to discuss importing their shoes to the US, forcing him to rapidly think on his feet. “My Miyazaki interrupted, ‘Mr McKnight, what company are you with?’ he asked… adrenaline surging through my blood, I felt the flight response, the longing to run and hide..’Blue Ribbon’ I blurted. ‘Gentleman I represent Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon.”
Another example, when a high school wrestling coach claimed he was the exclusive US distributor for Onitsuka, rather than shirking back from the challenge, or simply selling in the west coast states, he immediately made provisions to fly to Japan to meet with Onitsuka face to face to resolves the situation.
Finally and probably the biggest example of tenacity in the book, “One dirty little trick, and they’d managed to spike our import duties by 40% – retroactively. Customs was saying we owed them import duties dating back years, to the tune of $25 million.” However, like the meeting with the executives, or the potential competition in the wrestling coach, Phil McKnight turned to face the challenge head on,
Clearly in managing a highly successful company such as Nike, Phil McKnight would have some good thoughts on leadership. But, these may surprise you, as he certainly doesn’t subscribe to planning to the infinite degree, or constant supervision or others to ensure they carry out orders to the nth degree. In fact, he regails how one of his employees would send letters, almost daily, many of which were pointless, reporting in minute details this story and that, how many pairs he’d sold that day, how many potential customers he’d lined up , what picture he’d put in with his latest advertisements etc. Mcknight described them as please for encouraging words – which he never sent, claiming he didn’t have time and that it wasn’t his style. Instead he desribes how:
“At the time, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about generals, samurai, shoguns, along with biographies of my three heroes – Churchill, Kennedy and Tolstoy. I had no love of violence, but I was fascinated by leadership, or lack thereof under extreme conditions. War is the most extreme of conditions. But business has it’s war like parallels. Someone somewhere once said that business is a war without bulletes and I tended to agree. .. One lesson I took from my home-schooling about heroes was that they didn’t say much. None was a blabbermouth. None micromanaged…Don’t tell people how to do tings, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
Throughout the book, the author reverts back to that last line repeatedly. I think this is really important, allowing people the space and time to surprise you with their results rather than following dictats from someone outside the scenario. This has been something I have been trying to do in my new role as a Regional lead – giving guidnig principles rather than specific instructions.
These were just some of the points that I took from this book. I’d really recommend it as a worthwhile read for coaches and athletes alike, especially if you are a coach leading others, or running your own business!
You can find the book here: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE
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