What Nike’s co-founder taught me about developing high-performing teams

I’m a few years late to the party, but this week I finished Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog. It’s the telling of a story where the ending is the world’s worst-kept secret. Because everyone knows where Nike, co-founded by Knight, ends up. On the track, field and commuter trails of millions across the globe. But I’ve never known or appreciated this iconic brand’s humble beginnings before.

Shoe Dog bookSomething that stood out to me while reading in detail how ‘Buck’ established his company is his unwavering entrepreneurial spirit and belief. Numerous times he put his livelihood, and that of many of his employees, on the line to give the company the best chance of success.

Cash flow issues weren’t fully resolved until the company finally went public in 1980 (coincidentally, the same week as Apple.)

But Knight felt able to take risks because he recognised that his team were equally passionate about the company’s potential.


Here’s how I believe he achieved the fine leadership feat of inspiring people on a journey to a shared vision.

Draw on your strengths

Knight recognised that confidence was needed to bring employees on a tumultuous journey. When he was running low on his own reserves, he drew strength by ‘borrowing’ it from one of his trusted teammates. As a result, he demonstrated a deep value for them; involving them democratically in the detailed decisions that needed to be made daily to ensure the company thrived.

From brainstorming company names and deciding on logos to innovating running technology, team members may have specialised in certain areas but when it mattered, they came together. They had one leader, but everyone had a voice.

In the early days success was in no way guaranteed, but as a collective they understood that if Nike was going to fail, it was going to fail on its own terms.

Share what you know

Knight includes stories of the frequent trips he made to Asia to meet with manufacturers, including Japan, China and Taiwan. As the culture is very different, he made sure to take colleagues away with him to show them the ropes. He also emphasised that the best way to reinforce your knowledge is to share it.

By explaining the ways of working, including the nuances of dealing with different firms, he not only gave himself confidence that he knew what he was talking about, but also up-skilled others.

Invest in training

Even when going public Nike was able to retain its unique start-up culture because Knight took the time to cultivate its management team to become future leaders. Investing in training was a long game, compared to hiring external candidates, but what it cost in patience eventually paid out.

External leaders didn’t ‘gel’ with the company’s ethos, but in the future Nike was able to seize the right type of opportunities through the people who lived and breathed the brand.

Don’t say thank you

Something which struck me was Knight’s decision, despite being full of thanks to his team, was not to overtly praise two colleagues for ‘switching’ locations on either side of the US. Later, Knight follows this up by saying that his regular praise ‘sound bite’ to colleagues was, simply: ‘not bad’.

At first, it seems that Knight is simply unapologetic when it comes to the cause. He’s already got the passionate ‘buy in’, so he’s not ‘wasting’ emphasis on encouraging the heart. However, later, he explains that his management style is plain.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and be surprised by their results.”

His lack of praise isn’t synonymous with a lack of enthusiasm. He’s simply demonstrating an authoritative leadership style. Here’s the vision, here’s the tools. Now deliver. Once you’ve delivered, give me more.

This level of autonomy for the right type of people is highly beneficial for inducing a creative workforce that can clearly see the impact their work is having. Needless to say, no one asked him for a pay rise during these early years. Money simply didn’t matter; just the product.

Nike advertising example

Trust to say the right thing at the right time

More than autonomy, Knight also have his staff space. It was refreshing to read that he didn’t feel obligated, albeit slightly guilty, to respond to each piece of correspondence that one of his first faithful full-time sales colleague sent to him each day.

In his memoir he recalls receiving letters with ideas, updates, questions and thought starters. Without knowing how to respond, as he was focused on his own project goals, Knight let the letters build up. He then continued to receive more asking why he wasn’t answering; almost pleading. The sheer volume left Knight feeling intimidated and that meant the silence continued.

In the long term, it didn’t harm their working relationship. The ‘silent treatment’ spurred the colleague, Johnson, on to continue building upon his ideas which eventually turned into trainer designs.

In time, they learnt to appreciate each other’s working styles and Knight made sure to invest face-to-face time with Johnson when it mattered.

It’s important to remember that those were posted letters. The digitised culture we work in today means we’re made to feel that there’s little to no excuse for not responding – and quickly.

But this anecdote has inspired me to take my time. When there’s something important to say, say it. A positive response rate is not always equal to trust and respect. A valuable response will suffice – and just maybe your team will appreciate the space to develop and thrive.

What will you do differently? Whatever you decide, just do it.

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