Culture Framework Part 4: Structure | Hit the Ground Running with Nike

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Any company’s structure, systems and process were likely built with market needs in mind, more than anything else. And while they are obviously important factors to consider, these decisions greatly affect your people and how they interact and engage with each other, leadership and the brand as a whole.

Whether you believe a hierarchical or flat organization approach is better, your mission should be central to your structure, and your vision and values should play a crucial role in its formation. Above all, your structure should serve your Shared Purpose and be consistent in approach across the organization. Any disconnect from this can jeopardize the integrity of everything you’ve built.

A company’s structure should empower employees, and it needs to consciously reinforce the mentality put forth in all other aspects of the Culture Framework.

Encouraging Autonomy in a Global Structure

Nike is a company rooted in innovation, free thought and outsized performance. While their market has grown from the University of Oregon’s track team, they still very much think in terms of the individual. In fact, it’s very much like the structure of that team – individual performance and individual improvements that aggregate into a stronger performance as a team. It’s a tough balance to strike, but Nike pulls it off.

Generally speaking, Nike takes a hierarchical approach, but there is a power held at each level and within each employee that is unique. Despite their massive scale, Nike takes pains to reinforce the company’s history of individuality. Even inside of their ornate HQ in the “Innovation Kitchen,” there stands a Winnebago, almost an exact replica of the one where co-founder Phil Knight sold the first pairs of his shoes, and down the hall is the waffle iron that they borrowed from co-founder Bill Bowerman’s wife and broke trying to mold their first rubber sole.

These may seem simply nostalgic or symbolic of humble beginnings, but they act as a physical embodiment of their overall structural approach. Nike is a company that came from the spirit of individuality, and they quite literally broke the mold in the process of becoming who they are. There is an autonomy in their global structure that truly captures this spirit.

“It’s a high-velocity world,” Nike CEO Mark Parker noted in a profile with Fast Company. “Our [structure] is intuitive from the culture of sports. We’re constantly looking to [our people] for ways to improve. How do you adapt to your environment and really focus on your potential? To really go after that, you have to embrace the reality that it is not going to slow down. And you have to look at that as half full, not half empty.”

To keep that pace, Parker and the leadership team have maintained this focus on the individual. Each market, be it North America, Western Europe, Central & Eastern Europe, Greater China, Japan or any emerging markets, has the freedom to adapt and make choices that best serve their nuanced audiences. So, if a region notices an uptick in interest over a particular discontinued style or they want to celebrate a World Cup win with a limited run color scheme, they are encouraged to do so (here are 50 models released only in Western Europe). Corporate allows big decisions to be made on this scale, and that creates a very nimble, very adaptable organization that is constantly finding ways to move the company forward. It also builds a network of trust and empowerment, and of course, employees respond well to feeling that they have autonomy and impact.

This has been a success for Nike because it’s not all talk. This autonomy permeates down to each employee and can be felt at every level of the company. “[We] celebrate that ideas come from everywhere,” Parker continued, “There’s real value to showing everyone in the company that you can make a difference.”

Unlocking Individual Potential

Individual empowerment mindset is a key part of Nike’s business, but again, it rings true because it extends not only to employees ideas as they pertain to the company in their current roles, but also how they factor into the arc of individual careers.

Nelson Farris, Nike’s head of corporate education, described what the company expects from its employees to Business Insider, “Figure out where you want your career to go, and when you see something that would help you get there, ask us for it.”

For a global company, this is a starkly individual-driven approach. It’s remarkable that Nike has been able to hold onto this key part of their culture despite their massive, and by all accounts, unforeseen growth. That attitude has kept the organization moving forward, constantly on the offense and continuously on the forefront of their industry. When employees feel that a structure serves them as much as they serve the structure, companies engender a real sense of loyalty and a desire to evolve with and for the organization.

Learn more about Shared Purpose and Culture Framework

Culture Framework, Part 1: Communications

Culture Framework, Part 2: Environment

Culture Framework, Part 3: Leadership

Culture Framework, Part 4: Structure

Culture Framework, Part 5: Rewards and Recognition 

Culture Framework, Part 6: Symbolism 

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