An organizational culture can be formed and shaped through the founder’s vision and actions taken. Phil Knight, founder of Nike and marketing guru, has transformed the sports industry through his innovative sports merchandise. His strategy of recruiting top athletes such as Michael Jordan to wear his brand has put him on top of his competitors, Adidas and Reebok. Continuing innovation in sports apparel and equipment technology has kept Nike at the forefront within the industry. Through this vision, Knight has created a distinct organizational culture.
Yet trying to understand Phil Knight’s success as a leader is not easily done. A reclusive figure who guards his reputation and privacy, Knight started his business by selling shoes, that he bought in Japan, from the trunk of his car. With the help of his former track coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, Knight made adjustments to the shoes by adding “waffle soles.” This and other innovations helped them launch an empire in sports commerce.
In his role as the CEO, Knight has often let his employees take the lead on getting things done, choosing not to wield total control. How has Nike been successful in achieving a company with revenue of $16.8 billion through Knight’s leadership? Knight strategically tries to employ the best talent possible by recruiting former professional and college athletes to work for his company. These former athletes, like Knight, know what it takes to play and work like a champion. Knight chose men and women that shared his same work enthusiasm which is a trait of leadership proposed by Harold Geneen (Geneen 9). He knows their passion and commitment to sports will continue to propel Nike forward. Also, the management structure that he adopted constantly moves people around in leadership roles. Leaders become followers and vice versa. Knight seems to engage his employees in the paradigm set forth by Joseph Rost that both leaders and followers are engaged in the process of leadership (Rost 192). By allowing his followers to adopt different leader and follower roles, he is cultivating an engaged followership.
In his research on organizational cultures, Robert Schein learned that founders often start with a theory of how to succeed and incorporate their own cultural paradigm within their businesses (Schein14). Phil Knight has achieved this with Nike. He incorporated his own assumptions on how Nike should be run through delegation of leadership positions and strategic talent management. Nike’s mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world which has helped them remain the top sports retailer.
In 2004, Phil Knight resigned his position as CEO of Nike but chose to remain on the board of directors. An outsider to the organization, William Perez, was chosen to be the next CEO. Perez only lasted thirteen months before he left the organization after clashing with Knight over the direction of the company. Knight said that Perez “was unable to wrap his arms around the place” and truly realize the culture of the organization. “It is more about Phil Knight's ego than Perez's performance. It is a question about identity. Some people won’t relinquish until they die." said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, an associate dean at the Yale School of Management (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/24/business/24nike.html). This brings up the question of why an empire that strives on innovation is unwilling to adopt this same strategy with their leadership? While Knight has created a successful business, he has also fostered an insider culture that does not seem open to outside influence. This is similar to Schein’s research on company founders that seek to employ family and primarily promote them over outsiders. It seems Knight believes that those “on the inside” of Nike or the Nike family are best for the organization. Will Knight be able accept the new CEO, Mark Parker and his new principles or is Sonnenfeld right that some won’t give up until they die? Do cutting edge innovators over time become dinosaurs in their field?