The Fleet-footed Unboss

Posted by jlubans on February 14, 2024

Caption: In 1956 Adidas were the shoe.

Adidas, the sports company, is undergoing a major leadership change, according to a WSJ article, The CEO Who Gave 60,000 Employees His Cellphone Number.
Reading the story got me thinking in three different directions. One was a reminder of my unboss theory which I first wrote about a decade ago, The "Unboss" Leader
Another direction was how my running track (late 1950s) influenced me and my leadership. And, finally, Adidas' comeback efforts had me reminiscing about a similar challenge I and others faced in a very different business sector, a research university.
You'll have to judge how well I inter-relate these three streams of thought below!
First a word about Adidas. When I was running track, their shoes were coveted by every serious runner. In high school, it was my running career that kept me off the street corner, hangin' in my jeans with the drop-outs with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve.
And, I still remember a YA track team novel: Howard M. Brier's Cinder Cyclone published in 1952.
Back in the era of cinder tracks, Nike was unheard of (Nike's swoosh first appeared in 1971.)
Puma was around and offered good competition but Adidas was the king-of-the-hill in international sports wear.
I must not forget basketball's Converse (1917) - my lowcut cross country running shoes were by Converse - but for the international look (depicted), Adidas was the best.
Since Nike's dominance, Adidas hasn't been in the winner's circle. Hardly a failure, but just no longer envied as the premier running shoe company. In the final quarter of 2022 Adidas lost a sobering $794 million.
For me, Adidas' new leader, Bjorn Gulden, is a practicing unboss, "pushing Adidas staff to break rules and ignore consultants."
He sounds pretty unbossy to me.
Why do I say that? Here are a few clues:
Gulden volunteered corporate financial data to all 60,000 employees and even gave out his cellphone number.
His challenge, he said, was "to wake up the people who didn't understand we were losing."
It reminds me of my first collaboration with an unboss type leader.
It was at a university with an identical problem to what Gulden found at Adidas: "there was a culture of finding reasons not to do things."
IOW, resting on our laurels, real or imagined.
Gulden began the reform at Adidas by sidelining the consultants; their advice was superfluous and out of touch.
We did something similar by replacing the "specialists" with a generalist.
Gulden wants the current staff to innovate and forecast the trends and to respond to them. IOW, free up the expertise and experience of the current staff by not relying on experts.
As my boss at the university and I soon found out, there was resistance - not all of the current staff were ready to jump in and offer ideas and make decisions. They'd been conditioned over time not to do that.
But, those that were - after being "freed up" - helped get the business out of its smug fantasy that it was the best.
Those brave few - under the unboss's leadership - set it on a path to becoming the most productive organization among its peers.
Gulden, after sharing his phone number, initially heard about 200 times per week from staff, all with ideas on how to improve.
He also scrapped an evaluation system based on key performance indicators for judging managers. My university boss and I too gave up on a long-winded formal evaluation system requiring multiple signatures and reinvested all that saved time (thousands of hours) into doing real work.
Another unbossism was my willingness, when presented with a good idea to say, "Do it". I hoped to imbue staff with the notion that there was - for good ideas - no need to delay or postpone in hopes of lessening risk. Mistakes would be forgiven.
Gulden intuited there was a demand for Adidas retro-classics. He was told that the company would not manufacture these classics until 2024. He asked, "Why wait?"
Production started in 2023.
Track was influential in my development as a leader. Not always for the best, as I look back but not always bad either.
My way of leading has always been to sprint and to keep going, unlike staying in the middle of the pack with a winning kick at the end. Yes, risky since one can "run out of gas" all too quickly, but that's the way I was, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I do admire the runner who bides his/her time and then turns on the after-burner, and sprints past the exhausted leaders at the finish.
My unboss egalitarian way - a willingness to share the glory - may have stemmed from a practice perhaps unique to running cross country. My team mates and I would all hold hands crossing the finishing line.
We'd all finish first.
What I learned about sportsmanship from track (Brier's book and the Olympics were an influence) provided personal values for winning/losing.
Not all people in sports adhere to a code of good sportsmanship. I recall a tv documentary on a famous football game between Harvard and Yale (who knew?) which interviewed a player from that game who deliberately injured a downed player.
Now in his 60s, the guy was still grinning and gloating about what he had done.
Being a jerk may have been a family trait or was it inculcated? Or was it bad shoes? (Smile)
And so it can be in the workplace.


For ancient perspectives on the workplace:

And, if you want to know more about democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

Copyright text John Lubans 2024

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