John Donahoe: Trendsetter

I think there’s going to be a new normal around work. … I think the new normal is right on the cusp of happening, and we need to embrace that future.

John Donahoe, CEO, Nike

Nike CEO John Donahoe leads the continued growth of the Nike Brand, as well as Nike’s global business portfolio, which includes Jordan Brand and Converse Inc. Our staff recently sat down with John to hear his thoughts about how 2020 is changing the way Nike employees work.

How has the pandemic shifted mindsets about work at Nike?

My biggest realization is the fact that we don’t all have to be physically present at all times. I mean who would have imagined six months ago, if you’d have said, “We’re going to close down all of our campuses. Everybody is going to work from home. And we’re going to get more productive and people will feel even more connected.” That’s sort of what has happened. It’s been very counterintuitive, if very powerful.

I see two almost contradictory mindsets emerging. On one hand, I think people are asking at the beginning of a meeting, “How are you doing?” That’s because there’s no chatter coming into the meeting room. There’s no chatter at the watercooler. There’s no chatter in the cafeteria before the meeting. So, at the beginning of a meeting, there’s a little bit of a check-in on a very human level.

Then, once you get into the meeting, you’ve got to be disciplined. What’s the agenda? What are we trying to get done? We know at the end of the hour that we’re not going to run over, because we’re onto the next Zoom call. So, I think there’s a blend of a little more humanity with a little more focus and discipline in our mindsets. And we’re trying to capitalize on both.

Change is happening in and out of work. What are the biggest losses and gains?

I’ll just speak for me, personally. The biggest loss for me is that I love being with people in person—connection, human connection. And while you can do that over a video screen, it’s not the same as doing it in person.

I look forward to the day when I can be closer and back with people on a continuous basis. The biggest gain—and I think this particularly came out of some of the racial tensions and crises—is we’re in an environment where there’s a lot more listening and a lot more learning going on. And a recognition that there are some injustices in our society that have been there and have been there in many cases for hundreds of years that we really need to pay attention to now. And the starting point is to listen to each other—to empathize, to understand. I know inside of our company and I think generally inside of society, there’s been a lot more listening and hopefully a lot more learning and empathy.

How has the pandemic impacted Nike’s digital transformation?

I think everything is being accelerated. You see, consumer behavior is profound, the embracing of digital in all elements of life—not just digital commerce, but digital entertainment, digital communication. So, the pace of any digital transformation has to be going twice as fast as it was before this. I know it’s true at Nike, and my sense is that it is true at almost every company.

Do you envision work ever going back to the way it was?

I think there is going to be a new normal. By the way, I don’t think it’s going to be all remote. I do believe there’s value if you are an innovative company and innovation is your lifeblood, like it is at Nike, where people do need to be together physically. Maybe not every day, all the time, but there is a role of serendipitous interaction. There is a role for a culture of people being together. 

I think there’s going to be a new normal around work. It’s going to be a blend of physically being together in the right moments at the right places at the right times—and a virtual or digital component, as well. I think that can result in both more fulfilling and rewarding work for individuals, as well as higher quality output in terms of the innovation, the productivity and the efficiency with which we move. I think the new normal is right on the cusp of happening, and we need to embrace that future.

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This conversation was edited for space and clarity.