Sarah Kay on How Intentionality Brought Her to Nike and Carved a Path to a Bold Future
Mixing Board Studio Session
Mixing Board member Sarah Kay founded Create A Bold Future LLC, a global brand and innovation advisory because she believes that brands exist to benefit humanity, not the other way around. Through her LLC, she advises CEOs and chief brand officers.
Sarah also wrote the book Brand New World to equip next-generation CEOs and CBOs to embrace creative thinking and feel confident in making impactful billion-dollar choices.
Originally from the UK, Sarah has close to three decades experience of global brand, innovation and leadership experience across multiple industries. This includes a 13-year stint inside of Nike where she led Global Brand Innovation and logged well more than 2500 hours of coaching sessions with fellow Nike leaders.
Sarah has also worked with The Earthshot Prize, Reebok, and Mattel, and is an ICF-certified professional coach (CPCC) focused on helping leaders rethink what’s possible in the future.
She is also available as a mentor via Mixing Board.
In this Studio Session, Sarah and Mixing Board Founder Sean Garrett talk about how to reframe the stories we tell ourselves, how to break out of a corporate mindset and unleash your creativity, and how to actually say what you mean when it comes to purpose.
SG: You spent almost 13 years inside of Nike. For anyone who touches brand or talks about it, Nike is frequently brought up as a paradigm. Can you give us a peek behind the curtain at your experience there, how you got there, and what you learned working there?
SK: My Nike story actually started when I was fourteen years old. At age 14, I made a list of brands that I wanted to work for in the future and Nike was at the top of that list.
I was living in the northwest of the UK at the time. I grew up in a very difficult, challenging family environment and making bold statements about what my life was going to be like in the future was my way of escaping the reality that I was in. I was envisioning a better future in my mind so that I had something positive, meaningful and of my creation to aim for. Since then, I developed a bit of a habit of putting things out there that scare me to death and then going for it. As they say, face the fear and do it anyway.
I spent quite a lot of time traveling as a teenager, backpacking mostly around Europe. Through travel, I was trying to get a perspective on the world by experiencing first hand the way other people lived and related to one-another, how they saw the world around them, how brands showed up and what they meant in different places and how all of this affected society and culture.
Whenever I travel, I practice looking at the world through different lenses and trying to walk a mile in different people’s shoes. I spent many years studying, living and working in different places around the world and for different brands. I covered quite a lot of ground in the first decade but Nike was always there as this North Star. From a marketer’s perspective, working for Nike was a dream come true. It’s an opportunity to put what you’ve learned into practice, but also receive a masterclass in how to manage a brand at the highest standard in the world.
I started with Nike in The Netherlands in 2008. Europe was the beating heart of creativity at Nike during that time and I was just so completely in awe of all these incredible people with a maverick edge. I second guessed myself a lot in my first year working there. It wasn’t until I had that permission from my manager to have a point of view on the direction of the brand that I really connected with my own hopes and dreams for the Nike brand that I started to really understand what was possible.
From there, I worked my way through the different GEOs (Western Europe, Central Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Emerging Markets and North America, culminating in the Global organization) to get an understanding of the brand from different perspectives. I was doing a lot of insight work which helped me understand what the Nike brand meant to people in all those different places and the role it played in people’s lives around the world.
By 2014, I had developed a deep global understanding of the Nike Brand around the world, and I believed it could play a much more defining role in creating a better world, even more than it was already doing. That’s when I joined the Brand Innovation team.
SG: What is brand innovation? Is that something that many companies could do? Or is that just that something that is very unique to Nike?
SK: Brand Innovation at Nike evolved over time and continues to do so. It morphs depending on what the business needs at the time. Overall, I do believe that it’s a very useful capability to have. I’ve found that the business impulse is to keep going or keep doing things in the same way, without taking a step back and asking if you’re on the right path from a brand and innovation perspective. I think it’s helpful to have a safe place to ask and answer big questions, interrogate possible futures, and think differently about what’s possible for the brand. It’s also a space where one can develop an informed and contextual point of view on innovation, whether that’s solving real problems across brand, product, service or business or positioning. Done right, a capability like this allows busy corporate leaders who are locked into short term business management, to create time and space to get upstream, to look out and look ahead at the forces shaping the world around us and define how they and their brand can play a role in creating a bold future — a healthy ecosystem in which humanity, the planet and their brand can thrive. Without this capability, who else has the time or headspace to squeeze this into their day-jobs?
SG: So you’re a 14 year old dreaming about working at Nike, and then you finally get to work there and the inevitable thing happens where you realize, this is a normal company that has problems. It’s obviously this wonderful brand that does so many things right and means something to a lot of people, but there is no perfect company in the world. Every family has their problems, every company has their issues. Some are just more acute than others. What happens when your 14 year old brain is inside of this company with the idealism that you have towards the brand and then you’re suddenly disappointed the first time, or many times? How do you resolve that?
SK: I haven’t ever lost my idealism for the Nike brand. On the contrary, my idealism remains fully intact even several years after leaving. Every day that I arrived to work at Nike I would say to myself, “for however long this lasts and however good or bad it is, I am eternally grateful for this opportunity because I am learning so much”. It was such an incredible experience from start to finish.
Nike aside — the corporate world oscillates wildly between the good, bad and ugly on a daily basis. In my experience, life in corporate-land is the same everywhere around the world, it can be wild. Some businesses and people are genuinely lovely to their core and other businesses and people will do whatever it takes to get ahead — but that is just a microcosm of humanity.
For me, the journey is about being as human as you can possibly be in whichever type of environment you find yourself, and holding your values front and center.
As a leader you’ve got to decide who you want to be in any type of environment, and indeed this lifetime. The corporate environment can certainly bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring the best out in people. If you want to stand for kindness and growth and you want to help people develop crazy skills to make the world a better place, you can do that. If you want to behave badly and engage in sabotage and diminishment, well, unfortunately some people do make that choice and it’s unpleasant to be on the receiving end. But it is just a microcosm of humanity everywhere.
SG: You left Nike, wrote a book and started your consulting business. But before that, I also noticed on your LinkedIn that you had an unofficial role of being a coach, while still inside Nike. And that you coached this crazy number of folks. Tell me more about this internal coaching role.
SK: I believe that brands exist to benefit humanity and not the other way around. The people leading those brands should be in touch with who they are, and what they stand for. It makes a huge difference when they have empathy and compassion and hold the highest intention for themselves, but also other people around them. I use my coaching skills to try and help people see how uniquely brilliant they are. I try to provoke the system, in the sense that I try to help people to understand their superpowers and share them freely with the rest of us. If many people can connect with that fire in their belly, if they feel empowered, and they feel like they’re playing to their strengths, then their positive energy can shine and connect more. And their effect on their brand could positively impact the world more. My plan is really to just help as many people as possible feel empowered to do really good things. I stopped logging the internal coaching hours at Nike after I reached 2500, and people are still reaching out to me today to have this conversation.
SG: So I’m an employee at Nike and I have this meeting with Sarah Kay and my calendar. But I’m running from one part of the campus to the other. I know I set this meeting, but what is this all about? What am I doing here? What’s transformed in me by the end of this session?
SK: Well first of all, you reached out to me for a chat, or I’m the one that gets the mystery meeting in my calendar and is running to get there on time! The upshot is that many people wherever they work want to be a part of something, to stand up for something, to share their creativity and to have a positive human experience. But the common problem in huge companies is that it’s easy to feel like you’re in a small box with very little oxygen and no room to spread your wings or practice sharing your voice. A lot of people want to talk about how to progress their career or how to move through a particular situation. Others wanted to be able to think more creatively within the jobs that they had or what they want to do when they leave that type of corporate environment. Many people would really love to think more creatively and get to see across the organization as opposed to looking up or down in a silo. Many of the conversations that I had at Nike were about helping people to discover their superpowers in an environment overflowing with brilliant people, or how to unleash their creativity within a constraining and relentless business process.
SG: How much of that is you providing empathy and listening to them, so therefore they have empathy and listen to others?
SK: A lot. I try really hard to model the behavior that I believe will help to create a culture that I want to be in, and hopefully other people want to be in too. A culture is built off the back of everybody who participates. If you don’t participate in building a positive culture (and many leaders don’t), and then you decide you don’t like the culture, well then I don’t believe you have the right to complain about it. If there’s something you want to see change, it’s important to behave in a way that takes a stand for that. I want people to feel seen and heard. I want to understand them better so I can help them to help themselves to fly. I want them to feel that all that hard work is worth it and that their contribution is meaningful. I want to pay it forward and hopefully create a ripple effect in that sense. I don’t know if that strategy works, but I hope some people benefit from it.
SG: When you sit down with people, you’re really just listening to people. You’re hearing them out and you’re giving them an opportunity to talk. They’re going through their crazy busy day, they get to speak up maybe two times in that big meeting where people are going through a PowerPoint. You sat down and you listened to them. And from that they were able to connect so many different dots. That’s such an incredible unlocking. But I feel like what you did, and what you do, needs to be normalized in a way that doesn’t exactly fit within a box that we currently have in the dialogue around consulting, coaching, mentoring — all these different roles that we talk about. It’s probably more akin to some sort of therapeutic role, without being therapy per se. In 10 years, it’ll be clear to us, but it’s not clear now. But you’re at the edge of it, so that’s why I’m probing.
SK: I certified with The Coaches Training Institute (based in San Francisco), which was excellent. If anybody’s interested in becoming a coach, I highly recommend them. Co-Active Coaching is present and future focused. If you need to talk about the past, or work on some trauma, then perhaps investigate the opportunity to talk with a therapist. The way that I’ve been trained in coaching is forward leaning and very much about helping people make progress.
Coaching is, amongst other things, a combination of listening, asking powerful questions and helping someone think differently about what’s possible. One of the things we know is that people, all around the world, want to make progress in their lives, in their community, and in the world. Coaching greases the wheels a little bit and helps people move past limiting beliefs that they might have, as a professional, in their personal lives, or as an entrepreneur. Coaching helps people to create their bold future.
SG: How do you transcend that experience, your coaching training, what you did at Nike, into the business that you’re running now? How do you take what you’ve done and bring it to the brand scale?
SK: Given my upbringing, and the past 30 years living, studying and working around the world, I truly believe that you can create a bold future for yourself, your community, the world and your brand and business if you want it badly enough. The challenge seems to be in creating a compelling enough vision and communicating that vision in a congruent and resonant way that inspires others to want to join the journey, and take action to get there.
The private sector has the resources, and brands have a very influential role in the world. They connect deeply with people that share their values. They can influence people’s behavior. They can represent the voice of big groups of people and speak truth to power if needed. They’ve got a lot of resources and influence to innovate and create solutions to some of the biggest problems that we have going on in the world right now and over the next decade.
My focus today is on helping CEOs and CBOs to look out and look ahead at the forces shaping the world around us and define how they and their brand can play a role in creating a bold future — a healthy ecosystem in which humanity, the planet and their brand can thrive. I’ve recently started a Masters in Global Development so that I can help business and brand leaders to better understand the global context in which we operate today, and think about how we might like to leverage the private sector and brands to challenge and improve that system going forward (since it’s an understatement to say that its not working so well at the moment). I also partner with leaders on discovery sessions, developing insight infused vision, mission, position and strategy for brand and innovation.
SG: When companies reach out to you and say, “This seems like a case for Sarah Kay,” what are they asking for and what are they hoping to transform? What’s the before and after photo?
SK: For the most part, CEOs and brand leaders understand that we are collectively having a moment. They know that, and they feel the responsibility for that. And in many cases, they really want to do something impactful to help, to redirect their brand’s resources to solving or improving this thing, but they are so very busy with the day to day running of the business and brand and it’s not easy to know where to start. There are so many things to get after, there’s so much that you could do. Sometimes it’s hard for leaders to develop strategic clarity or to define with their teams what they stand for, and then redirect resources to make that future real.
Many leaders are operating on a quarter by quarter, year by year, six month by six month time horizon. It can be really difficult to zoom out and see the influence, resources and the power you’ve got at your fingertips. Many leaders don’t realize that they’ve got all this power. Often they just need a bit of help to get upstream, to look up and look out and create that pathway.
SG: There’s been this pendulum swing on purpose. Purpose as a theory, purpose as a practice, to an over rotation on it. Some would argue that companies are now meant to stand for everything, and have something to say about everything?
SK: The word purpose is nebulous. You’d be better off just saying what you mean. Why do you exist? What’s the difference that you want to create? What’s the from-to you will deliver? How are you regenerating the planet? How are you making someone’s life better? Almost every company that you can name was created to solve a real problem. Sometimes understanding why your company exists is about reconnecting with that insight or spirit or core truth. Why did you start the company? What’s the real problem you wanted to solve? Why do you exist today? What problem do you solve today? What is the difference that you want to make to somebody’s life? What’s your vision of the world in the future and your role in getting us there? Over a period of time, as you say, we definitely over rotated on ‘purpose’. We need to take some of the pressure off and simplify.
Most of the brand leaders that I speak to globally are sick and tired of addicting people to things they don’t really want or need and the planet doesn’t want or need either. They want to use their skills in a more meaningful way, to help humanity solve its biggest threats to survival and to get us to a regenerative future. They just don’t know where to go to do that. They are looking for CEOs and CBOs to develop more clarity around that and define their position so getting clear on that is an imperative.
SG: Now that you’re a few years into running your practice, obviously it’s been some very weird times that you’ve chosen to do this (I feel you, by the way). But what has surprised you about what you’re doing and the impact that you can have? Or the companies that you’ve spoken to? You were inside this really big bubble of Nike for a long time, now you’re talking to all these other companies. What have you learned?
SK: What’s surprised me the most, is how okay it is to stand up for what you believe in. It’s totally OK to put your individual point of view and energy out into the world, just the way it is. What I’ve found is that people that want to find you will find you. When you try to fit into a big corporate machine it can stunt your growth as a human being and as a professional, it can stop you from expressing yourself and it can hold you back. Being able to right-size myself outside of that environment has been the best feeling in the whole world. Doing my thing alongside other people who are doing their thing and brands that are ready to take their thing to the next level, has helped me realize that I can have more impact than working for just one brand. The past two years have been brilliantly life affirming.
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