Eight-year-old Andre Martin wore his future organization on his feet.
“The Nike swoosh and the colors they would come out with, even as a kid those were the ones I bought because they looked fast,” Nike’s chief learning officer said. “I’ve been a lover of the brand even before I thought about setting foot in the company.”
Like many Nike Inc. employees, Martin, 43, came into the organization with a love of playing and observing sports. In graduate school, he even researched how leaders emerge on athletic teams and did pro bono work with NCAA athletes, helping them think about staying focused on a team.
In April 2014, he joined Nike, where he and his team are preparing a workforce for fast-paced global growth. To accomplish the task, they deploy the same tactics used by the athletic teams wearing the company’s gear: teamwork, originality and a powerful brand.
“Growth provides incredible opportunity,” he said. “But it also creates a space in which there’s no shortage of things you have to do to be a success.”
From Sweets to Swooshes
Martin comes from a development-minded family. His parents were professors who taught first-generation college students in impoverished areas of rural Missouri. After school, he could either be found sitting in on their lectures or participating in soccer, swimming, basketball, baseball or tennis.
“I remember way back on static-filled TVs watching Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and seeing the World Cup live for the first time,” said Martin, who still plays tennis today. “I’ve always been enthralled by heroes, leaders and teams.”
That interest led him to a doctorate in organizational psychology from Saint Louis University in 2001. After graduating, he worked for a boutique consulting firm that created team-based mentalities and systems into manufacturing environments. Then, he spent two years working for Walt Disney World Resorts on organizational development, this time focusing on how to create a more engaging guest experience.
But Martin’s next position as an enterprise associate at the Center for Creative Leadership would be one of his most formative experiences. While there, he led a practice that examined how to help executives build stronger, more effective teams.
He also researched leadership development by surveying more than 700 leaders from the head of the Southern Poverty Law Firm to Fortune500 CEOs. “Without running businesses directly, I was able to understand through their eyes and their words what top executives were facing when growing their businesses,” Martin said.
Five years later, Martin would be in their shoes at chocolate company Mars Inc. In 2007, he joined as the global leadership director, becoming CLO in 2010. He started out leading learning and development for 35,000 employees and was serving close to 80,000 by the time he left.
As part of his job, he ran a biannual innovation and recognition competition that receives 25,000 nominations and ideas that had been applied in Mars’ different regions, offices and departments. Martin and his team would boil these down to 80 to100 ideas and create stories so the organization’s employees could apply the solutions to their own problems.
Such teamwork and growth experience transferred to Nike when he joined in 2014.
The Growth Game
In the year before Martin arrived, Nike had 48,000 employees. By May 2014, that number had grown to 56,500 — and hasn’t slowed down. Luckily for its CLO, expansion is a dream come true.
“I’m kind of obsessed with growth,” Martin said. “As with any growing company, the job is getting bigger every day you come in to do it. How can we help our leaders truly develop as their jobs get bigger? It’s an exciting question we get to take on every day.”
This fits perfectly into Martin’s favorite learning method. He said he develops himself by finding a question and becoming obsessed with finding the answer. Instead of solely researching the answer, however, Martin’s job as CLO allows him to apply what he learns to what employees learn. He oversees 75 global employees who work on talent strategy, from executives to frontline employees in Nike’s wholesale business to its retail and direct-to-consumer sales.
Martin also collaborates with Nike’s executive ranks to deliver customized experiences that help them think differently about the jobs they’re doing and how they can help the company grow. Meanwhile, they teach him what leadership skills he needs to develop in the next generation.
“We’re not running a talent development function that’s about the proliferation of programs,” he explained. “We have to help leaders pull as many methods of experience from their day-to-day job as we can to get them ready for what’s next.”
Developing employees and leaders for those next steps means linking learning with talent management.
“We’re very aware of the tension — that we want to be a business two times the size we are today, and we want to do it with people who are here and have potential,” said Monique Matheson, Nike’s vice president and chief talent officer. “They have to grow as fast, if not faster, than the company.”
That’s a tough game for Martin and his team, who have to service people already in the organization and those about to join it. This year, Martin and Matheson linked development with succession planning to close talent gaps with experience-based learning via a program called Make Moves Matter, which takes into account what skills a person needs and what their current position can offer.
Martin said they are currently on the front end of putting this approach into play, which means shifting from having a broad corporate university to being laser-focused on talent development and what it takes to have the right talent with the right skill to grow the business.
The initiative echoes the company’s mission: to provide inspiration and innovation to every athlete, emphasizing that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Martin said Nike’s talent development mission — i.e., his job — is to bring a similar inspiration and innovation to all employees “to unleash human potential and help employees own their own career and get them ready for key transitions so everyone in the organization can do more work that matters.”
Home Field Advantage
Having a workforce already dedicated to the swoosh logo and Nike name is both a blessing and a curse. Although employees are excited to work for one of their favorite brands, Martin has to make sure the company can meet such high expectations.
One way he does this is to ensure learning is tailored to Nike’s philosophies and structures, which not only reaffirms the company’s identity to every employee from new talent to senior executives but also ensures those going through learning experiences develop into the kind of employees who keep the company’s culture and mission alive.
“We develop people in their job, on the job,” Matheson said. “When we’re clear on the set of experiences they need to prepare for a more complex role, that’s what we do well.”
Martin’s team has been able to see what people need to transition between jobs as well as be successful from day one and apply it to a different kind of learning — one that relies very little on skill- and competency-based modules.
“As you become better and more focused on how learning plays a part in your growth, you start looking to develop internally the concepts, experience and tools that will be unique to Nike and the ways that we work,” he said.
Martin’s approach to learning aligns with Nike’s approach to talent management — employees learn through everyday experiences. He and his team scale this globally to extend the company’s culture, heritage and core beliefs. That way, employees far from its three campuses have the same opportunity to grow the business as those close to its Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters.
Nike is also creating more of its learning programs in-house, rather than relying solely on external vendors. Internal creation means designers are familiar with the company’s culture and heritage.
Bill Craib, senior vice president of internal learning at Human Capital Institute, said there are some disadvantages to relying on in-house programs, however. Although they can adapt quickly based on internal needs, relying on them too many times also can blind employees to what the rest of the world requires from them.
“Part of the reason [CLOs] like external programming is they stop them from drinking their own bathwater,” Craib said. “They don’t want [organizations] to be so focused on their own particular makeup that they’re not thinking about what’s happening externally. There’s a real tendency to fall in love with your own programs.”
Martin already has experience delivering standard, university-style curriculum to employees. Mars Inc. used this method partly because it hired workers right out of college with less professional experience and developed their base-level skills. Nike takes a different approach by hiring those with already developed skills and molding them to fit the organization’s culture and business.
“What you don’t hear me talk about is foundational, functional or operational or technical learning,” Martin said. “We’ve said within talent we’re going to help people in key transitions so you can own more of your career. … We are doing so in order to build new habits the first time our leaders do a job instead of having to break down bad habits.” These levels of transition include new employees, people leaders, leaders of business and executives.
It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of such learning. Martin said a number can be twisted to mean anything. Instead, he said he emphasizes how that number can motivate behavior.
He wants to create metrics that push leaders and participants to apply what they learn, which he’s already started doing by surveying managers and employees on the depth of conversations they have before and after a learning experience.
Because of learning’s connection to talent management, Martin and his team also want to use measurement to determine whether Nike has the people it needs to achieve its goals. “You can’t capture the answer through learning hours and completion,” he said.
Instead, he’s looking at employee engagement, retention, diversity and whether people get the experiences they need. “That’s what I love about the approach we’re taking at Nike. It’s intertwined with those hard measures of talent and less about the courses we complete.”
No Team Member Left on the Bench
Martin is still learning through countless hours of research he hopes will kick off a new approach to team skill building — a program that outlines how to be a great team member.
“Everyone loves to focus on leaders: If you build great leaders, you build great teams,” Martin said. “But part of it is focusing on the members of those teams. How do we continue to build leaders who can lead high-performance teams and think harder about core skills of what a team member needs to bring to the table?”
Martin is in the middle of researching what team members look like at Nike by observing the most successful groups in the business. He’s already found the company’s decentralized matrix structure that requires every employee to be able to influence people they don’t have authority over.
The team mindset is important not only in aligning with talent management and executing Nike’s all-in measurement practices but also in making sure Martin and his team stay true to the company’s culture.
Take their approach to management excellence. In the past five years, the organization focused on instilling the importance of leadership in its employees. Now Martin and his team have moved forward with that work, searching out the best and brightest people leaders to better understand what they do and how they engage their employees “the Nike Way.” He said what he finds will be used later as the basis for tools, processes and learning programs.
Also in Nike’s learning future: a branded onboarding experience that invites new employees to bring their diverse experiences into the business as well as provides them with knowledge of how the company makes money and why they are important to that process. Martin’s team wants it to be as powerful a brand experience as the one the organization provides to consumers.
“We have to show them why Nike is one of the greatest places to work, and we have to set up expectations of how to be a great team member,” Martin said. “Those employees out there in the field are going to be as much of a product for us as the footwear and apparel that we create.”