Fmr Nike Global Women’s Dir. On Successfully Navigating A Male-Dominated Business With Confidence

By Shaz Kahng

One day I was called into the office of Nike’s CEO and tasked with running a global business. Actually, I wasn’t just asked to run the business but to completely “fix it.” It was my big break. I would be the first woman ever to lead Nike’s Cycling business and was told I’d be the first female to hold a global business unit P&L. Exciting, right?

I jumped right in. The business had been run for about seven years by a professional track cyclist, but never made a cent. As I met with my team of mostly men (and mostly avid cyclists) I encountered the same questions, “What do you know about the cycling business?” and “What do you know about the sport of cycling?” My response was “Not much. But I do know how to ride a bike!” Quips aside it was obvious the team didn’t think I had the right background for the job.

Self doubt started to creep in…but then I took a step back and thought, Wait a sec. This business has been tanking for years, yet these guys are questioning whether I can do the job? Well, I certainly can’t do any worse than they’re doing now! From that moment on I realized I needed to demonstrate confidence that I could make the business a success. I told the team I expected to learn from them. I also informed them that I knew how to turn around a business and a brand, and hoped they’d learn something from me.

The Cycling business was a mess- it was losing money, we had gotten kicked out of some retail accounts, apparel returns were incredibly high, and our marketing wasn’t resonating with consumers. Yet, no one on the team could explain why these problems were occurring or how to solve them. At our first ever cross-functional meeting I knew that in order to fix our problems I had to get the team to truly understand what was going on.

Across the very large conference room table I laid out about thirty pairs of cycling shorts and then held up a prize, an iPod Shuffle. I told the team that whoever could correctly guess the size of the shorts on the table without looking at the tags would win the prize- that got them going. Down the line they went calling out sizes, “Extra Small. Large. Small. Extra Large, etc.” I said, “Guess what? These are all medium size shorts. We are not using standardized sizing specifications or fit blocks, that’s why our fit varies so greatly from style to style and is also why our returns are so high.” An audible gasp came from the team.

As we methodically went through the business strategy, consumer targeting, merchandising approach, marketing, distribution, and product line, the team finally understood all the issues negatively impacting the business. And they could see that I was approaching the business comprehensively and with a focus on the consumer. Now all we had to do was fix things. We had to transform every aspect of the business and set out a clear vision of what needed to be done and in what timeframe.

As a new leader I also knew I had to have a quick win to gain the team’s trust. We were sponsoring the Tour de France, the biggest spectator sport in the world. It seemed like an opportune time to boost our cycling business, but judging from prior efforts we weren’t seeing an impact. I asked the team if we had one really cool item to sell during that time, aside from t-shirts and replica jerseys and the answer was no.

When I suggested doing a bag I got immediate push-back from the team who told me I was “crazy” and informed me that it typically took two years to design and produce a bag. Huh? That seemed like an incredibly long time to me and I wanted to pursue the idea, but people were not enthusiastic. With the help of some colleagues we contracted with a quick turnaround bag manufacturer in China. Then we started with an early bag design from our European team and a U.S. based designer and graphic artist helped design and build the bag.

We had the bag designed, developed, and delivered to stores in about two months, which was record breaking at Nike. It was priced high but still sold well. I also had a bag made up for every senior executive at Nike with a tag on it saying the bag was developed in record time and it had the names of the team members who worked on it. That accomplished two things: first, for the people who worked hard on it they felt their efforts were recognized and appreciated. Second, the next time I came up with a “crazy” idea you can bet my entire team was a lot more open minded.

Yet, there were many landmines I had to dodge along the way. One time we were at the training camp for the Discovery Team and planned on doing video interviews with the cyclists. I suggested to my head of marketing that we tag team on doing the interviews. He seemed cagey. Instead of being honest with me about wanting to interview all the athletes himself, he said, “Sure. You take the first few guys.” Little did I know that my marketing “teammate” arranged for the first three interviews to be with the three cyclists on the team who spoke very little English and there were no translators available.

Needless to say, those interviews weren’t very productive. After the last disastrous interview a buddy of the marketing guy pulled me aside and said, “Maybe it’s not a good idea for you to interview the athletes,” and then he used a phrase that the marketing guy had used verbatim. That’s when I knew they were in it together and the experience taught me not to fully trust the two of them again.

Despite the challenges there were many high points and victories, which were accomplished with the help of some highly talented team members. The lesson for me was to keep moving things forward and to never doubt myself. In the end, we grew revenues by over 300% and made the business profitable for the first time in history. Not too shabby for someone whose cycling knowledge at the start was limited to knowing how to ride a bike. So you see, a little confidence does go a long way.

 

 

 

 

Shaz Kahng is a visionary leader and inventive thinker adept at turning around and scaling businesses in the retail, sports/active apparel, and footwear industries. From Global Women’s Director at Nike, to CEO/President of Lucy Activewear, she has led teams to achieve success in very male-dominated industries. She has previously worked as a research scientist, a global consulting partner, a builder of e-businesses, and a brand strategist. Shaz currently works as a global startup mentor and advisor to PE and VC firms. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and twin daughters.   

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