Mark King on leadership

Mark King can remember an era when corporate leadership looked much different than it does today.

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“Leadership has evolved so much in the last 20 years,” says King, president of Adidas North America. (As this issue went to press, King announced he would reitre July 1.) “Leaders then had much more ability to manage from the top. If you were charismatic and you had vision, they’d line up behind you because you were their leader. I’m not sure that works anymore.”

King spent 34 years with golf company TaylorMade, the last dozen as its chief executive, before Germany-based Adidas tapped him four years ago to lead what is arguably the company’s most important geographic region. 

Adidas sales in North America have been surging since. In March, the company reported sales in the region up 27% in 2017 over the previous year – taking market share from chief competitors Nike and Under Armour.

Some of that regional growth might be attributed to a greater emphasis on “athleisure,” bigger investment in marketing and designing products targeting American, not European, consumers.

The results might be clear cut, but King’s take on the ingredients that make a most effective leader are not.

“The gap between generations is bigger because the world is more open to challenging the status quo,” King says.  “Young people of today are certainly more worldly and educated. You’re looking at Generation X and millennials who are just way better equipped to be in bigger discussions than I was.”

King describes his earlier work world experience as “show up, follow the leader, work hard and that’s all there was.” 

Today, King says, Adidas’ campus in North Portland tries to create a culture that makes employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts — be it any of the company’s sports initiatives or social issues. “What you allow is people to have feelings, emotions and a point of view.”

By contrast, several top executives at Nike have resigned or retired, fallout from what appears to have been concerns over workplace culture. At the same time, a federal indictment charged an Adidas executive with wire fraud for arranging a payment to the mother of a high school basketball player in exchange for that player committing to play basketball at the University of Kansas, an Adidas-outfitted school.

King, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on Nike. Regarding the federal case, a company statement said it was cooperating with authorities. 

This article is part of a feature package on leadership that appears in our May 2018 issue. For more profiles in leadership click here.