When I was 21, I worked at the bread counter at Marks and Spencer, a giant retailer in the UK, as a Graduate Management trainee. I loved to tell my colleagues there what kind of leader I’d be if only I could get the chance.
But there weren’t a lot of opportunities. My incredible mother raised five of us by herself on a cleaner’s salary. There were times when we didn’t have food, and if you look at the photo of me playing basketball below, you’ll see my shoes, which cost about $1. What we did have, though, was a mum who taught us the importance of education and believing in yourself, and that has made all the difference.
Today, I celebrate my first 100 days as president of adidas North America. I’ve had the fantastic good fortune of leading teams in Germany, Europe, and North America, working with colleagues from around the globe to change lives through sport. I could never have reached any of these milestones in my career without my mum, the first leader in my life, who told me that whoever you are, wherever you come from, you can be whatever you want in this life.
She was right. You can literally do anything you want. Now, that doesn’t mean your career development journey won’t be without obstacles, so I want to share some of the things that have helped me get to where I am right now. I hope it helps you, too.
1. Create a personal development plan
Your growth and career development can’t be intermittent – you have to continually learn. I highly recommend creating a personal development plan for both two years and five years out so you can figure out what your goals are, how you’re going to achieve them and what skills you need to improve along the way.
2. Get ready to get uncomfortable
A career is like life – it doesn’t ever go in a straight line. That means you need to be prepared to adapt and change. Do you ever feel like there’s a little person on your shoulder saying, “Can I actually do this?” That’s a good sign, because it means you’re uncomfortable, and that means you’re challenging yourself and continuing to learn and grow.
3. You need will and skill
When I interview people for a job, I look for two things: skill and will. If you’re in front of me, I assume you have the skill. So, do you have the will to attack a role, prioritize within that role and to engage people in delivering that role? Think about how many athletes who aren’t the best of the best, but who work harder to maximize their skills – their will makes them better players than those who have the best skills.
4. Mentorship – and reverse mentorship – are key
I’ve been a mentor and have had numerous mentors throughout my career, and all of them have had the same fundamentals at the core of what they do: they listen, ensure confidentiality, and give advice without telling people what to do. But reverse mentorship is just as important. For example, I have a retail background, so when digital and eCom became a big thing, I spent a year with eCom experts who reverse mentored me. That was really important.
5. Give and receive feedback
Back in 2014, I was the head of retail and I thought we should have a greater focus on the retail business. It was my job to explain to people that we needed the right products and marketing to succeed. Then a trusted colleague told me that he thought my approach could be stronger and suggested how I could change my tactics. I was able to apply that at the next meeting we had, and not only was I heard, but the results were huge: we began to have a huge effect on the business and went from an under-prioritized area to a core function. This is a good example of how feedback is an important tool, and shows how offering feedback in the moment, rather than waiting, allows the person to act on it and change their actions for the better immediately.
6. Invest in your people
When you do become a leader, it’s important to remember that everyone wants the same thing: to look after their families, to have enough money to survive and to do well in their careers. Earn their trust, show integrity and work with them to create career paths and drive continual learning. The more you put into your people, the more you get back. I learned that a very long time ago and that lesson has stayed with me all my life.
Back when I was at the bread counter all those years ago, I knew that great leaders took care of their people. What the kid at the counter didn’t know, though, is how rewarding this journey would be.
I say it often: I have the easiest job in the world because I get to create the right conditions for people to do their best work. It’s a joy to watch colleagues reach their potential, and while it’s a big job (see what I said above about getting uncomfortable), I know I can do this because I had the best teacher in the world: my mum. Our means may have been limited, but her love was not, and she created the right conditions to ensure her children and grandchildren would go on to have fulfilling careers in medicine, business and so much more.