Episode 5

Leadership That Inspires

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Rebellious Optimists – A People Podcast

In this Rebellious Optimists episode, Hoa Ly shares why she has stayed at adidas for a career journey of more than 20 years, and her all-important golden rules for leadership. She also talks about the challenges and possibilities of leading a business function that indirectly employs one million people.

As consumers, we often see products online or in stores without thinking about how they got there. Hoa has made this part of the supply chain her career focus for over two decades. Growing up in a small town in Vietnam, the 3-Stripes brand was already infamous with everyone referring to their sports shoes as ‘adidas’. So, when she arrived in Portland, Oregon and saw an ad for an accounts job at adidas she jumped at the chance. Now living in Hong Kong, Hoa and her Sourcing team are determined to turn design dreams into the real-life products we know and love.

Ho Ly giving a quote for adidas' rebellious optimists

Twiggy Jalloh 02:34

Hoa, I know you’ve had a long career at adidas. But where did it start?

Hoa Ly 02:39

Wow, a long time ago. So I will say it was back in the summer of 1997. After my university graduation, I applied for many jobs – at our first graduate, we do, right? And I only actually got accepted into a job in downtown Portland, where was from, as a management trainee for a financial firm and a stockbroker. But then one day, like a couple of weeks before I started that job, I saw a one square inches advert in the local newspaper, The Oregonian, for an account payable specialist role at adidas. And then when I saw the tiny Adidas logo, I was so surprised because I – first of all, I have no idea that adidas exists in Portland, literally 50 blocks from my parents’ house. And I don’t know what took me, but I just have this impulse that I must apply for this job. And the reason for that is, as a Vietnamese growing up in Vietnam, I watch a lot of street football on unpaved roads, and a lot of World Cup football on black and white TV screen. And even in my hometown in Vietnam, people would call the football boots adidas. So I think this emotional connection to the brand has established in me at a very young age. There is something that is really special about the vibe of a sport brand that was so captivating for me. Compared to many of the corporate and very formal offices, right, that I experienced up until then only till my internship and job interview. So I took the job, and I told my family and all my siblings were basically saying, what, you turned down a management trainee job to become an accounts payable specialist? And they were advising me against it. But I decided to go for the job anyway. And I’ve been with adidas since 1997, and I never looked back since then.

Twiggy Jalloh 04:41

Oh wow, I love hearing people following their instincts, especially when you have friends and family telling you – no, we don’t think this is a good idea. Like, this is a huge opportunity. Why do you want to go somewhere else for a lesser, if you want to call it that, position? But look, look where you’ve ended up. You’ve been here for what, 25 years? That is insane. That is insane. And of course, slowly but surely, like, climbed your way up to where you are now, which is mind blowing and so fascinating. What is it about the company that keeps you working for them?

Hoa Ly 05:14

Wow, I got this question a lot of times from my colleagues and my employees and my friends. And I’ve thought a lot about that. But I think typically, I resort back into a very simple response. I just haven’t found a reason to leave adidas yet. I think it’s really, it really boils down into three things for me. I think first is culture. Second is really about the value and the purpose. And third is about a career opportunity. So let me go a little bit deep into the culture. Adidas have a really, really unique culture that, you know, many adidas employees have a strong passion for that for which we strive, and their passion is really infectious. The camaraderie among adidas colleagues is very special, especially in sourcing, and our decade-old tagline, we, in sourcing we have a tagline – ‘together we make it happen’. I think we, we basically created this tagline about 10 or 15 years ago, and it still lives on today. And it still resonates with every single sourcing employee. So I think there is something very unique about the adidas culture. Secondly, the adidas core value and purpose. I mean, we have transferred through many different iterations of the purpose. But I think the one thing that, that tie the company together is a founder-led company, right? The company was led by Adi Dassler, and Adi Dassler had this 31 Adi Dassler standard that really describes the philosophy of the founder, and his expectations, and his philosophy on what makes adidas adidas, and it personally resonates a lot with me, until today. I think, to the modern day, I think right now, if you look at adidas, we have a really clear purpose, right? And our purpose is, through sport we have the power to change lives. And I think adidas has changed my life personally, and it has changed many people’s lives inside and outside adidas. I think as employees, you are really encouraged to really take ownership, to really push boundaries, and to really innovate.

Twiggy Jalloh 07:12

Oh wow, I think your openness to developing and learning and trying new things has clearly led you to where you are today. Looking back on your career, what else has been important for your career development?

Hoa Ly 07:24

So I think career, to me personally, it is about a journey. I mean a journey has many different chapters, and every chapter offers you something new – a new challenge, a new learning, a new experience, and the journey might not even have a destination, if you will. I never really set out, to be honest with you, I never set out to be an SVP. I, it was never a goal of mine. I only ever asked for a new challenge, as I do tend to get bored after a few years, if not complacent, if I stay in the same job beyond five years. So I think in many of the development conversations with my line manager, and I have worked for probably 11 to 12 different bosses so far over the year. And you know, typically when you work for a manager, right, at the end, you reveal you get asked you know, you get asked that big question, what do you want to do in three to five years? And my answer to all my line managers has always been very consistent over the last decade, that it was never about a title, it was never about a position. It was never about a specific role, it has always been about a description of what I enjoy doing. And there’s something like you know, I would like to manage, to lead an increasingly larger organization. I want to be fully accountable for an area of business. I want to have a P & L responsibility. And I want a responsibility that really gives me room, regardless of my level, to continue to learn something, or to do something that I haven’t done before. So I think that’s pretty much described my career development – no destination, but see every single chapter as a part of the journey.

Twiggy Jalloh 09:16

I want to know more about sourcing supply chain and sustainability. We see products online or in stores without thinking about how they got there. What part does sourcing play in the production of our favourite products?

Hoa Ly 09:29

Yeah, so Twiggy, you’re right. I think at a consumer, as both you and I are, we often see the creative marketing campaign, the product in a retail store or on the – online. But many people actually don’t stop to think about, what is the black box in between? But I think first of all, what do we do in sourcing, or in global operation? We have a tagline that we normally say right? Our job is to really turn dreams into reality. We basically say we deliver the most appealing product, at the right time, with the right price, and also in the most ethical and sustainable approach. It’s really, essentially, a sourcing job starts with us picking over or receiving a design sketch or tech package from, from a designer in headquarters. And then we have many, many seasoned engineers, technical experts and operators on the factory site and our sourcing team go through literally hundreds of steps in order to turn a sketch or an idea into a physical sample that really meets the brief. And I think the second step after that is, after a sample is already confirmed by our marketing and our design colleagues, prior to really scale, a single size sample, that our design and marketing confirm into hundreds, thousands of production in a full size run. And I think there’s a lot more complexity, just to give you an example, an average shoe takes 200 workers to make the product, or a winter jacket could take 150 workers, for example.

Twiggy Jalloh 11:00

Oh, wow.

Hoa Ly 11:04

it’s a lot, it’s a lot involved to really scale up these in an array of shapes, size, combination of colours, and material to really meet the consumer needs.

Twiggy Jalloh 11:14

Wow, it is such a huge operation. Sometimes, like you said, as a consumer, you go into the store, you see a pair of shoes, oh my gosh, I absolutely love them. But then you don’t actually remember, or even know, or even know or realize how many hands it took to make those shoes happen – from, of course, sourcing to even learning now about automation, about learning – just so many, so many, so many steps. So it really is, wow, it is a lot. It’s a lot. So for someone like me who loves clothing and fashion, what do you think I need to understand about sourcing? What is it that you wish consumers generally knew about sourcing and how important it is?

Hoa Ly 11:55

From a consumer perspective, the biggest impact that you can make as consumer is to understand the choices that you make. And that can impact the lives of many unseen people, the people who are making this product, at the end of the day, the consumer has the biggest power – right – to really define what products get made, how they get made, through your voting, which is your wallet, your decision to buy the product. So I think in adidas alone, we indirectly employ about a million people in our supply chains, that are involved in the making of our products. That’s a lot of people whose livelihoods are supported by the products that our consumers purchase. And I personally feel that heavily, as the head of sourcing for the company. And such awareness also drives a lot of the decision on how I make my decisions, how I am a interact with our supply partner, and how I run the business. So my job is really to ensure that we strike the right balance across many different drivers, that really influence how we source product. From a cost, from a quality, from a delivery, from a social and environmental standards. And I think especially on the social and environmental standards, at adidas sourcing, we have a very long history of prioritizing our social and environmental welfare of our supply chains. In many ways we are pioneers, this concept and our supplier, that they have to meet or exceed our standards that we set for ourselves. And I believe the industry also recognises us for our leadership position in this area.

Twiggy Jalloh 13:25

Speaking, of course, of sustainability, and all of us being so aware of sustainability. I think for so many of us sustainability has become really important over the last few years. How does that influence the work that you do?

Hoa Ly 13:38

Absolutely, I think sustainability is a key strategic focus for adidas, and sourcing has a major role to play. I think for the work that we do, sustainability influences our sourcing in two ways. Number one is in how we produce a product. And number two, what actually goes into the products. So our goal here is to really reduce the carbon footprint intensity of the product that we produce by less than 15% by 2025, 30% by 2030. And we committed into a carbon neutral by 2050.

Twiggy Jalloh 14:14

Oh wow, huge goals.

Hoa Ly 14:16

Yes, I think that’s a pretty big, that’s a pretty big lofty goal, especially for our industry. So I think first focusing on how do we produce. I think over the last decade, together with our social and environmental affairs department, we ran these programs with our supplier partner to really drive a significant reduction in water, energy, chemicals and waste. And also in recent years, we also started to accelerate our work on renewable energy – how do we switch from heavy intensive energy into renewable energy. And adopting different manufacturing technology, so that we can decisively phase out the more dirty energy sources such as coal. I think from a product line perspective, we are constantly looking for a more sustainable material to introduce into our product. And these, pretty soon, will become a pretty basic expectation in our supply base. We also have a pretty exciting open-source partnership with many startup companies out there, for example, Milo, Spinnova, Pond, that really innovate the new generation of bio-based material. So there’s a lot, a lot of potential to really, really make an impact.

Twiggy Jalloh 15:37

Hoa, I want to talk about leadership now. What’s your personal philosophy when it comes to leadership?

Hoa Ly 15:43

Wow, this is a big question. I’m not sure if I have a personal philosophy. But what I can share is that, for me, I have one rule, and I have three personal beliefs. The golden rule for me is about common sense having to prevail. And I think we live in a very complex world, right. And also for the business is very complex. You know, collaboration is complicated. My colleagues and I used to joke that common sense is so rare that it should be considered a superpower. And I genuinely find that in my career, putting common sense into challenges is really, really fundamental. And, and that’s my, that’s my rule. The three beliefs that I have is, number one, is the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. And what do I mean by that? It’s really about the power of people working together to make things happen. So it’s not about me, an individual, it’s really about a collective organization that makes things happen for a company. I absolutely love the 31 Adi Dassler standards I mentioned to you earlier. And for me, the two that in particular resonate a lot for me personally, to be creative, independent, and take responsibility for your actions. And never stand still. And always be willing to learn and you will see a lot of these, you know, form who I am, and my career path in the company. And the number three belief for me is really about the trust and the empowerment. I believe in creating a trusting relationship and providing psychological safety are the number one responsibility in the job as a leader. To be, to allow people to be their true selves. And I think I find that super aspirational.

Twiggy Jalloh 17:35

I saw that you wrote an article for the adidas blog, Game Plan A, where you advocated for leaders to be the boss you choose for yourself. I’m intrigued. Tell me what you mean by that.

Hoa Ly 17:45

So be the boss you choose for yourself. What I mean by that is that regardless of your position, you should always treat people how you want to be treated. You know, Maya Angelou, has a saying, right? People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel. And I 1000% subscribe into that. There’s a backstory to this actually. You want another story?

Twiggy Jalloh 18:11

Please tell me the story. Because I absolutely love that quote, as well. I live by that quote. So please, tell me more.

Hoa Ly 18:17

So my backstory is this – many years ago, I actually resigned from my job. What happened then was that there was a structure change. And there was a newly appointed global leader to the function that I was in. So my department had to change our reporting line from my then boss, and to this new leader. The new leader, whom I never met, decided to kind of put her own trusted person above me. And my position was basically lower down by one level from a reporting line. Which actually, this is quite normal for any reorg. And I didn’t have any problem with that. What I had a problem with was that I see announced this change in front of 100 people in the department in an all-employee meeting, and I was never spoken to. So I was totally blind. I was two months pregnant then, but…

Twiggy Jalloh 19:14

Oh gosh, that doesn’t make it any easier.

Hoa Ly 19:17

I know, and it was probably my hormones that did the action, and not, not my logical self, that I resigned from the job. Because I believed that that was not the right way to treat people. I remember I was quite emotional then when I, when I put in my resignation, when I met my boss over the situation to reflect on you know, because he officially rejected my resignation. So we had a meeting. And what he told me at that time, I never forget, he said, Hoa, we oftentimes do not get to choose our own boss. But what we have is our own choice as an employee, and you clearly make your choice that you are willing to walk away from the job that you love, out of the matter of principle. Now, I don’t agree with your imposed decision, you should have talked to me instead of resigning from the job, I don’t agree with your decision. But I also respect your thought process and why you did what you did. But I think having said that, you know, we see you as a high potential talent, and I want you to remain in the organization, but I want you to remember this. And he said very, very clearly, you know, even with the worst boss, you will learn something, you will learn never to do that, to do what he has done to you, to other people. Because he said, Hoa, one day, you will become a leader. And they want you to always remember this experience, and strive to be the boss that you would choose for yourself. And that experience very early in my career has fundamentally shaped who I am as a leader, and to today, I am a massive advocate for a leader who seeks for feedback from all levels, on how I can be a better leader. I need 360 feedback on myself and my direct reports, almost religiously, because I want my leader and myself, to be always on the lookout for ourselves, look at the mirror and be the boss that we want to choose for ourselves. It’s really, really simple. It’s really about trust and respect. It’s about treating people with respect and with dignity. And that’s how we all want to be treated, right? So it’s super simple.

Twiggy Jalloh 21:31

Oh, wow Hoa, that was also touching. What your boss said is, it’s very true. And I think sometimes we are and we do leave situations in a haste because we’re upset about certain things and, and we feel disrespected or slighted. But of course, it is always important to communicate, and also learn not to do that when you are in the position, in that position, you know, in the future. So, so yeah, there was a lot of takeaways from what you just said, Okay. So, your career, you have a very global career. Your career has seen your work in North America, Europe and Asia. How has your experience of working in different parts of the world impacted your style of leadership?

Hoa Ly 22:14

So across North America, Europe and Asia, they have different specific nuances in regard to how people’s preferences are in the context of point of views, and especially on diversity, equality and inclusion, right? Different points of view, depending on where you come from. Having said, when it comes to expectation for leadership, and, and the leader role to inspire employees, I find that the intrinsic motivation of people across all continents are the same. People want to be, to have a clear sense of purpose for the job. People want to be trusted. People want to be empowered, people want to be treated with respect. And people want to be given that psychological safety and working environment where they are, you know, encouraged to be themselves. So I think as a result I find that my leadership style works across all continents so far. But it’s based on my personal experience. Yeah, I think it’s, if you show respect for people, you will find a way to deal with people regardless of location, or nationalities or culture background.

Twiggy Jalloh 23:31

Hoa, you’ve shared such great insights, honestly, you really have. So I’m really excited to ask you this final question. This series is called Rebellious Optimists. So what advice would you give to rebellious and optimistic leaders wanting to make positive change?

Hoa Ly 23:48

I would say my advice would be to see that your leadership position is both a privilege and responsibility. And that if it is done right, it could be extremely rewarding for a leader. Experience, from a responsibility perspective, I think as a leader, you are entrusted with an immense power of, and manpower to really set the bar for performance, and to also inspire in other people, you know, for me, responsibility as a leader is – we don’t do stuff, right? We actually get people to do things. You know, getting done through other people. And I think as a privilege, as a leader, your influence may affect the trajectories of the people’s entire career, and oftentimes, their life as well. So, always remember that as a leader you always observe, and that people only remember how you make them feel with your interactions. So I think your work matters, and how you say things really, really matters because people will remember how you make them feel when it comes to reward. And for me personally, when someone comes forward, it could be a very junior employee, comes forward and recognizes me for having helped them to grow and to reach their potential, it’s the nicest feeling that you have as a human being, right? To be recognized for the impact that you have on other people, their career, their life.

Twiggy Jalloh 25:13

Hoa, it’s honestly been a pleasure speaking to you today. You’ve taught me a lot. You have, you’ve got a plethora of experience under your belt and congratulations on your 25 years at adidas. There’s so much to learn from you. And it’s been a pleasure speaking to you today. Thank you so much.

Hoa Ly 25:33

Thank you, the pleasure has been mine. And it’s been an honour, and thank you again for having me.

Twiggy Jalloh 25:42

Such great wisdom from Hoa, coming from her many years working at adidas, and what she has learned along the way. You can read her article about leadership on the blog, where she talks about the importance of trust and of showing vulnerability as a leader. There’s also an article about the new sustainable materials that adidas is developing with its partners. Read those two pieces at gameplan-a.com. There’s links in the show notes. So that’s it from me. Until next time.

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