Annotated for brevity.
Hilary Krane, Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of NIKE Inc. and the recent Leader-in-Residence for the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, sat down with Kristin Bresnahan, former Co-Director of the Mark Initiative, to answer a few questions about her leadership style, her team’s effective organizational culture and what it’s like to work for one of the world’s most iconic brands.
Kristin: How would you describe your leadership style?
Hilary: I would say I'm direct, I'm authentic and I'm supportive. I view my role as a leader as someone who removes obstacles for the team and puts wind in its sails. But in order to do that, sometimes you have to tell people hard truths or challenge them to do difficult things. It's all in the name of helping them own their work and their own leadership and making forward progress.
Kristin: What qualities do you possess that help you succeed as a leader?
Hilary: I love what I do. I think passion really matters. These are hard jobs. There are a lot of obstacles, there is a lot of adversity and you have to have the ability—and not just the ability— but the enthusiasm to get up and go take them on every day. Attitude is a huge part of it, along with emotional intelligence. I think the ability to be truly empathetic to other people helps you both in delivering difficult messages and in coaching people to their best performance, and frankly, in strategizing on both legal and business issues. It's a great skill to see pretty clearly how you think people will respond by putting yourself in their shoes and getting yourself prepared for that.
Kristin: What advice would you give to a first-time leader?
Hilary: Listen a lot to other people. Own your own weakness. Give credit to others and don't try to take it all on yourself. I think new leaders try really hard to show they've got it all, and they make it all about themselves and, really, the best leaders make nothing about themselves. You're only as good as your team. The way to motivate your team is to let them know how much you value them and shine a light on them. It always makes you look better. Strength does not come in projecting strength. Strength comes in having enough confidence to acknowledge other people and making the whole team come together. And pay attention to the soft skills. Emotional intelligence is a key part in all of life and in business.
Kristin: How do you inspire your team to collaborate and thrive?
Hilary: First of all, we're super informal. I encourage everybody to speak their mind. We tease each other. We behave like a family. I'll call them out publicly and embarrass them and encourage them to do the same thing with me.
I make a point of acknowledging and giving positive feedback to people who challenge me. I feel like having a healthy environment where everybody can challenge each other, and especially the boss, creates an environment for getting the best work and getting to the right answer. I do anything I can to make us feel at ease with one another, and to remove the heavy burden of decision-making. We have to have fun. You have to have a sense of humor to play on my team. Humor is a huge part.
Kristin: How do you demonstrate to your employees how much you value them?
Hilary: I try to find opportunities, small and large, to acknowledge them and say thank you. When something great happens and somebody writes to me about it, I’ll shine a light on the work, and sometimes I'll send it out to the whole department with my completely informal comments on top like "Woohoo! Can you believe it? Check this out." They can tell it's my voice and not a corporate communications person sending it out. I try to create opportunities for different members of the team to show up to senior management and present their work so that they can see how they fit in.
Kristin: What specific strategies or processes do you use to promote a strong organizational culture?
Hilary: Culture does not come from the top of an organization. It can be cultivated and inspired by people at the top, but culture is actually the result of what every individual in the organization does every day and the aggregation of those individual decisions. It's really important that people understand how they show up, how they listen, and how they collaborate. How they engage is what makes our workplace what it is, and I try to be clear that it's a collective effort from all of us.
Kristin: How would you describe Nike’s culture?
Hilary: Oh, our culture is fun. It's sports-oriented. We're a sports company, and we're motivated by our mission to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete (with an asterisk on athlete). If you have a body, you're an athlete. It goes from LeBron all the way down to me and my mom just out there working out. That's a huge unifier for the company because we all share that passion, and it's a fun one.
We have a saying "We're on offense always." We don't pay attention to what our competitors are doing. We like to pay attention to the distance between ourselves and our potential. That's very much like an athlete. I don't care who the next person is; I want a personal best. We're very self-propelled.
Kristin: How can in-house lawyers think about their function from the business perspective and informing corporate strategy?
Hilary: Every in-house lawyer has to be a lawyer and a business person. You're working in a business. You need to understand what's going on in the business. You need to understand the pressures and the objectives, and then bring your legal skills as part of the team to try to get to that objective. Don’t look at the lawyer and the business as somehow separate from one another. Nope. They're very interrelated, and I think the Mark Initiative is really helpful in attuning business people to expect a lawyer to show up as more than a lawyer and to respect a lawyer as a full member of a strategic business team who brings a lot more to the table than just the subject matter expertise.
Kristin: How do you think about work-life balance?
Hilary: The work-life balance discussion can be misleading because it sets up work and life as if they're oppositional to one another. That was never my experience. I had my first child after 10 days at a law firm. The whole time I've been a lawyer, I've been a mother and the whole time I've been a mother, I've been a lawyer. I never had any period of time doing one or the other. That's really influenced the way I think about it. Work life. Family life. It's all life.
Kristin: What have you learned from your best bosses that you use in leading your team today?
Hilary: My best bosses have given me the sense that they have full confidence in me. That they're willing to engage in the hard work with me. They're not waiting for me to come and say, “Here's your answer and here's what you have to do.” Sometimes you have to do that on the technical thing, but it's a team sport in deciding how to move forward. They listen well, and they appreciate the members of my team. A really good boss sees through me and recognizes that it's a whole army of people behind me that actually gets the work done.