Nike has an enviable brand, the iconic “swoosh” is known worldwide, it’s deeply associated with athletes and sports, and is increasingly admired as a digital and design innovator. One of the most important parts of maintaining that reputation is building an extremely committed workforce.
Fast Company’s Austin Carr got an extended look inside Nike Headquarters as part of a story naming it the most innovative company of 2013, and reveals what the company does to make believers out of its employees.
Though they may have been showing off for a journalist a bit, employees do appear to preach the company’s values. “Workers quote the company’s maxims like the 10 Commandments. More than a dozen tell me, independently and unprompted, ‘Be a sponge’ and ‘If you have a body, you’re an athlete,'” Austin writes.
The company is intensely aware of its own history and story, and works to keep employees conscious of it. The company keeps a Winnebago to use as a conference room in the middle of its Innovation Kitchen because cofounder Phil Knight, according to legend, first sold shoes out of a similar vehicle. The waffle iron that co-founder Bill Bowerman destroyed while attempting to make rubber soles is kept on campus like a museum piece.
That helps embed a sense of value, history, and shared culture in what employees are doing. So, oddly enough, does an emphasis on secrecy and mystery.
LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner argues that secrecy has a profoundly negative effect on corporate culture, leading to resentment and leaks. Nike has found a way to turn it to their advantage. The attitude of secrecy and exclusivity around projects becomes part of an internal story, that their work has value that’s worthy of being kept under wraps.
At Fortune, Nelson Farris, Nike’s head of corporate education, describes what the company expects from its employees. “Figure out where you want your career to go, and when you see something that would help you get there, ask us for it,” he said. That attitude helps create intensely loyal employees. According to that piece, it’s not unusual for employees to tattoo a “swoosh” onto their legs.
The attitude of mystery and innovation features prominently in Nike’s marketing and public image as well. Culture is strongest when there’s little disconnect between what the public expects and what happens within a company. That way, employees are inclined deliver what people have come to want.
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