I’d Like to Speak to Your Manager
by Jeffrey Henderson·
I am the youngest born son of a public school teacher. I was 18 before I found myself in a world that I needed to explain myself. Confidence was never a problem. My parents were proud of me no matter what I did because I tried. Without question.
At Purdue I didn’t understand that I was being challenged for more than my ability to solve for X and Y, so I didn’t expect the confusion around my academic achievement. By the time I landed at Nike I had learned to spot the looks of doubt and concern when I entered the room.
They think they can hide it. They cannot.
After a couple of years in Nike Kids Design I felt like I was ready to move into a more challenging environment. As I reached out to different design directors, I saw none were particularly interested in adding me to their squad. In their defense I was quite green and my process was nothing like the standard Arts Center graduate. I needed mentoring and time to grow.
When no one in design was listening, I didn’t doubt myself. I took the next logical step. I scheduled a meeting with the VP of all product.
I made my case to Mark for going to a category that was technical (I have an engineering degree) and large (I needed room to grow). I lobbied for Running or Soccer — two places that had already shown no interest in me but, yaknow, confidence.
A week later the Basketball team reached out to me.
While I acknowledge that my first thought was that I had to go to Basketball because I was Black (the number of Black designer years in Jordan/Basketball/NSW divided by the total Black designer years at Nike is probably 0.9), I would later understand that I was also expected to shake up what was not working because I’m good at going left when everyone else is going right.
I would later later understand that both could be true.
At this point I cannot overestimate how out of my league I was at that stage in my career. I cringe now at the work I was showing then because it was so foreign to what Nike Design was suppose to be.
But, just like at Purdue, no one out studied me.
I took whatever engineering knowledge I had and meshed it with my limited design skills to try to answer whatever brief was placed in front of me.
And I survived.
Eventually I found my footing and did more than survive. But every step took such a monumental effort that one day I didn’t see the point of it all. I’m certain my all of my peers would agree that we all had our struggles in the beast that is Nike. The politics and egos were a lot.
But I felt like my struggle was different.
I don’t enjoy talking to people who have no interest in listening or who don’t understand where I’m coming from — that was 85% of the people who’s boxes were above my box in the org chart. So the work of repeatedly explaining myself was exhausting.
And then one day — a year after 16+ years at Nike — I found myself in a conference room in New York listening to a bunch of non-Nike people sounding like Nike people, rambling on about sneaker-this and industry-that and consumer-whatever. And for the third time in three meetings Kanye asked, “What do you think, Jeff?”
If you’ve ever watched me try to put words to my thoughts, I apologize.
I purse my lips and stare into space while I think out loud until I find a couple of words to get me going. And then I pause some more because I’m probably editing the sarcasm and profanity and shade — all the while staring into space.
Those pauses are typically where people interject. Those people are almost always white.
“Wait, let him finish,” Kanye said for the third time in three meetings, interjecting the interjection.
And I realized that he genuinely cared what I had to say because I had a track record of being right. He wasn’t the first person to want my opinion, but he was the first person to shut up a room full of VP’s, Creative Directors, investors and experts to let me share my thoughts. He also didn’t need me to explain the cultural relevance of my explanation. He asked for my thoughts and I watched other people, almost always white, want more of an explanation because it didn’t match their ideas.
As dysfunctional as those years might have been for a mountain of other reasons, I credit those moments with allowing to realize what others may have seen from me but didn’t demand the room to make space for.
And I laugh at the percentage of Black designers at Nike who became Directors and think about a) how overqualified we ALL were when the titles were finally delivered and b) how hard it must be to NOT keep going to a demographic that yields quality leadership well above a 0.500 clip.
Also note, we never got another promotion in Footwear Design — the ceiling was not the roof.
That said, I don’t have the energy to look this up but I’m going to guess that more than half of Black designers at Nike held leadership roles.
In spite of. Not because of.
Hopefully this is heard as a story to be shared and not shade. Noname says we got bigger fish to fry. I'm on the Nike, Inc vendor list because folks thought I could still help. At the same time they danced around a job for me that I was overqualified for before I left because no one asked me what I'd been doing since I left. Real talk.
Our And Them team's homework this week included an AdWeek article on Verb that discusses their need for a seat at the table - so they built their own table. Sounds familiar.
I look back at half of the leadership above me in design and laugh because eventually Nike found them to be a waste of time and energy. I wish they would have acknowledged that reality when those folks were making decisions on my career.
That said, being within earshot of every other company, Nike is probably the best to move forward. Somewhat because they have folks on the inside that get it, but also because they’re consumer face demands it.
The other half of those Nike leadership folks were good. I don’t know that they were listened to any way more than I was, though. I’m hoping, however, that every brand recognizes the efforts of the folks they already have in the room.
Listen to them. Then let them finish.