Wilson Sporting Goods: employees as culture creators, not culture consumers

2019: Roger Federer played against Serena Williams and gifted her one of his favourite Wilson rackets

Wilson Sporting Goods specialises in manufacturing equipment for a wide range sports and has been around for 108 odd years. Joe Dudy joined the company as an entry level accountant 27 years ago and now serves as the CEO of the company.

Over the years Wilson has been the global leader in manufacturing sporting equipment but had also stagnated in terms of size of the business. Joe Dudy is credited with breaking that inertia over the past 3 years. It involved re-awakening and reinventing the Wilson brand by connecting more deeply with consumers, opening a fleet of retail stores amidst fierce competition and launching an apparel line.  These strategic initiatives have reportedly put Wilson on a tremendous growth trajectory. 

In a podcast with Joe Dudy one would expect to hear him attribute the turnaround to an exceptional strategy, differentiated products, exploring new markets, building the brand.  However (and what a delight!) he chooses to talk about putting a people lens to his leadership of the company and embedding culture in the way they do business. And this results in a thriving business.

When asked about his role as CEO, Joe Dudy says,

“…the best two things that I could do, is spend all my time on people and brand and if I do those things right, the company’s going to do really well. It’s really that simple. We have to have great people, they have to be excited to work for Wilson and our brand has to be very strong. And that comes from a lot of different things between products and marketing and our community. And success happens. We actually have a philosophy that’s basic at Wilson, we always say, “Our priorities are people, brands and business.” And it’s always, if you get the people and the brand thing, the business will happen.”

How Joe Dudy leads, resonates deeply with The Core Questin approach to helping leaders create thriving organisations – where leaders create space for employees to unleash potential and be productive. Here are three nuggets that stand out from his chat with Damon Klotz:

  • Making the company’s purpose come alive for every employee

Wilson’s purpose is “empower every human to live like an athlete”. At Wilson managers and employees are encouraged to empower themselves by living this purpose in their everyday work lives. 

Living the purpose does not mean playing a sport or having the active life of an athlete. It calls for living ‘the inner life’ of the athlete in the way they work. These are essentially life skills that get honed by a sport but go beyond the sport –

  • Wanting to continue to grow
  • Accept challenges
  • Go after opportunities
  • Move onto new things
  • Work really hard
  • To sometimes fail
  • To endure and persevere
  • Get knocked back down and getting back up

Being intentional and deliberate about creating a work experience and environment, that encourages people to use their work to develop these life skills is what differentiates Wilson as a company.

  • What you do with feedback is more important than taking feedback

it’s going to sting some of the things that you could hear, but I think you shouldn’t be disappointed in what you hear, but you should be disappointed in what we do about it. If we don’t do anything and we don’t try to continue to incrementally improve and listen and solve the challenges, then I think that’s what we should be disappointed in”, he says.

Dudy acknowledges that historically Wilson did not know give attention to the ‘people piece’ and being responsive to the work experience and needs of employees. For the past three years at Wilson, every year the HR team does a survey and meets with every manager and their team to understand what allows them to do their best work, and what is coming in the way of them being energised and productive.

With ear to the ground Joe Dudy sat in on each of these de-briefs to learn what they love about the company and what they don’t like. It was also important for him to relay confidence in the managers that they would not be judged for sharing feedback openly and that it was a safe space to express themselves, even if the feedback was harsh.

Based on the feedback, a theme is identified and resources are allocated to address the feedback.  

Joe recounts that in the third year of the survey, they got high and positive scores on questions like ‘Do you have the tools and resources to do your job?’ ‘Are you proud to work for our brand?’ ‘ Would you recommend a friend to work here?’.

However, the most powerful insight was that they improved 19 points on the question  “I believe something will happen as an outcome of this survey”. For him this meant that employees feel they are being heard, their voice matters and trust that something will look different for them going forward. 

  • Embrace a learn-it-all mindset and let go the know-it-all mindset

In Joe’s experience as CEO, fostering a growth mindset required him to first start with fundamentally letting go of things. To be able to continue to learn and grow himself, he needed to let others take the lead which meant allowing them space to play with the role. He says managers and employees at Wilson are at their best when they are working from a place of excitement and not from a place of fear.

The more empowered they were  – the better results they created.

He indicates that if you hire right, people will be energized and excited to create value and opportunity for the company. If the leadership focuses on cultivating trust and creating an enabling environment for them to do their best work, exceptional outcomes and results follow.  

He talks about the need for leaders to be open-minded and not cling on to their way of building things or relying on their know-how to determine how others in the company should address a problem or solve a challenge (know it all mindset).

To illustrate this, he recounts his journey through the company having held multiples roles over 27 years, including being CFO. Every time he felt that he was excellent in the role, or acknowledged by others for being the best, there was always someone who came by and did it better.  

Joe Dudy adds perspective by asking – do you look at your employees as culture consumers or culture creators? Great culture does not get built just because the leadership wants it. It requires being deliberate and intentional about seeing both managers and employees as culture creators. Where everyone is responsible for creating a work environment and work experience that is positive, productive and allows everyone to do their best work.

If you have read this far, I am curious to know – as a leader or employee how have you contributed in bringing culture and values alive at your workplace?

About Mandira Kala

Mandira is a qualified leadership coach. She is a graduate in Psychology from LSR, New Delhi, MSW from TISS, Mumbai, PhD in Public Policy from University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is passionate about developing leaders who contribute to their workplace by transforming mindsets, creating a culture of cultivating and harnessing people potential, and beating the odds to deliver beyond imagination.

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