Nike's CEO drops partnership wisdom
I keep thinking about this interview with Nike’s CEO John Donahoe on the Village Global podcast hosted by Erik Torenberg.
John Donahoe is hardly a celebrity CEO or a household name. And yet he is one of the highest performing business leaders in the world today. John Donahoe has been CEO of four leading, global companies in four different industries: Bain & Co. (strategy consulting), eBay (online marketplace), ServiceNow (enterprise SaaS) and now Nike (footwear & apparel). Name another CEO with that kind of range at that level. I don’t think you can.
The entire interview is excellent. Donahoe talks in-depth about how to lead through adversity, how to assemble high-performing teams, how to fire with compassion and more.
But this section on partnerships stood out to me:
“For every 10 hours of BD conversations, 8 of them are a waste. And I’ve made that mistake over and over and over. And that’s as true at the big companies as it is for the small companies. Very, very, very few BD conversations produce a whole lot. Alliances. Deals. They’re very compelling conceptually but they’re really hard to do. So my advice there is to triage quickly. Is there a real win-win here? If both sides can’t recognize the win-win relatively quickly, then move on to the next one. Because it probably won’t happen. Hope is not a strategy. Use your boards. Use your investors. Force people to make you talk through “so what did you say, what did they say?” And be careful about over investing. Which is not to say you won’t have a few that are really valuable. But spend more time on a few things.”
You can hear in his words the many hours Donahoe has spent chasing deals that never materialized. If Donahoe is this frustrated talking publicly about partnerships, imagine what he must be like during an internal prep call for a potential Nike partnership.
Of course partnerships are hard. Product development is hard. M&A is hard. But there are textbooks and courses on building products and buying companies. Why not partnerships? If 80% of partnerships conversations are a waste, as Donahoe asserts, what is your organization doing to bring that down to 50%? What are you doing?
Donahoe’s sentiment highlights some of the core themes of This for That: Great partnerships are hard to pull-off. To generate more high-quality partnerships, we need more collective wisdom about partnerships - more of a discipline as exists in other functions (sales, marketing, design, etc). We need more talent steeped in the craft - the art and the science of partnering - in order to execute the kind of partnerships that transform organizations and industries.
With that in mind, here are three simple partnership principles derived from John Donahoe’s years of trying to build partnerships:
Listen carefully for a clear win-win and move on quickly if it isn’t obvious.
Harness advisors to challenge your thinking.
Spend more time on fewer things.
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Note: the podcast mentioned above is from 2018 when Donahoe was CEO of ServiceNow; Village Global reposted the interview recently.