The Creativity Delta
It’s easy to forget Mark King runs a $1.7 billion dollar company when he tells you his mother said he’d amount to nothing. Born to middle class parents in America’s Midwest, King had a love for sports – baseball, basketball, football and golf - which led to a scholarship at Northern Illinois University. King amounted to something indeed. He is the president of Adidas’ North American group and the former CEO and president of TaylorMade.
If you’re a golfer, you recognize the name immediately; you probably own one of their drivers. If you’re not, TaylorMade is a golf equipment company known for beating the established players at their own game using an audacious supply chain strategy and an abundance of creativity.
In 1979, TaylorMade’s founder capitalized on a new technology - a 12-degree driver cast of stainless steel, instead of wood. The small start up rushed to $300 million in sales. And then they quit innovating. They played it safe and stuck with the technology that got them into the game. They stopped listening to new ideas. It didn’t take long for Calloway to crush them, and they languished for a decade before Adidas bought them at a fire sale.
The German sporting goods giant was smart enough to know they needed a shrewd and scrappy leader at the helm, some one willing to take risks and breathe new life into the battered company. They found a guy who knew how to play ball.
King tells the story of the first corporate retreat as an inspirational turning point for the team. They had two strategies on the table – grow revenue by a few percent and cut expenses by a few percent, or be the best performance golf company in the market, cost and competitors be damned. He chose the second option.
But the second option wasn’t easy. TaylorMade was a small company with a fraction of Calloway’s budget. They had big aspirations but resources that only stretched so far. How were they going to pull off a win when the odds were against them? You can’t always beat the competition by throwing more money or people on the job. You have to bridge the gap with a combination of ingenuity and vision – a gap King calls the creativity delta.
In the team’s first effort, they built the best driver on the market and stole half a percentage point from Calloway. That wasn’t enough for King. The team went back to the planning table, dissected the market, interviewed pros and players, listened to their employees and discovered how to cross the delta.
In the 1990s, golfers bought new equipment every three to five years, a traditional life cycle manufactures, retailers and consumers accepted as immutable. King did his research - consulted with pros, listened to employees and customers – and realized upgrading their drivers every 12 months would triple their sales volume. The response was immediate. Golfers wanted the best and latest drivers, every single year, and those with thinner wallets flocked to the slightly older discounted models. TaylorMade captured 50 percent of the market within five years.
So how do you discover these ingenious ideas and innovations? Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovators Dilemma claims good managers choose their teammates wisely, can assess the abilities and disabilities of an organization and create a culture that nurtures passion and initiative – the magic sauce for crossing the creativity delta.
Which sounds easy, right? But those things can only happen when a company’s CEO hires those people, encourages experimentation and allows risk. (As a side note, TaylorMade’s Glassdoor employee satisfaction score is 4.1 out of 5 compared to 3.1 for Callaway and 3.5 for Apple.) A company needs what Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, calls a level five leader - an executive with genuine humility and fierce determination. A CEO who struggles to achieve a vision, not for him or herself, but for a greater cause.
I was fortunate to meet Mark King and learn that he is in fact all of these things. He has completed more than 85 speaking gigs, including the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum and donated almost all of the proceeds to charity, he’s deeply involved in the lives of his two daughters and regularly high fives his employees. He’ll answer any question, from any audience member, no matter how late it makes him for his tee time or executive meeting.
Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger sums it up, “Mark King wants to be an agent of change. He wants to be disruptive. Not for himself. For the sake of the game.”