It’s a Foot Race: The Footwear Exec Whose Performance Brand Battle Starts With Servant Leadership
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Advisor
WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who are setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
Game, Set, Match
Before Wendy ever set foot in an office, her nimble feet were setting the pace on the tennis court. As a student athlete, she was an All-American NCAA Division I tennis player at Rice University which led to a professional career on the women’s
professional tennis circuit. When Wendy says “think on your feet” she is referring to the split-second decisions she had to make on the court. This mantra—honed through years of endless practice, perfecting her skills, tournament play, and
studying her opponents—enabled her to show up with the confidence to play her game.
“Tennis is an all or nothing game. A point for you is a lost point for your opponent. You need to respect your opponent, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and use those to your advantage because the best opponents will do the same. At the same time, you need to be emotionally and physically resilient to weather the ups and downs of a game, a set, a match.”
Wendy’s business playbook takes the same tact. Methodical preparation, attention to detail, accumulating knowledge, developing skill sets, driving best practices for her company and her teams, and staying emotionally sharp and physically fit prepares her to make thoughtful and impactful decisions that can move an industry.
Some of the most valuable lessons Wendy learned from tennis were respect for others (in the form of her opponents) and respect for herself (in the form of resilience). “Respect helps you understand others. Resilience helps you understand yourself.” But the biggest lessons she learned were from her losses, “Do not ever let your losses define you. Use these setbacks to further your motivation.”
These tenets remained touchstones for Wendy throughout her career.
Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
In 1965, Dr. Bruce Tuckman established the four stages of team development theory : 1. Forming. 2. Storming. 3. Norming. and 4. Performing. This widely practiced paradigm underpinned future models of collaborative leadership for
modern leaders to build sustainable, successful, winning teams. When Wendy began leading teams, even small ones, she found her own spin on the classic model, evolving into Servant Leadership, where the leader serves the team versus the other way around.
Wendy believes that building successful teams is where the joy comes from. As she describes, “Servant Leadership begins with listening to my team, to each individual, to understand their goals, what makes them tick, what tools they need to function in a fast-paced, growth-oriented environment, and to maintain their sense of self-worth and realize their personal definition of success.”
Servant Leadership is not for the faint of heart. As the leader, you, yourself
must be very self-aware. “Recognizing your own limitations can help you see
opportunities to leverage your team’s strengths more clearly. Take inventory of
your own strengths and weaknesses and figure out how you fit into the overall
team. Then use yourself in ways that benefit the team and the company. “
Wendy recognizes that her role requires the courage to make decisions grounded in validated learning and experience, what she calls “managerial courage.” “Managerial courage is having the confidence to know when to step up, and step
back, push forward and push back, make popular and unpopular decisions without forgetting about how your decisions impact the bottom line and the people in your world—your team, your partners and your consumers.”
The bottom line for performance brands, such as HOKA and Teva, is to create brands consumers can aspire to while seeing themselves in them. Next, deliver the right product at the right time to specific consumers. To do that, Wendy says
it’s critical, “to put the right people in the right seats and let them do their jobs! This combined with clear strategy and quick decision making is what drives results.”
The Need for Speed
HOKA is a fast-growing performance footwear brand which delivers the perfect combination of maximal cushioning and support for a uniquely smooth ride. HOKA fans love the brand for its bold and unexpected approach and its belief in the power of humanity to create change for a better world.
Wendy notes it is essential to keep pace with the needs and desires of the loyal HOKA community and leans on technology to automate and fast-track the feedback loop—from customer insight to customer use—that drives the product
design life cycle.
After 20+ years in the footwear business, Wendy bears witness to the critical role that digital transformation and technology play in accelerating the product-to-market lifecycle. “Consumer demands and expectations continue to
accelerate, and our tech vendors respect how critical speed to market is. We are always looking for ways to reduce the time to market and reduce waste while staying true to our promise to consumers and retailers: that they will get the
performance and comfort they desire and expect.”
Customer insights must be continually and effectively identified, analyzed, and communicated seamlessly and quickly throughout HOKA’s product creation cycle—from product design, development, materials selection, manufacturing, and
quality assurance to distribution via HOKAOneOne.com and retail and ecommerce partners.
Along this product-to-market process, HOKA works with a retinue of tech vendors—from 3D product imagery platforms virtually showcasing their products to retailers, to consumer insights companies like MakerSights—to deliver the best
product to consumers.
Speed to market is critical. Best-in-class product is essential. Delighted consumers are the end goal.
Q and A with Wendy Yang
WiST: Can you share your career trajectory in the world of sports brands and how you moved from your first role at Reebok to your present role, as the first Female President of a running brand?
Every position I have had built on the skills I had achieved—bigger scope, bigger teams, more responsibility. I have been fortunate and I have been lucky. I have tried to take advantage of opportunity and do the same for others.
After completing my MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, I secured my dream job as an associate product manager at Reebok, a leading brand in an industry where I could marry my passion for sports and business. During this era, the performance athletic brands were dominated by a few major
players, among them, Reebok and Nike. The opportunity to both learn from and contribute to this environment was incredibly rewarding. I worked hard and soaked in all that I could. While at Reebok I rose to director of the Reebok Kids business.
One of the places footwear manufacturing in the US used to be based is in New England, which made it easier for me and my husband to raise our family, close to both our respective families, while continuing to grow in the industry that I loved.
While I traveled extensively with each job, we had a built-in support network which was extremely important to all of us. With each opportunity—Reebok, Stride Rite, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, Keds, New Balance—I took away precious experience, knowledge, and kernels of wisdom from some very special and very smart people. From Tommy Hilfiger, I learned that the attention he paid to detail, right down to choosing the laces on the footwear, made the difference between a good product and a great one. At Timberland, a multi-generational family business, I learned firsthand that “doing well and doing good” is critical for the future of social welfare, climate sustainability and business.
At Decker’s, as President of HOKA One One and Teva brands, I was tasked with assessing, repositioning and resetting the respective brands. Along my journey, from my very first job at Reebok, I had acquired the requisite skill sets that are key to driving product creation, brand positioning and global market growth and taking on leadership roles across the industry. But I believe the key ingredient necessary for real success is to know how to build great teams. I truly enjoy building teams. It can be messy, it’s challenging, but it pays off when you get a team pointing in the same direction and really humming.
WiST: You practice Servant Leadership and are a true believer that great teams drive great outcomes. What are the attributes of a great team and how do you build one?
I like to think that I practice Servant Leadership, where the leader’s main goal is to serve. To do this I need to listen to my team, learn about them, understand what they need to succeed and help them recognize their strengths and weaknesses
along the way. A little insight goes a long way. There are no shortcuts; you can’t skip the steak and go for the sizzle. Do the work and make it happen—together.
The mechanics of putting a great team together—be it a small team or a large one—are basically the same. We work in a passion industry and the key here is that the talent we work with share that passion. Like a baseball team, the players all share a passion and love for the game, but they each have unique skill sets: someone needs to be the pitcher, the shortstop, the catcher. As a parallel, in our industry, the teams who work with Teva have a passion for the outdoors; and HOKA, a passion for athletic performance. That said, each team member has a unique skill set—designers, product creation experts, salespeople, marketers, finance—each skill set plays a critical role in the success of our brands.
The secret sauce results in taking a team to a point where they gel. A team is a community of people with shared passion, working in an environment that both challenges and rewards them. When a team gels, culture is created and likely
individuals find success and the brand and business thrive as well. I strongly believe that the magic happens in the grey areas in between specific job descriptions or employees. How do you build, lead, inspire a team to take those extra few steps to make sure that the hand-off goes smoothly? Think of a Venn diagram, the space where circles overlap is the grey area. This is where there can be disruption (when a team doesn’t gel) or real magic (when a team does).
What are the attributes of a great team? In my experience, the core ingredients are trust, diversity of people and thought process, common vision and expectations and varsity players! We can groom junior players on the job, but we need varsity players with sharpened skill sets to help lead and make the magic happen. It’s important to have a strong leader at the helm and also very important not to tolerate toxic people. Business is challenging enough, let it take place in a safe haven.
WiST: In a post COVID world, how do you see technology driving the relationship between your customer and the brand? As the leader of performance lifestyle brands in an extremely competitive landscape, how will you use technology to scale and grow?
Prior to COVID, we were already leveraging our tech toolbox to reach consumers more directly. COVID has certainly accelerated our use of digital and social channels (FB, Insta, Pinterest, YouTube, and more), and our back-end technologies for design, site capabilities, and sales.
I am fond of saying we are consumer informed, but brand led. We know that consumers want to be led by brands. But to be consumer informed, we need to be in constant communication with our consumers. In a COVID world, that has been challenging. We haven’t been able to get out to stores as much or talk face to face with our customers. So we need to rely more on technology to compensate for that.
COVID has taught us how to relate to each other in a completely new way. Our former emphasis on in-person has been replaced by virtual, so it is imperative that we are conversant in the digital and virtual space. This is where strong relationships REALLY matter. The years we have spent building trusted relationships—internally and externally—have helped us weather COVID well thus far. We have been working very closely with our internal teams, our partners, supply chain, distributors, and our retailers to use our technology stack to pivot together so that we come out of this disruption with a new and more evolved understanding of what is possible, what is probable and what is necessary.
Like many innovative product companies, we are heavily invested in and focused on ecommerce and Direct to Consumer (DTC). At the same time, the welfare of the retail relationship with the consumer is essential to preserve. As we seek to
expand our market share, we will continue to expand our technology tool kit to drive our growth across digital and retail channels.
I believe that COVID is teaching us lessons we’ll keep with us. Post COVID, it will be very important to spend time with each other again, to see our corporate partners, to meet our consumers face to face. I also believe that we will operate in a hybrid model, striking a new balance between face-to-face and virtual. This hybrid will help people establish a more efficient and comfortable work/life balance with less emotional and physical wear and tear and less travel, which also benefits the environment. Ultimately, thanks to all our digital tools and tech, we will be able to strike that right balance.
WiST: The terms “driven,” “validation,” “empathy” and “success” are considered essential themes for today’s leaders and early stage professionals. How do you frame the importance of these attributes to your company, teams and others who seek wisdom and advice?
Drive isn’t something one can instill in someone else—you’ve got to bring it! Business is tough and competitive. You must have significant drive to get over roadblocks and beat out formidable competition. This is NOT easy! You have to love it and be wired for it.
The concept of validation is immeasurable and foundational. We test our products to validate their efficacy. We test our markets to validate their readiness to support our brands. We test our consumers to validate their wants and needs. But
quite often, the most important test of validation is the human quotient. People need to know their contributions matter—their individual life experiences, learned skill sets, unique thought process, knowledge base—all add up to the value of validation. And leaders must be mindful that their team may have a uniform goal, but each team member brings their unique experience to the equation.
Giving people space and assistance to work through issues without retribution is fundamental to being an empathic leader. I will never forget what it felt like to be a mother coming back from maternity leave (I have three daughters, so do the math!). It is heartbreaking to leave your baby and return to work. Because I know what that feels like, any new mother on my team knows, “I get you. We’ll make this work.” When you know someone “gets you,” or makes space for you, that signals that they care. Even if each of us hasn’t personally experienced all the same milestones (marriage, babies, illness, divorce) we can certainly empathize with those who may be going through a life event no matter how big or how small.
Success means different things to different people. In my experience, it’s the long game. Small wins along the way add up to big wins, culminating in industry leadership and world class success. It doesn’t happen overnight and there are no guarantees, so bring your drive and long-term view and be willing to put in the time, energy and passion. Life is hard, business is tough. Sometimes being passed over or underestimated is incredibly motivating. Draw on your small successes and don’t let opportunity pass you by. Shoulders up, head back, chin high. BE RESILIENT!
A special thanks to Wendy for sharing her story with the WiST community. Resilience is the key to life! Inspiration comes in all forms.
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