I recently attended a luncheon at which the president of adidas North America, Zion Armstrong (yes they spell “adidas” in lower case) was interviewed. He has an interesting story and some compelling perspectives on business. Below are a few with my takeaways.

He started at the bottom. His first job in the company was unloading shoes out of big shipping containers. That experience helped him understand the business in ways one would not get if hired into the office right away. Ground level experience with a company can be invaluable to performance. It is also highly valued as people are considered for higher levels of responsibility. Even the ground floor has stairs to the top if we are willing to look for them and start climbing.

He was an athlete (400m hurdles) who was on his way to qualify for the New Zealand Olympic team before an injury took him out of the running. It was a huge blow that erased his main purpose from his life. The job with adidas gave him a new outlet for his passion for sport. There is something about sport that can have very large benefits (like ability to bounce back from adversity or ability to work as a team) that can carry over into our careers.

When named as president of the South Korea market, he realized he needed a higher level of understanding of the financial statements. He was familiar with the P&L, but needed to know all the details and interconnections, so he hired a professor to teach him one line item per day until he had mastered every line of their financial statements. The very best learn what they need to learn and are not shy about getting intensive help.

His company has an intense focus on improving the environment, having positive social impact, and breaking down barriers to youth participation in sport. Some of his competitors (like Nike) have similar initiatives. When asked if he was concerned if other companies were also taking on these ideas as their own initiatives, he replied that it was not about beating anyone in these areas. It would be great if all the sports companies were winning in this area too. Some company initiatives (like environmental or community impact) are much bigger than one company and it is wonderful when there is drive from all to lift these issues to higher prominence. Organizations are excellent vehicles for improving our society even as they make a healthy profit. A person does not have to work at a non-profit to make a difference in the community.

It was an interesting interview of the dynamic leader of an iconic brand. It was also a reminder of the importance of getting out and being exposed to the thinking of others on a regular basis.