Darcy Winslow on Nike's sustainability initiatives, values-driven leadership & systems change.

Darcy Winslow on setting the stage for Nike’s long-range sustainability initiatives, values-driven leadership & systems change.

Darcy Winslow is an inspiring leader whose decades of experience at Nike and sustainability-focused nonprofits have cemented her legacy as a forward-thinking, values-driven executive. In her time at Nike, Darcy focused on how the company could employ sustainable practices in footwear and apparel manufacturing. As a part of this process, she created Nike’s groundbreaking Sustainable Business Strategies Division and set her sights on sweeping systems transformation within the company. Darcy was able to marry Nike’s distinct approach to design and creation with the innovative spirit inherent to sustainability work. Darcy left the company in 2008 to further pursue 6

these goals, founding the Academy for Systems Change and the Magnolia Moonshot 2030 project. She and her collaborators empower current and emerging leaders with the skills, networks, and values needed to tackle the climate crisis via global systems change.

Darcy joins Roy to discuss her foundational experiences at Nike, the necessity for authenticity in effective leadership, her vision for building networks of future leaders and system thinkers, her unique perspective on assembling teams that can collectively work towards widespread, positive change, and much more.  

Listen to the podcast

Highlights from our conversation

  • Darcy’s career journey and sustainability achievements (1:50)
  • Experiences that influenced her leadership approach (7:25)
  • How Darcy was able to put sustainability on the radar at Nike (9:30)
  • Contemplating and incorporating values as part of her leadership (12:46)
  • The inner and outer journey of a leader (14:06)
  • How Darcy’s experience influenced her approach to hiring (15:02)
  • Examples of hiring successes and challenges (16:46)
  • How she inspired leaders to integrate and scale sustainability (18:37)
  • Her connection and work with MIT’s Peter Senge (21:04)
  • The vision and accomplishments of the ASC (22:36)
  • How leaders and businesses can affect positive change in the climate crisis (23:47)
  • The Magnolia Moonshot 2030 Project (26:23)
  • Advice for current and emerging leaders (28:22)


Darcy Winslow Transcript

[00:00:00] Darcy Winslow: I woke up one night and I said, “What am I doing?” And so I went to a couple of our executives and I said, “If we want to make sustainability part of Nike, it’s got to happen within the business.”

[00:00:11] Roy Notowitz: Hello and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast that taps directly into the best executive hiring advice and insights. I’m Roy Notowitz, founder and CEO of Noto Group Executive Search. You can learn more about us at NotoGroup.com.

[00:00:32] Roy Notowitz: Darcy Winslow is an inspiring leader with decades of experience and sustainability, product creation, and systems change. Darcy spent over 20 years at Nike where she held a variety of senior management and leadership positions in R&D, Global Women’s footwear, apparel and equipment. And notably, Darcy created the Sustainable Business Strategies Division as a major push towards sustainable practices in the footwear and apparel industry.

[00:01:01] Roy Notowitz: After her tenure at Nike, Darcy co-founded and led the Academy for Systems Change, a nonprofit that equips international leaders with tools to create social systems that foster biological, social, and ecological well being. In 2019, she launched Magnolia Moonshot 2030, inspiring and uniting women leaders who are actively addressing the climate crisis.

[00:01:27] Roy Notowitz: Darcy’s legacy and global sustainability sets an incredible example of what a values driven executive can achieve. In the podcast, we discuss her experience and insights into authenticity and leadership, driving purpose-based initiatives within large companies, systems transformation, and much more.

[00:01:46] Roy Notowitz: Darcy, thank you for joining me. 

[00:01:48] Darcy Winslow: Well, thank you, Roy. It’s good to see you. 

[00:01:50] Roy Notowitz: Can you take us through some highlights of your career journey and share how systems change and sustainability became a core theme and passion for your work? 

[00:02:00] Darcy Winslow: I was hired at Nike in 1987. After finishing my masters at Portland State University. I was studying exercise, physiology, and kinesiology, and I really wanted to get some biomechanics under my belt. So I talked to my graduate advisor and he connected with the director at Nike Sport Research Lab, Martyn Shorten, and asked if he would put together a Master’s level course in biomechanical research.

[00:02:33] Darcy Winslow: So they did, and that became the beginning of my career at Nike. And that really started the progression of different jobs that I had in product testing. Then I was the second woman ever to go into product development in footwear. I was asked to be part of a small team called Future Vision to re-engineer how Nike operated in its footwear business from concept ideation to retail.

[00:03:04] Darcy Winslow: And I would say that was the real start of when I began to look at things systemically rather than just focused on a particular silo. We did redesign how footwear operated, and they asked me to be the advanced Research and Development Director. That’s when I was introduced to sustainability, and, in advanced R&D, that’s the part of the business where we’re making investments in technology, in manufacturing, in design materials that won’t play into the inline product that you see at retail for two to ten years. 

[00:03:42] Roy Notowitz: Right. 

[00:03:43] Darcy Winslow: I began asking myself, “Do we really understand the impact of our business decisions?” In 1997, we brought Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart into Nike, and we had our 10 top footwear executives there. And they walked in, they sat down and they said, “Do you know what’s in your shoes?”

[00:04:06] Darcy Winslow: And we said, “Of course we do.” And they proceeded to roll out a gas chromatograph of our top running shoe that showed all the chemicals and toxic chemicals that were embedded in our product, and we had to say, “No.” 

[00:04:21] Roy Notowitz: Wow. 

[00:04:22] Darcy Winslow: And that was April 14th, 1997, and I could not walk back from that. That is when I really became dedicated to learning more about sustainability, about our impact on environment, on people in communities where we operated.

[00:04:40] Darcy Winslow: That became my lifelong commitment. So I went on to run Global Research Design Development, and I woke up one night and I said, “What am I doing?” And so I went to a couple of our executives and I said, “If we want to make sustainability part of Nike, it’s got to happen within the business.” And that’s when they said, “Okay, go figure it out.”

[00:05:05] Darcy Winslow: In 1999, I set our 2020 goals for footwear sustainability, and I’m very happy to say they are still on that, and they’ve expanded from there. I went on to run the Women’s business, their global footwear apparel equipment business, and did two more stints reengineering how Nike operated. My last year at Nike, I was senior advisor to the Nike Foundation, which is focused on adolescent girls and young women in the least developed countries in the world, and really understanding the systemic generational poverty, and where we could intervene — what we would call leverage points in systems thinking — and invest there.

[00:05:51] Darcy Winslow: Just going back a few years, we — about ten multinational companies — started the Sustainability Consortium under the Society for Organizational Learning. For the next nine years, we would meet twice a year to talk about what sustainability meant in the corporate context. Our approaches, our language. And again, this was in the very early years, 1998, 1999, when, you know, it was not a well known concept.

[00:06:22] Darcy Winslow: About ten of us got together and said, “What can we do together that we can’t do on our own?” And that became the Academy for Systems Change. In 2018 during our second cohort of fellows, I had this idea that we really needed to focus on women leaders and women who were working in the context of sustainability in the corporate world, and it grew into what today is the Magnolia Moonshot 2030, where we are focused on women’s leadership.

[00:06:54] Darcy Winslow: And really looking at how we can address, in a very different way, the climate crisis and showing up with love, wellbeing, joy, tapping into our divine feminine, and conscious leadership, and it’s been absolutely amazing. 

[00:07:14] Roy Notowitz: That’s an incredible story. Your authentic and highly influential leadership style has cemented your legacy as one of the most influential and consequential leaders at Nike during your tenure. I’m curious, what experiences forged your leadership philosophy and approach? 

[00:07:31] Darcy Winslow: It’s funny. Looking back, I don’t think I had a leadership philosophy. Showing up authentically was more my nature; however, at Nike, I was in my very early thirties, and it was a very male-dominated, highly competitive environment. And I think one of the things that helped me survive, especially in the early days, was I’ve been an athlete my whole life and highly competitive.

[00:08:06] Darcy Winslow: The other thing that was kind of a unique beginning point, was starting in the Sport Research Lab. At that time. It was one of the few places where unless you had the educational background, you could not rotate through there. And it was really a critical part of Nike, and, to this day, it’s considered one of the top biomechanical research entities in the world. And so that also gave me a unique perspective and set of experiences that I could bring into the business. When I was in the Sport Research Lab, and then asked to take over product testing, it was like, “Wow, we really make and sell stuff,” versus we had just been working on athletes and the science behind that. It was a continual learning journey as I got into higher leadership roles and was often the only woman at the table.

[00:09:06] Darcy Winslow: And what I had to learn the hard way was: how do I show up as my authentic self? I had to break that mold, that command and control, and I approached most of my leadership roles through a generative and reflective approach. I never gave up on that, and I think it’s served me well to this day. 

[00:09:29] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. How were you able to bring people along at Nike in the early days when sustainability really wasn’t on the radar?

[00:09:39] Darcy Winslow: That was another journey. In the beginning, I thought all change starts from the top down. And so, for the first six months, I would go knocking on the top doors, and, at that time, putting it in perspective, ’98, ’99, Nike was on a rocket ride. 

[00:09:59] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:09:59] Darcy Winslow: They were growing so fast, but there were no market trends showing that consumers were looking for sustainability, much less environmental issues, and so we really had to build a business case for that.

[00:10:16] Darcy Winslow: So, after about six months of knocking my head against the C-suite, so to speak, I was given the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. And the three lessons I took away from that were: it takes three kinds of people to affect change, the connectors, the mavens, and the sales people. So, when I took over and created the Sustainable Business Enterprise work, that’s how I chose my team.

[00:10:45] Darcy Winslow: So that was one lesson. The second lesson was: in order to reach a tipping point, you have to get 20% of the organization or the population that you’re working with actively moving in the same direction. And at that time, Nike was about 22,000 people. And I thought, “How do I get 20% of 22,000 people in a hundred countries around the world?”

[00:11:12] Darcy Winslow: And then I remembered what Bill McDonough, the gentleman who came in and did the gas chromatograph — he was a, an architect — and he said, “Design is the first signal of human intention.” And, having worked with the designers, the creatives for several years, I realized that was the leverage point. It all starts with design.

[00:11:38] Darcy Winslow: So I thought if I could get 20% of the designers on board, then we would have some momentum. So that’s when I started individually knocking on doors, and I think I started with Tinker Hatfield, who designed all the Jordan shoes and was the VP Creative. So that’s how I built momentum. I also had to work outside with all of our partners, upstream and downstream. So our material suppliers, our manufacturing partners. One of our goals was zero toxics, and so our largest supplier at that time was DuPont. So I spent about a year talking with the executives at DuPont about our goal. And once they got on board, then we had more momentum, and I could go to the next material suppliers.

[00:12:30] Darcy Winslow: So that, again, I think is an example of looking at the entire system and understanding where’s the leverage point? Where do you intervene first? 

[00:12:41] Roy Notowitz: Nike’s values were so important at the time, and of course still are. How do you, as a leader, think about and incorporate values into your work? 

[00:12:52] Darcy Winslow: I remember seeing an early photo from 1972 that Phil had written, and he had two values: serve the athlete, break the rules, and I love that.

[00:13:06] Darcy Winslow: I love that second one. And then the maxims were also something that were very present, very important at Nike, and the very first maxim was: it is our nature to innovate. And if you look at sustainability, it’s nothing but innovation. So, to me, those two things have just reigned supreme. In the magnolias now, we have spent a lot of time refining our guiding principles, and one of our commitments is in all of our work, in all of our conversations, to come back to those values. And, if we are not living up to them, to call ourselves out on that first. So I think for any organization, any leader, spending time and really clarifying your values is important, and to revisit those. Not once every five years, but to come back and look at those — have them visible every day.

[00:14:05] Roy Notowitz: Right. You’ve talked about the inner and outer journey of a leader. Can you explain that? 

[00:14:12] Darcy Winslow: Yes. This is something that we really focused on at the Academy, and that’s part of systems change. One of the beliefs that we have is that all change starts with self, and so that’s part of the inner journey is understanding how we show up.

[00:14:30] Darcy Winslow: And there are contemplative practices that we believe really help people show up in a more genuine, authentic way. And that inner journey is lifelong. So everything starts with self. And then the outer journey — how are we affecting those around us? Our community, our family, our business. They’re very connected, but it has to start with self.

[00:14:58] Roy Notowitz: Let’s shift gears a bit to talk about hiring — my favorite topic. How has all of your experience influenced your approach to hiring and building teams? 

[00:15:09] Darcy Winslow: I was listening to a panel of women, and one of them said about hiring that now is the time that we have to hire for potential, not performance. That when we continue to hire for performance, we get the same kind of leader — they all look alike. And we have to really look at the potential– 

[00:15:33] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:15:33] Darcy Winslow: –of the person. And I believe that’s true with women. They have so much potential that we have not tapped into because they bring a different type of leadership approach. The other thing that I’ve come to believe about how we’ve hired in the past versus how we need to hire now is: be less certain, be more curious. But we used to hire and reward those who were very certain; whether they were right or wrong, it didn’t matter, but they were very certain. And I think now, because of the complexity that we face in everything that we do, we have to be more curious. And that gets into creating the space where you can have more generative conversations and thus, a better outcome.

[00:16:25] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. So you look for curiosity in the person you’re evaluating as well. 

[00:16:30] Darcy Winslow: Yeah. I think that also points to potential. They’re open, they’re curious, they’re in a learning mode. When you’re certain, you shut down, you believe, “No, I have all the answers,” and there’s no space to explore beyond what’s right in front of you.

[00:16:46] Roy Notowitz: Do you have any other examples of hiring successes or challenges? 

[00:16:52] Darcy Winslow: Well, I’ll just go back to the culture piece. Culture is all around us and it really can dominate whether or not you succeed or fail. There was a particular executive at Nike who came in from the outside, from a very different corporate culture, and I believe he lasted a year, maybe 13 months. So, in the interviewing, the hiring process, really touching on culture. You know, what’s the environment that you thrive in, that you like to work in? Just asking those kinds of questions is very important. 

[00:17:30] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:17:31] Darcy Winslow: Another example was when I was hiring for the Women’s business. I had just come out of three years of working solely on integrating sustainability. As I was hiring my leadership team, I knew most of the people, but I would ask them all the typical questions. And then I had a final question: what are your beliefs? And again, this was maybe 2002. What are your beliefs around sustainability? And how they answered that question determined if I would hire them or not, because I was at the point where I didn’t want to have to educate or convince another person about the importance of sustainability.

[00:18:16] Darcy Winslow: So, if they had a strong belief in it or had something to bring to the table, they got the job. And that really helped propel the Women’s business in being, at that time, a leader in integrating sustainability. 

[00:18:31] Roy Notowitz: That’s awesome. Early on, you inspired other executives to think about sustainability. How did you take it to the next level and start building on a larger scale?

[00:18:41] Darcy Winslow: I have to bring in one of my colleagues from Nike, Sarah Severn, who was in corporate responsibility, and, between the two of us and a few other teammates, we created an initiative that we called Shambhala. And again, this started in late 1999 and it was based on the Shambhala Warriors. The weapons of Shambhala warriors were fearlessness and gentleness.

[00:19:11] Darcy Winslow: So we started this nine month action learning program. We asked for volunteers who were interested in getting involved in sustainability, and we formed about fifty or sixty different small teams, and they all had to focus on one or more of the four goals that we had set out: zero waste, zero toxics, a hundred percent closed loop systems, and sustainable growth and consumption, which at that time, nobody knew what that meant.

[00:19:44] Darcy Winslow: Over the course of the nine months, they had to give proof of concept how this would help us reach the goal on an environmental, a social, and an economic level. That was probably the most effective way of getting a larger group of people at Nike engaged, and that created a ripple effect. At the ten year anniversary of Shambhala, a bunch of us got together, and many of the people who were involved in Shambhala had moved on to other companies. And what they had learned and experienced at Nike through Shambhala, they then took to their new company. 

[00:20:29] Roy Notowitz: Wow. 

[00:20:30] Darcy Winslow: And so I think it had even a broader impact than just at Nike. 

[00:20:34] Roy Notowitz: That’s huge. In thinking about that now, could you apply that same concept today to engage partners up and down the value chain? 

[00:20:43] Darcy Winslow: Absolutely. And I’m actually working with another consulting group right now called Impactful Advisors. They have a very similar approach to this with corporations. Ours was so focused on sustainability in those four goals, but yes, it’s now used quite a bit. 

[00:21:02] Roy Notowitz: That’s amazing. How did you originally connect with Peter Senge at MIT Sloan School of Management? And how did your work together take shape over time?

[00:21:13] Darcy Winslow: So it was the beginning of the Sustainability Consortium, and again, my partner in crime, Sarah Severn — it was the two of us that primarily participated in the Sustainability Consortium — that’s when I first met Peter, and over the years we just became very connected. And during my time working in sustainability, he was on my speed dial.

[00:21:42] Darcy Winslow: He was so insightful. He said, “Systems transformation is an inside job. And Darcy, you’ve got to make sustainability cool. Nike has to make sustainability cool.” And then, in 2008, two months before I left, I called him and I said, “Peter, I’m really leaving Nike now.” He goes, “Great, come on out. We’ve got work to do.”

[00:22:08] Darcy Winslow: And so in the fall of 2008, he asked me to contribute to the design of what was called the Leadership Lab at MIT for second year Sloan students and Sloan Fellows. And so for the next two, three, four years, I was part of that. And then it was also during that time that Peter and I primarily started talking about this idea of what became the Academy for Systems Change.

[00:22:35] Roy Notowitz: That’s amazing. What was your original vision for establishing the Academy for Systems Change? How did you bring this all together? 

[00:22:44] Darcy Winslow: It took close to four years before we really landed on what our focus was going to be. And our work there was to really focus on engaging emerging leaders and to build their capacity as systems thinkers, systems leaders. 

[00:23:01] Roy Notowitz: What accomplishments are you most proud of achieving with ASC? 

[00:23:06] Darcy Winslow: Looking at some of the individuals that came through the fellowship program and seeing where they are today and the community that is formed. And one of our goals was that they would step into our shoes. The board makeup of the Academy used to be very established leaders who were, for the most part, retired, but it’s now fellows who have gone through the program and I love what they’re doing. 

[00:23:37] Roy Notowitz: That’s amazing. So as you think about the climate crisis, what role can leaders and businesses play in being a significant force for positive change? 

[00:23:49] Darcy Winslow: The easy answer there is — I got to use it: just do it. Just get started. If you’ve already started, go deeper. If you haven’t started, start. Partner. No one organization is going to solve any problem. We’ve got to work together to address this, and leaders just need to step up and recognize that, as a leader, you don’t have all the answers. 

[00:24:18] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:24:19] Darcy Winslow: That’s also one of the first characteristics of the systems thinker is acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, so that’s an invitation to bring others into the conversation and to create a sense of urgency. I think a leader’s role is to break down any barriers for this acceleration to take place. They need to instigate it, and they need to provide the cover so that it can happen. 

[00:24:45] Roy Notowitz: It takes a certain kind of leader to reach beyond their business, to collaborate with competitors, to come up with solutions for climate change. What’s your recommendation for how to make the leap and go beyond your own ecosystem to think about broader systems on a global scale? 

[00:25:06] Darcy Winslow: Well, there’s three basic tenets, and again, this comes from a lot of the work that Peter and, and many of his colleagues did.

[00:25:13] Darcy Winslow: First, you have to step back and be able to see the system before you can transform it. We get caught in our own bubble or our own silo, and so you do have to step back and invite all the voices in that represent the system so that you can understand where to invest. Another one is to be able to create the space for more generative conversations so that you can go deeper and deeper.

[00:25:41] Darcy Winslow: One of the things that we have to do is tap into young leaders. Bring them in now. They’re ready. They’re ready to step up. We can’t throw it all on their shoulders. We have to support that. I think another lesson that I learned is that we have to engage the naysayers. We have to figure out how to bring them in. They often have a position of power, so how do we bring them into the conversation? 

[00:26:10] Roy Notowitz: We’ve talked about doing another podcast together to talk specifically about the work that you and many others have been involved in through the Magnolia Moonshot 2030 project. Can you speak to this work and what’s in store for the future? Since 2030 is not that far off. 

[00:26:30] Darcy Winslow: We chose the name Magnolia Moonshot 2030 very intentionally. The magnolia, and I’m actually looking at a star magnolia outside my window right here. Magnolia trees are one of the oldest trees on the planet — they estimate 95 million years old. The leaves of the flowers are incredibly tough, and magnolia trees are pollinators.

[00:26:55] Darcy Winslow: And so that was a big piece of what we want to do: share ideas, bring others in. And then moonshot, as we know, is — it’s a long shot. We know we have to go there. We just may not know exactly how to get there. So it’s just a series of trial and errors along the way and learning. 

[00:27:14] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:27:15] Darcy Winslow: And then 2030, we wanted to nest under pre existing commitments around climate. And what we are doing now, and what I hope we can talk about in the near future, is last spring we got funded to do a systems mapping project that looks at women’s leadership in the age of the climate crisis and the sustainable development goals. There is so much research that shows the positive impact of having more women leaders at all levels and across all sectors, so that’s not the focus of our findings.

[00:27:57] Darcy Winslow: The focus is identifying the barriers that are keeping more women from entering into leadership roles and what also causes them to fall out of leadership. That gives us a better idea of where to intervene, what the solutions are, and how to engage others around the world. We’re really excited about that.

[00:28:21] Roy Notowitz: That’s fascinating. What advice do you have for current and next generation leaders for how they can make a positive difference for some of these global challenges and issues we face? 

[00:28:34] Darcy Winslow: Oh, my hope for the future is that we collectively wake up in time for everybody to understand. I can make a difference. Look at your own lifestyle, at your choices. We often say it’s the seemingly insignificant shifts in habit that actually start to transform a system. So don’t think you’re not powerful enough to pull that one big lever that’s going to change everything. It’s the little things that we all do that will add up to meaningful impact.

[00:29:13] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. Do you have any other advice for emerging leaders in terms of what you wish you knew early in your career? 

[00:29:22] Darcy Winslow: I’m going to flip the question a little bit. If you are a current leader, find a young leader who has the passion, who has the will, who has the desire to make a difference and support them. Connect them to others.

[00:29:43] Darcy Winslow: Let’s use our current status, agency to work with young leaders. It’s going to be hard, so we’ve got to support the heck out of the next generation. 

[00:29:56] Roy Notowitz: Thank you so much. It’s been an incredibly interesting and insightful dialogue, and it’s no wonder you’ve had such a huge impact at Nike and beyond. I really appreciate you being on the podcast, and I look forward to having you back soon to talk about the Magnolia Moonshot 2030 project.

[00:30:14] Darcy Winslow: Thank you Roy, and I applaud what you are doing to help find the next generation of leaders that can really make a difference. 

[00:30:25] Roy Notowitz: Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. Visit howihire.com for details about the podcast and what you heard today. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please let your friends and colleagues know about us.

[00:30:37] Roy Notowitz: How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. To find out more about Noto Group, visit NotoGroup.Com, and you can also subscribe to our monthly email newsletter there. This podcast was produced by AO McClain, LLC. To learn more about their great work, visit aomcclain.com.