Gene McCarthy, Founder and CEO of Top League Advisory
Gene McCarthy is a distinguished leader, changemaker, and brand disruptor. He’s essentially the godfather of footwear, having held President and SVP level roles at iconic brands like ASICS, Under Armour, Reebok, Timberland, and Merrell. Gene spent the first 21 years of his career at Nike in various capacities, including Global Director of Sales and Retail Marketing for the Jordan brand. In this episode, Gene shares his seasoned perspective on hiring as well as some great stories from his remarkable career.
Gene’s new podcast, Chasing 4, will debut on the Sport Lifestyle Network.
Listen to the Podcast
HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION
- Nike’s EKIN program fed the brand’s leadership talent (5:35)
- How leading footwear brands approach hiring (7:18)
- The key difference between a company and a brand (10:15)
- The two questions Gene asks to understand team capabilities (11:52)
- How one hire can stimulate an entire organization (12:51)
- Why Gene looked outside of the industry for talent (14:58)
- What he looks for in leaders (16:30)
- Why he brought together unconventional teams (17:33)
- The common mistake hiring managers make (19:12)
- His approach to interviews (20:55))
- Advice for people who want to get a job in the athletic industry (22:41)
SHOW TRANSCRIPT – HOW I HIRE PODCAST WITH Gene McCarthy
Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast to taps directly into the best hiring advice and insights. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder of an executive recruiting and talent consulting firm called Noto Group. My team and I have spent the last decade helping to build iconic consumer brands one hire at a time.
Today, my longtime friend and colleague, Gene McCarthy, will join me on the podcast. He’ll be sharing his perspective as a distinguished leader, changemaker, and brand disruptor. Gene is a lifelong athlete and local New Yorker with an impressive track record that spans over 40 years. Most recently he was the president and CEO of ASICS America, where he led major operational and geographic transitions, modernizing the business and upgrading talent along the way.
Gene has also held SVP and President level roles at Under Armour, Reebok, Timberland, and Merrell. He spent the first 21 years of his career at Nike in a variety of roles, including Global Director of Sales and Retail Marketing for the Jordan brand. He’s literally the godfather of footwear.
Gene, thanks for being here.
Gene McCarthy: [00:01:18] Roy, thanks for those kind words. You know, I think just the way you have run your wonderful group and all the success you’ve had, I’ve always been a big fan. So this is absolutely my pleasure to be with you.
Roy Notowitz: [00:01:27] And for the listeners out there, even though Gene and I overlapped at Nike for a few years, we really didn’t develop a connection until years later, when he invited me out to visit him and his team at Under Armour. I’ve been fortunate enough to know Gene, now, for over a decade and have appreciated his leadership style.
And over the years, we’ve obviously talked a lot about hiring as well, which of course has led us to inviting him to be on the show today. So my first question is, you know, what was your first big career break? Tell me about how you got started in the footwear business.
Gene McCarthy: [00:02:03] It’s a long time ago, but I was a Nike athlete when I was in college. I met a guy named Geoff Hollister and I started receiving my free Nike shoes. And then over time, I was just on the regular list, even through the end of my running career in 1980. And I got a phone call from this guy who says, we’re looking for somebody to be an on-the-ground tech rep in Florida — where I lived — do you happen to know anybody? And maybe they have a marketing degree? And I said, “Yeah, how about me?” And that began a 21 year career at Nike with many, many different roles and many, many views of a growing company that is now, you know, a world giant today.
Roy Notowitz: [00:02:44] What do you remember about your first interview and how you got hired at Nike?
Gene McCarthy: [00:02:49] I received a call from a guy named Tom Raynor. He had been what they deemed an EKIN Manager. Now, EKIN of course is “Nike” spelled backwards. And I love the origin of that name. It was when Nike was probably 280 million and they thought they were losing touch with the people that really were the grassroots of running. So they felt they had to go backwards, hence “Nike” backwards.
And Tom Raynor said, “Hey, you know, I’m going to recommend you. And you’re going to hear from this guy named Brad Johnson.” Who called me and I flew to Portland, Oregon from Gainesville, Florida. Back then there were no cell phones and all the things that we’re so used to today. So I showed up at the Nike offices and Brad greeted me and he put me in this office for a woman named Pam McGee. Well, I sat in the office for about 45 minutes.
But Pam didn’t come. She didn’t show up. So Brad came back and says, “Well, you know what, it’s getting late. We’re going to take you to dinner tonight. Why don’t you go back to the hotel?” And right next to the hotel is the restaurant. And so I did that and Pam didn’t come to dinner either. So Brad and I just had a nice dinner and enjoyed each other’s company and talked about running and things like that. And I got offered the job. The interviewing process wasn’t as robust as it may be today.
Roy Notowitz: [00:04:00] So did you move to Oregon or did you stay on the East Coast for that first role?
Gene McCarthy: [00:04:05] Four and a half years, Roy, I drove a little Toyota from Miami all the way up to Tallahassee, the entire state of Florida. Four and a half years as a tech rep, which is an eternity in this day and age.
And I loved it. I love the fact that there was a flexibility of the schedule, but I also loved the fact that you interacted with people just right there, you know, and in their city, their store and you got to learn a lot. So I think that the role of the EKIN wasn’t just to be, you know, tech reps and go and educate people on our technologies.
I think it was also to be the eyes and ears of the marketplace. And I think Nike was shrewd enough to use the information that way. 1986 came along and I was recruited to move from Florida to Portland, Oregon, a place that I had only been, you know, several times, you know, the Olympic trials and then the interview.
So that was a big change. I think the climate was a change and everything was a change. I was working in retail marketing at the time and I worked with a guy named Mike Caster. And we put together a program to help introduce America to this new technology coming out, which was called visible air and also cross training.
So I traveled all over the country from Portland, Oregon, meeting with people at big accounts and telling them what it was about and what in-store marketing was. So it was a glorified tech rep position, but boy, it was a lot of fun because those were exciting products at that time.
Roy Notowitz: [00:05:29] The EKIN program was such a great training ground and feeder pool for the leadership talent at Nike.
Gene McCarthy: [00:05:35] Yeah. And that was an honor to be a part of that group. And it turned into become a very rigorous interviewing process because they weren’t just trying to find some young, healthy, athletic face for the brand in certain markets, they were looking for the future of the company. And I actually think it was a distinct advantage that Nike had over the competition and it was many years and they lagged all the other brands before they came up with programs like that. But they weren’t nearly as exciting and as future thinking as the EKIN program. So it’s, it’s a great place to be from. And it, it served me the rest of my career, not just at Nike.
Roy Notowitz: [00:06:11] Yeah. It seems like internal training programs are less common these days. What is it about the EKIN program that endures or has stood the test of time?
Gene McCarthy: [00:06:23] With Nike, they were trying to learn from the outside in rather than teach people from the inside out. I even had a quote that I used when I was at the end of my Nike career with the Jordan brand.
And I used to say, “We don’t own this brand, kids do. We just manage it for them.” And that goes way back to my early days as a tech rep in EKIN because the kids in the stores and the runners on the trails, they’re the ones that had all the answers. You know, the brands only had the questions and I’ve always looked at it to, to the end of my career, you know, the same way.
So I do believe it’s, it’s a fantastic idea. I don’t know if it was as deliberate as we think it is, but at least that’s the way I viewed it.
Roy Notowitz: [00:07:02] That’s a huge insight. Gene, you’ve worked for so many of the leading brands in the footwear industry. And I think it’d be interesting for you to compare and contrast the differences and similarities in how each of them approach hiring.
Gene McCarthy: [00:07:18] The reason I’m a consultant now, is I’ve run out of brands to go to, I’ve been to just about all the majors. But for example, when I went to Reebok, I noticed Reebok was obsessed with trying to be Nike. And then when I went to Under Armour years later that they were obsessed with trying to beat Nike. And because of that, there was a reluctance, let’s say at Reebok, to hire anybody that was from Nike, which was counterintuitive to the fact that they wanted to be like Nike.
I also found that — and I have to say this with fondness towards Nike — but I found that there was actually an incredible amount of talent at some of the other brands, because they needed it just to compete with Nike. So, you know, if you fast forward to the end of my career as the President and CEO of ASICS, I was charged by the chairman to move the company, which was based in Irvine, California, to another location.
And I had chosen, after great contemplation, Boston because of all the brands that were in Boston. And the reason I did that was first of all, because I think you need to look over your shoulder and see another brand, you know, down the street or down the highway, just to keep you honest. The second one was there was talent. If you had a good proposition, you know, for your brand, you could attract that talent.
Roy Notowitz: [00:08:32] So what stands out when you think about the way each of those brands approached building leadership teams and hiring based on the different mindsets that they had?
Gene McCarthy: [00:08:42] You know, Nike was real good at, you know, not just with the EKIN program, but taking their talent and, you know, pushing them into uncomfortable situations. And that bred success. I think some of the other companies took it too seriously and they would say, “Hey, let’s hire a guy from… a packaged goods guy, for example.” Early on in the advent of this industry, those guys were like fish out of water. I remember some companies, including Nike, would hire people from big brands at the time, like Gap or Miller Brewing, you know, because they were so successful in late eighties and early nineties with television advertising and their messaging.
But those people never really acclimated into the industry. The one thing Roy, about the athletic industry: there’s no school or college or university in the land that teaches this thing. This industry made itself up and evolved on its own time after time again. And I think that’s where Nike played a great role in it.
But when you bring in people from more structured businesses, you lose that, you know, “shoot from the hip and be hip when you shoot.” The best thing about the industry was it was predictably unpredictable. And I think that came with maybe taking the people you have and letting them, through the culture of the company, explore the opportunity for the future in, in a very bold way.
Roy Notowitz: [00:10:03] I think that the reason why Nike and the athletic and outdoor industry is so unique is that the products are functional and there’s a passion for sports and a connection to empowering healthy, active lifestyles.
Gene McCarthy: [00:10:15] You know, there’s a difference between a company and a brand. I think a company is… they make widgets and they ship them from distribution centers to, you know, wholesale accounts or whatever you call them. And they sell them and they order more.
A brand has a constant 24/7 dialogue with its consumers. You don’t just buy from a brand. I think you belong to a brand. You buy from a company, but you belong to a brand. I also think that what has become very prevalent today is that nobody cares about your brand until they know what your brand cares about.
I think that’s become more of the purpose. And I used to say sometimes that, you know, you don’t buy the product you pay for the privilege of wearing it and belonging to something. Now the dynamic has shifted a lot. 20 years ago, kids chased sneaker brands. 20 years later, sneaker brands are chasing kids because I think kids, or even any consumer, has become their own personal brands.
So it’s a very interesting dichotomy right now, and I’m very fond of my years at Nike, but I think Nike knew that early on, but I think it was by accident because it started with a core group of runners at the University of Oregon and running was the greater good. And that’s what, you know, broadened itself into, you know, health and fitness and wellbeing, but also, you know, believing in something that was right for not just the planet, but right for your life.
Roy Notowitz: [00:11:42] When you come into a new organization, what’s your approach to developing an understanding of the capabilities, roles, and leadership of those people on the teams?
Gene McCarthy: [00:11:52] My first question to every person, whether it’s for the… a customer service position or right up to being an executive vice president is, “What are you doing here?”
And I think in that initial listening, you will find out the true motivation of, if that person has the integrities that you are looking for, that can help you, you know, drive a brand and move a company. First of all, it’s an unorthodox question and it gets people completely out of their game. Some people will say, “Hey, well, you know, I, I did that for six years and this for seven and I’d like to try something new.”
Well, that doesn’t serve me because the second question I ask them is, “How can you help me?” And I know that sounds a little provocative, but it’s meant to be because business is provocative. So I try to push a little bit.
Roy Notowitz: [00:12:39] So what are some examples of how you’ve recruited key people to join forces with you to take on these huge challenges, such as starting footwear for Under Armour?
Gene McCarthy: [00:12:51] I, I’ll give you two examples: one guy who had been at Nike and Reebok, and I knew him at both places, I called him and I said, “Can we have dinner?” And I met with him and I said to him, “I’d really like you to consider joining me, helping me create something, build something, do something that scares people.” Of course, dinner was very gracious. And then he called me three days later and he said, “Hey, I just went into a sporting goods store and I saw the Under Armour product.” And he goes, “It’s it’s, it’s terrible.” And I said, “That’s exactly why I had dinner with you.”
There are people who join brands too because, Roy, they just, they just want to help run a business. And I’ve always been interested in how you change or build a business. So that’s one example. Another one is that the key to building product, and at Under Armour this was critical, was design. And designers are only as good as the brief they’re given. So I had some people who were in product management that just couldn’t write the brief because they were trying to mimic what other companies were doing rather than trying to find out where a unique difference could be obtained and do it in a way, you know, that was exciting and thrilling.
So I, I realized I had to change product management and when the briefs got better then the designers didn’t. So at Under Armour, there were 104 people, if I recollect, on my watch and more than 75 of them, you know, over my time there, were either new to the company or new to the job and it was a complete overhaul.
But instead of just getting six new designers, I would always find one designer in the industry that first of all, I could trust. And second that could be that provocateur and he or she would come in and plop them into the six designers. And wouldn’t you know, three of the designers got very, very good after that and the other three designers left. So there’s a way to stimulate the organization with just one hire.
Roy Notowitz: [00:14:47] Have you ever had luck recruiting people from outside the industry? To what extent did your recruiting approach incorporate a strategy that infused new thinking into your leadership teams?
Gene McCarthy: [00:14:58] Yeah. I forced myself to avoid the obvious. So sometimes if you want to hire a marketer for athletic shoes, why don’t you look at companies that have marketers for athletic shoes? And I actually didn’t some of my best marketers — and I’ll use that maybe as our base example — came from other industries and sometimes other countries, I had a young woman that worked for me at ASICS that came from Coca-Cola in Toronto. And I think the fact that she had a little bit of an unfamiliarity with the athletic space probably made her better because a little bit of uncomfortableness or a little bit of, you know, uncertainty, it makes you good.
The second thing is, when I worked with HR, they would look for the safe bet qualifications in a resume. And, you know, sadly today there’s way too many HR departments that are just scouring through, you know, LinkedIn and trying to find key search words and all that.
I was more interested in people that maybe I’ve read about, or I saw, you know, an article about or maybe I saw them in action or maybe I went and found people that were in industries that I thought were intriguing. You know, because of how the industry ran itself. I would ask my HR team to go and recruit.
So the definition of recruiting has, unfortunately for many companies, has come into, you know, looking up LinkedIn pages all day long, as opposed to going out and trying to get people that have this perspective that might be refreshing to an industry.
Roy Notowitz: [00:16:27] Let’s go a bit deeper into what you look for in a leader.
Gene McCarthy: [00:16:30] Yeah. I think they’re all emotional things. Like, are they unselfish? That’s important to me. Do they understand that if we serve the greater good that it serves everybody? Can they have a rapport and can they display a rapport both ways, not only up to management, but can they have a rapport and have an ear to the ground down to the masses?
And I also look for, with, with leaders, can you hire not their past, but can you hire their future? In other words, do they have the potential? Can you bring them into a job that they might be uncomfortable in in the beginning and make them comfortably uncomfortable and let them grow into the job? Because I think it’s that friction that, that stimulates not only the employee, but it stimulates the team as well to have one person — or several people — who might be uncomfortable in their role, at least for the time being.
Roy Notowitz: [00:17:23] Do you have an example of where you’ve been successful in bringing people into the mix who think differently or are a little bit outside of the box in terms of their experience?
Gene McCarthy: [00:17:33] I was the President of Merrell, which is a holding of Wolverine Worldwide. And it’s a casual outdoor brand is the way I would describe it. The consumer was aging and the product hadn’t changed. And there was an undue pressure on Merrell to drive a lot of the profitability for the 15 brands that were in the Wolverine portfolio at the time. So I felt like I had to have an unconventional team in a conventional business just to see if we can crack the code and break through.
Roy Notowitz: [00:18:03] Were you concerned about the body rejecting the organ, so to speak?
Gene McCarthy: [00:18:07] Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, Roy. I didn’t want them to reject the organ, but I wanted the rest of the body to get stimulated. So, for example, this was a very traditionally run brand and because it was traditionally run, it was running like it did 20 years ago and it wasn’t necessarily , you know, getting to where it needed to go or reaching its own potential.
So there was a beauty, in a way, to the fact that some people were uncomfortable and back to my comments earlier about hiring one good designer, some people got really good and responded to this with open arms and some people, you know, it was just, almost like a natural or an organic attrition, if you will.
But it doesn’t always work and I’m aware of that. And sometimes, you know, you have to make the change and when you make the mistake and you don’t do it because you made a mistake, you do it not just to protect the organization, but you do it to protect the person that you put in this uncomfortable situation as well.
Roy Notowitz: [00:18:59] So how do you develop hiring capabilities within your leadership team? So for example, how do you ensure that key leaders are using a thoughtful, equitable, and effective recruiting and selection process?
Gene McCarthy: [00:19:12] The tendency for many companies and they do this… and leaders do this without knowing it. We tend to hire ourselves. And I think that’s the worst thing that you can do. I always wanted to hire people that… say you have a team of eight and each person had an element of me that I could tap into, but they were, you know, intrinsically different than me and different from each other. And I expected my leaders to do the same thing, and I think I convinced them to impress me by how unique and interesting and different the candidate could be, not how they might just blend into the fold, even if it made them uncomfortable.
And I also think that leaders, sometimes, it takes a strong person to say, “You know what? I like this guy or this gal, I think she can take my place someday.” And the way to make that part of the acumen was to make sure that the people that work for me, that they felt that they could take my place someday. That’s really important. And so having the element of differentiation was great. What’s the old saying? I think it was Oscar Wilde who says, you know, “Be yourself because everybody else is taken.”
I think if, if we assemble people who have every different element, but we all somehow can get around the greater good, the campfire at night and still feel the same heat. There in fact is when you have a brand that can grow, not just survive.
Roy Notowitz: [00:20:40] Let’s talk a bit more about the gut feel and human experience of an interview. How do you get beyond the typical veneer to really get to or understand the candidate’s character and values?
Gene McCarthy: [00:20:55] I guess I would sum it up this way: I always liked making people comfortable when they were in the office being interviewed by me. I, and I always said that too, I’d say, “So, first of all, take a deep breath and relax. I’m not here to interview you. I’m here to get to know you.”
And you know, there’s other people in the organization that can tell me if they actually did go to Oxford University and, you know, invent, you know, some spaceship that’s going to go to Mars. But at the same time, I think it really comes down to, how do you feel comfortable with people? But you have to put them in the situation where you make them comfortable to find out if you’re going to be comfortable with them.
Now, if you’re nervous in an interview that could be caused by several things. And the one I’m most sensitive to is that somebody is in between jobs and really doesn’t want to mess the interview up. I think that’s a sign of humility. I don’t think that’s a sign of incapability and I’m sensitive to that.
And I, and I’ve always been an emotional leader and I, I was raised that way and I know that’s not for every hiring manager or CEO out there, but I do think you have to remember they’re people. And nobody was born a vice president, nobody was born a director, you know, you grow into those roles and you have to think of yourself and your own career at that time and how you’ve ascended through your career and how you failed in your career.
You know, there’s a difference between land mines and gold mines and how you made those mistakes. And I think you have to benefit, you know, employees… like nervousness in an interview? I don’t put too much weight on that. I’m more concerned about arrogance or a little bit of bravado in an interview. That’s the part that scares me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:22:32] What advice do you have for a recent college grad or early career professional who really wants to get a job in the athletic or outdoor industry?
Gene McCarthy: [00:22:41] Well, I, I will tell you this: if you watch ESPN every day, that doesn’t qualify you to be a basketball coach. Just because you love shoes and love sneakers, actually, we don’t need you in our company. We need you to buy this stuff. So the first one goes back to, study the brand, try to find out about its culture. If there’s a way to meet people that work for the company and just learn about the brand and not just, you know, by reading spreadsheets and analyst reports and quarterly statements.
The second thing is: I don’t really care when you’re a young person, what you want to do with your life and your career. I do care about how you can help me. And I just, I encourage young people, just be yourself, you know, if you try to fake it, it’s going to catch up with you, just be yourself.
Roy Notowitz: [00:23:24] So what are you working on these days? I know you’ve got a lot of interesting consulting projects. Is there anything that you’re particularly excited about?
Gene McCarthy: [00:23:33] Well, you know, listen, you’re, you’re my podcast hero, my friend. So I, I was approached by a company called the Sport Lifestyle Network and I’ll be launching my own podcast. The idea of it is the essence of sport and the business of sport.
And the podcast is called by the way, Chasing 4. And, you know, maybe having been a former athlete, I understand the essence of sport. I understand what it takes to prepare. And even when I got into the role to work with athletes, but there’s a business of sport. So the game of basketball is way different than the business of basketball.
And it’s funny with young people that would come and interview at, at any of the athletic brands I worked in, you could go weeks without seeing a shoe or an athlete, and it just runs like a business because it really is, on the underbelly, a business. So I wanted to interview people who are… have risen up through the ranks and have made a name for themselves, but still can not only have, you know, great memories and a few chuckles, but at the same time provide a little bit of wisdom to, you know, an audience that’s not dissimilar from yours. So we’ll see how it goes.
Roy Notowitz: [00:24:40] Really interesting. I can’t wait. And how can listeners get in touch with you if they want to work with you on a consulting basis to help them with their business or to learn more about the podcast? And we’ll put links also in our show notes and things.
Gene McCarthy: [00:24:54] My main methodology right now is LinkedIn. And I respond to just about everybody that reaches out to me, including the people from foreign worlds that are trying to sell me their web design when I don’t need it. So I do respond to everybody. So LinkedIn is the best way, and I do get back to everybody. And the reason I do that is because I want somebody to get back to me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:15] And let’s talk a little bit about your advisory. How are you helping companies or, or leaders?
Gene McCarthy: [00:25:20] Yeah. Thank you for that. I have, uh, an advisory called Top League Advisory. I focus, Roy, mostly on the idea of brand building, brand vision, and strategy.
So that’s one thing. The other one is, how do you break into America? Not just the present of it, but definitely the future of it because it’s a consumer universe and we all just live in their universe right now.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:43] Yeah. Well, this has been incredible. Every time I connect with you and hang out with you, I just, it’s such a pleasure and a joy, and it’s great to have you on the show.
Thank you so much.
Gene McCarthy: [00:25:53] Well, Roy, one last thing, and I think this is important. The things that I’m passionate about, like having a brand and understanding, you know, not just the paper of the person, but the person of the person. I mean, it’s served you really well. And it’s, it’s given you not just the opportunity to have a very successful business, but it gives you the right and the honor to host a podcast.
So it’s a pleasure for me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:17] Thank you. And I think one thing that we share, Gene, is that we both invest in the success of other people. And I’ve seen you do that over and over again. It definitely comes back around in many ways.
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