As a Mays Business School student, Hans George ’91 decided to combine his passions for marketing and sports into a meaningful career. However, his career path took unanticipated detours through high-end men’s suits and mac-and-cheese before George reached the holy grail – a position working at sportswear giant Nike.

George shared stories and lessons learned during his career, including his two decades at the global athletic wear company, with Mays Business Honors students at a recent roundtable discussion. “My biggest takeaway from Hans was the importance of pursuing your passions strategically,” said Loryn Setterquist ’18. “Through the decisions he made in his career, he developed tangible skills, fostered important relationships, and learned about the retailing industry.”

Preparation and opportunity

George described his path to joining Nike using Seneca’s quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That hard work began at Texas A&M University, where he initially majored in accounting. However, George found that accounting didn’t suit him, so he spoke with a counselor who asked him two questions: “What classes are you interested in? What are you passionate about?” Those two questions helped George narrow his focus to sports marketing.

His career aspirations also were influenced by Sports Illustrated, which featured Nike founder Phil Knight on one of the magazine’s covers. After setting a goal to work for Nike, George focused his remaining A&M courses on preparing for that future job. His preparation continued after graduation when he accepted positions – merchandising at Neiman Marcus and working on brand management at Kraft Foods – that helped him develop critical skills that would transfer to the sporting apparel company. To further bolster his resume, George earned an MBA from the University of Texas-Austin. Those strategic decisions, along with hard work and networking, eventually led to a position with Nike.

A creative corporate culture

George’s description of his 20-year tenure with Nike offered Mays students a revealing glimpse into the iconic company’s culture. For example, Nike’s vision of developing employees runs counter to many other companies’ hierarchical and laddered approach. While certain functions follow a specific career progression, Nike allows employees to move to different job functions or divisions in order to learn new skills so they can craft their own careers. “Nike’s stance is that you’re going to remain in a position for 2-3 years so you can master it, but you’re not in that position long enough to become stale,” George said.

George has taken advantage of these opportunities to regularly refocus his career at Nike. He has spent approximately two-thirds of his time in a product creation role with the other third focused on merchandising.

The Nike executive encouraged Mays students to adopt a similar approach throughout their career. “The thing that stood out to me most was the happiness that his job brings him,” said Frances Andrews ’19. “He told us that every so often we need to take inventory of our own happiness and excitement and figure out what brings us joy.”

Recently, George changed roles again, becoming the vice president of global socks. He is charged with overseeing Nike’s initiative to increase its share of this market. Currently, the sale of socks accounts for $650 million of Nike’s business globally. However, Nike believes that its sock sales can grow to $1 billion by 2020.

The new role allows George to refocus his efforts to working with a creative team, an opportunity that he relishes. His favorite Nike experience has been working as part of a 20-person team with the Michael Jordan brand from 1998-2003. As part of that team, George regularly interacted with the NBA legend to get his feedback on the Jordan product line. “Unlike many other athletes, Jordan realized it was not about dressing him; it was taking his insights and dressing the consumer,” George said.

Lessons in leadership

George also shared numerous leadership lessons from his time at Nike and encouraged the Mays students to continually learn to put themselves in their followers’ shoes. George embraces a servant leadership model in which he develops the vision, creates the environment, removes obstacles and makes work fun so his team can succeed. He also has learned to learn from failures and to coach team members who are facing new situations. “I believe in making it about the journey to the result, not just the result,” he said. “If it’s only about the result, then work becomes a grind.”

Nike continues to value team work and creativity and sets a very high bar for performance, despite stiff competition from other brands. “Nike’s leaders realize there is no finish line,” George said. “They don’t get complacent and they continue to embrace challenges. We realize that competition from other brands is going to make us better and we need to celebrate little wins.”