Leadership Lessons from a Legendary Sneaker Designer

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Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with legendary sneaker designer E. Scott Morris, to learn about his personal story, business wisdom, and leadership style. Truly, E. Scott is a visionary in both design and management. He brings a fiery passion to the table that you probably haven’t felt since your high school football coach gave you a pep talk at the championship game. Dive with us into the creative mind of E. Scott Morris.

This is year thirty - thirty years. I still feel like a kid... I love it.

Beginnings

Born into a supportive family in North Chicago, Morris’ direction was nurtured at home. When he was fifteen, Morris made a proclamation to his mother: I want to be a sneaker designer. She said, “that’s wonderful…you need to find out as much as you can about how that’s done”. Purchasing shoes and collecting booklets and brochures from Nike, Morris had his finger on the pulse at a young age. He knew what he wanted, and his focus was set. He was amazed they showed the exploded view and thought "they're giving me the answers to the test! I had no clue what the odyssey of what I'm doing will become."

Inspired by cartoons, Morris dreamt about “bringing the magic of animation to the real world”.  This dream would one day be realized during his work at Reebok, Nike, Under Armour, and so much more. In 1985, after his freshman year at Michigan State University, Morris joined the Marine Corps and went to boot camp, but transferred to the reserves to finish school at the recommendation of his commanding officer. In 1989 he graduated from Michigan State with a degree in Product Design.

His senior thesis gives insight into his desire to bridge the imaginative world and the physical world. - he designed shoes in 1989 based on what he thought sports shoes would be in the year 2020. Inspired from Tron and Astroboy, he worked to bring the magic of animation and science into the regular world through a futuristic concept. Bill Houston, who worked for Adidas, came to his senior show and asked Morris if he wanted to be in the footwear industry. Houston gave him a list of names to contact in 1989. Morris recalled this as him "giving me the map to the odyssey".

Morris was rejected after interviewing with Larry Eisenbach at Nike on Dec. 19, 1989. "I was made as fire," Morris recalled. "My best friend came over and said 'why are you mad? You know what this means right? You are going to have to go to a company like Rebook. You are going to have to turn it out. You are going to have to make amazing stuff. When Nike sees what you can do, they're going to come to you.'" After that rejection letter and Morris had a brief stint at Hasbro, where he worked on Transformers, My Little Pony, and GI Joe. Morris laughs, "I was even asked by the team to be a GI Joe! Bulletproof GI Joe is me! I think I'm worth eight or nine bucks!"

G.I. Joe Bullet-Proof Subscription Figure 8.0
Bulletproof GI Joe, based off of E. Scott Morris in 1992.

Just as his best friend predicted, Morris was offered a job at Rebook in November of 1990. 4 days after signing with Rebook, he was called to serve in Desert Shield, and was in the Middle East by the end of the month. 11 months later, Morris returns home and continues his odyssey. His time with the Marines, however, served as the foundation for his work ethic, spirit, and most importantly, passion for collaboration.

One day his officer told his unit, "There are three things you have to do if you want to be the content of legends." Those words have stuck with Morris to this day, and he passes on this wisdom to everyone he works with.

  1. Know your mission
  2. Know your logistics (the tools, resources, and people available to you)
  3. If you got long sleeves, roll them up. Grab the guy's arm next to you. The marines to the left of you, you have to fight for them. The marines to the right of you, you have to fight for them. If you fight for them and keep them alive, they in turn will keep you alive. You will say 'I got to care about guy on left of me and guy on right of me' because you will fight together and you will live together. If you go down, you go down together.'

Morris says, "I took those cognates and pulled them into my design work. You gotta know your project. You gotta know how to use all your tools (from people you work with, what can I do, what's available to me), and finally, help all teammates. From the youngest to the oldest, from the novice to the expert. If you can learn you should learn. if you don't know, then ask. Better to say "I have no idea", because at least it makes you honest."

E. Scott Morris at Rebook

Management

Morris takes a refreshing view on management which puts both responsibility and freedom into the hands of those around him. Manager+ at Nike and courses at Rebook helped him be a person who solved problems, not just circle around them. His greatest lesson in management, however, came from the Marines who first instilled in him the concept of collaboration as a means of survival. This, combined with a "let's go be winners and have fun doing it" attitude, defines the management style of E. Scott Morris.

On collaboration

To Morris, ideas are the fluid ether that flows through all of us. If we are going to be great, we need to build off of each other and work together -- closed off silos are where creativity goes to die. Morris remarks, "ideas are not relegated to one person. Ideas are like ether, it's above you, below you, and all around you. How do you take that feeling and share? Could we go here? Ask questions."

His success at Rebook during his first year was unorthodox. Managers around him couldn't understand why he so openly shared his sketches and ideas with other designers, or offered to do the grunt work on other designer's sketches.

What do you say to people who are afraid to share, because they're afraid others will take credit for their work?

"I've seen these people at the highest levels and lowest levels. I have a code of ethics with them. If they don't want to share I say 'that's fine, I don't need you to share.' But I make something very, very clear. I say 'you know, designers who don't share don't have ideas. Designers who share have a lot of ideas because they have enough to put it out there. That to me is what makes a great designer, not being afraid to share. If you don't share what you're saying to me is you don't have a lot of ideas. Time will tell us everything we need to know. Because I'll be doing this day by day by day and that individual will be in their corner working and not sharing thinking they're gonna come up with this miracle. And then they'll say, 'I did this.' I say, 'Ah we did that 2 years ago. If you would have worked with us you would've known that and we would've went further. So, please work with us. I don't pay you, I'm not your boss, I'm your guide.' Then they'll realize, dude ain't tryna kill me."

On hierarchy

"I don't like the word boss, I never liked the word boss... I don't like to use the word because it sounds like that person's a real pain in the neck. It doesn't sound like a person you want to go talk to," says Morris. He believes in collaboration over command, and personal partnership over top-down structure. At the same time, he has a "no excuses" style to balance this approach which encourages team members to push themselves. Morris lays out the landscape for his team and puts the mission in their hands so that they can take personal responsibility for the outcome. In doing so, team members become personally invested in the success of the project, and take it as a personal challenge to stretch their limits in a way a traditional manager never could.

"You don't work for me, you work with me," Morris explains. "My job is to guide you. My job is not to tell you what to do. You may report to me, but all it is is a report. You're a professional. Act like a professional so that I can treat you like one. If you don't I can quickly change that... I ask people to come up to the challenges that I see..." Morris would tell his team, "this is what we are up against, here's what they're looking for from us. If we pull this off, we're winners. If we don't pull this off, we get crushed. We have to think about how we want to win. What are we capable of?" This gets people to roll up their sleeves and come alongside you."

"Make it a partnership," Morris tells us. On the flip side, if employees try to take advantage of and misuse the freedom, Morris tell us we need to draw clear boundaries. There are moments where I gotta get on the horse and throw my spear in the ground and get ugly and take no shit. It's not to threaten anybody, it's to make people understand, you gotta respect what's been done... you can't trick me, I'm too old I know too much shit."

On data and soul

"Nike isn't a thing, it's an understanding. People make Nike, and that's why Nike's great.. Nike with layoffs is now saying, we don't need people's knowledge because we have data and analytics. Well analytics don't have a soul. Analytics can't shake your hand, analytics can't make you cry. All it can give you is data.... Nike is Nike because they'd come to the people and say, 'I may not know everything but I am here for you.'"

That's not to say analysis is worthless; Morris stresses the importance of both systems and soul. "Nike's secret, 'NIKE' is - and credit to John Davidson back in 1992 - 'Now I Know Everything'. At Nike you analyze everything and are consistently in a mode of trying to figure out how you can do it better."

On the art of management

As he continued to move up the ladder, Morris was met with the challenge of "how does a designer show his or her work if they're not creating?" He realized, "I don't have to create the thing, I just need to guide those who create to fair waters - a promised land of sneakers. If I can get them there, that is my value." Morris is transcending, "I am a creator too, I am a creator of the space for creators."

"I don’t have to create the thing, I just guide those who create to fair waters, a promised land."

Morris at the 2016 Creative Storytelling Workshop at UO


Leadership

Morris' leadership style first assumed a core "why." Morris is doing what he loves, and that allows him to lead in a very special way. He's the football captain that makes you want to show up, makes you feel good, makes you feel alive, on fire, and full of purpose. This is only possible because Morris is truly happy to show up, feeling good, feeling alive and full of purpose! His energy is contagious because it's real. If you are leading a basketball team but soccer is your sport, there is a fundamental issue. You need to fully invest in your role as a leader, and only then can you embrace it.

Know your mission

"I had to say to one of the people I reported to, 'do you know why I push so hard?'" His boss said, "I don't know why you push so hard, it's just shoes." Morris said, "it's just shoes for you. Little kids are watching me. if I get this right, they're coming my way. They're gonna want to do what I'm doing. I have to be ready to teach them at some point... I have to give back." Morris said his boss "couldn't understand me because he was someone who didn't teach anyone any of his craft. He kept his craft to himself... which I thought was absolutely selfish and reprehensible as creative. Dude, you're horrible. You didn't share knowledge to make young people better.... In the end, what I realized was I never want to be like that guy as a leader. Because he's not a leader, he's just a guy who can draw well."

Focus on the everyday

Morris is big on what he calls "everyday." "How can I interface with people every single day?," he asks himself. "I don't take my bad days and throw it in somebody's lap like time bomb. I say, 'I'm not in the best state right now, but how can I help?'" He never closed his door unless it was serious, and he wants people to know that they can come right in with their problems.

Inspire personal responsibility

"What I have attempted to do is align the people I work with, with their internal constitution. Do you want to be a professional yes or no? 'Yes.' Do you want to design great products? 'Yes.' Would you be willing to work with me to openly talk about it? I'll share what I think and guide you to a point. And then it's on you to make a good decision... I'm not going to tell you that's a bad idea, I would say, 'I wouldn't recommend that', but this is your course. The only way you learn is by decision making. I'm not going to do it for you, you will do it for yourself today,"

"Once people see that you're not trying to hang them up or hang them out to dry, they feel so much better like, 'cool, he ain't gonna hurt me.' I'm not here to mess you up, I'm here to get you past me. If I can get you ready for the next segment then I did my job."

Morris inspires and then steps back, yet still remains constantly available as a resource, fundemanetal to his idea that a leader's role is to empower others and guide them to their own self-actualization. "I try to turn projects into something digestable that you can take back to your desk," says Morris.

Change the attitude

Don't make people afraid of you. Instead, say "hey, whatchya workin on? How's it going? Wanna share? Ok, let's check it out. I like what you're doing! Hey, did you consider this? Alright, you're on your way, if you need me I'll be right here... when they know that, they come. There's nothing cooler to see them laugh or crack up or say 'I want to do it over'." "Do you want this?," he'd say, tThen you know what you gotta do."

"I wanted them to know, do you want to win?! Or do you want to just do your job, go along with the plan.. Where's your passion? Where's your drive? Where's your 'let's go get it!' No shark teeth, no claws," Morris wants his team to feel as driven and alive as he does.

Make it fun

"I love working with young designers who don't have experience because I can coach them. I'm like, let's look at patterns let's look at blueprints. Let's have a blueprint party. Yeah this is a party man! Let's get this thing going!" They look at me like 'WOW, this is fun!'"

"if there was a footwear super bowl, I'd want to go to the play offs every year because it means you put your best stuff up front and you pushed hard. Even your opponents will respect you for coming that far. I want to be a designer the way Walter Payton plays football. I want to be decent, shake hands with my opponent and put my helmet on and kick their ass. When it's over I want to shake their hand and say good game."

Feedback from his team

Feedback from the people that Morris has managed proves that this philosophy goes far beyond words.

- "My career and personal existence would increase exponentially with this man as my manager/co-creator. He inspires me in ways I didn’t know I needed, always offering creative and constructive advice. He may as well be called the NASA pilot of footwear sketching, incredible skills."

- "E.Scott is an extraordinary individual. He made a huge impact on me professionally as positive role model and a colleague"

- "He has an aura of positivity in his very existence. That positive aura leads the best team. Like an Amp it up!! Lucio at Over-watch."

Morris led the project to create a speciality shoe for Shaquille O'Neal in 1994.

Philosophy of Work

The motif of Morris' career is bringing soul and humanity back into the workplace. He does business, design, and work like it's a sport - a sport that he loves. He brings an exciting mix of passion, competition, collaboration, drive - and most importantly fun - to the table even in large corporations. Again, it's the "why" that matters here. For Morris, our work must be a fundamental piece of our core belief system - it must be fulfilling, and we must make it fulfilling.

Fight for what you believe in.

"I want this generation to feel that," says Morris, on the topic of young designers; "...to see a kid buy their shoes. I think it would blow their minds! You feel good about it, you should feel good about it. It's a special thing, I relish it." For Morris, "you have to fight for what you believe in." Pay close attention to the word 'fight', because this is a 'fight' despite the feel-good 'why' that powers it. When Morris first went to Nike, his coworkers put up 2 or 3 sketches for a project. Morris put up 13 or 14. "I had to put more horsepower into this," he said, "2 sketches isn't enough."

Make good, consistent critical decisions

"This is what I don't see - this new generation of designers need to get used to making good critical decisions. This is the old fashioned give and take. I'm willing to make my project better if I ned to take this one thing away that nobody will notice."

Don't make a product that embarrasses people's money

"One of my greatest accomplishments being here in China is helping my younger team realize that the lowest cost product is the hardest to design. Most people are thinking about the word cheap. You have to think everyone's money is valuable to them. Don't make a product that embarrasses their money. Make a product that make people go: 'for the money, that's a heck of a value'.

On original thinking

"I think fake it till you make it is a bad idea. Better to be honest, you don't have to make things up," says Morris. He believes in creative control, patience, and discipline as the foundation for innovation. On that path, there are no shortcuts. When we take the long and hard road - which truly is the only road - we find our own originality.

Once a young designer copied ideas from Nike in his designs, rather than taking the path of discipline and patience which leads to original thinking. Morris sternly told him, "you are not displaying that, and because you can't display that you can't create that, and because you can't create that you are chasing that, and because you are chasing that you'll always be 2nd, or 3rd, or 4th... or 9th or 27th. It is a discipline."

On the business of design

"You need to think about the business of design. Drawing and creating the product is not enough anymore. You need to understand how development works, how costing works. You need to understand the brief, the request, how sales works. Everything that you create, they're going to manifest a plan for it, change it, or completely ignore it. And it's going to have a life of its own and find its own way to a shelf and your shoe may have to quietly sell itself... and you need to be ready for that."

E. Scott Morris' idea board while working at Nike Cleated


On adaptability

Morris tells us, "in 2009 I was moved from my category into Core Performance because somebody else couldn't do their job... I broke down in my car because I built the squad, and now they're not even going to let me play. But I don't regret it. Because that was the beginning of me being the most adaptable designer."

Joe Appollono was the first product designer to use a Mac to design sneakers. Before him, Morris saw nobody use a Mac. "Joe showed up at Rebook in 1994 with his Mac, he was pumping stuff out so quick that people couldn't understand." Morris was seeing industry change right before his eyes. He made an allusion to John Henry saying that he didn't want to "swing his hammer until he falls dead trying to beat a machine", so rather his adaptivity to new tools like computers and software development kept him at the forefront of a quickly changing industry. Though, Morris still draws by hand because that's the gift given to him by the Creator, that's his first language.


Be nice, especially to the janitors

"If there's someone who cleans your office," Morris says, "it is imperative to be extremely kind to them. Your average janitorial person pays close attention to who works late, who comes early. They watch. They're the perfect birds. They're great for information. Treat the custodian with love and respect because they are the ears and eyes to what is going in your building."

Comments

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Private Member
Head of Digital

Really inspiring stuff... thanks for the article Don! Having served myself I certainly recognize those military lessons. They've always given me an edge.

Private Member
Associate Creative Director

+1

Private Member
Executive Director

legendary guy - very good article