Grow yourself, others, and the business: Q&A with a Nike leader

Hosted by Neil Amato

Favorite books, a craving for constant change, and building a finance "powerhouse" — all of those topics and more are part of this interview with Tanner Johnson, CPA, CGMA, vice president–Global Finance Operations at Nike. Johnson explains how his upbringing shaped him, what the phrase "there is no finish line" means to him, and how he manages a remote team. The episode is a continuation of a series of interviews from finance leaders who attended the Future of Finance Summit in December in Nashville, Tenn.

Also, get caught up on news related to these topics:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An explanation of "We measure to get better, not necessarily to keep score."
  • An open-ended question Johnson asks job candidates related to handling ambiguity.
  • What Johnson means when he talks about "a powerhouse finance function."
  • Three buckets of leadership and why Johnson initially challenged how those concepts were ordered.
  • Some of Johnson's takeaways from the Future of Finance Summit.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at
Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

Transcript:

Neil Amato: Now joining the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Tanner Johnson. Tanner is a CPA and the Vice President Global Finance Operations at Nike. Tanner, thank you for being on the podcast. Happy to have you today.

Tanner Johnson: Well, hey, Neil, I am super excited to be here and humbled to be invited.

Amato: There is no finish line. That's a slogan of Nike's, but it's also a phrase that came up during the Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tennessee in December about how transformation projects don't necessarily have an endpoint. So how can you manage something that is ongoing and maybe doesn't really have a final score, so to speak?

Johnson: Yeah, Neil, I love that question. Transformations are ongoing. I think there's there's a couple of things that probably came to mind when you ask that question. There's another saying that we have at Nike, which is "We measure to get better, not necessarily just to keep score."

One of my favorite leadership books out there, it's a Bill Walsh book, it's called The Score Takes Care of Itself. The whole concept there is everybody knows their role. Perfection is defined and you're relentlessly pursuing perfection. But you focus on those factors that lead to the score, not the score itself. And so, when I think about big transformational efforts, I'm OK with there not being a final score. I think about our craft at finance, accounting operations. They're all areas that we're in constant pursuit of mastering those crafts.

We need to keep focusing on those goals when there's obstacles and the goals are constantly changing on us. I love that line, "There is no finish line." I know we use it quite a bit here at Nike, but I loved hearing that at the summit last week.

Amato: Maybe tied to that is more on a topic that we discussed a little bit earlier in a conversation in Nashville. Change management is one thing when you have a calendar for it, a merger, or some big event you're planning for three years down the road. But managing change that's imposed on you, I guess that's a different skill, managing the unknown.

Johnson: Yeah. I think I'm pretty lucky, Neil, in my career. I'm constantly pursuing change. If change isn't happening for me, I get bored, and I seek out those opportunities where change is constant. Nike was a natural draw for me; change is constant here. We're setting audacious goals. One of the things that I've really seen looking at the workforce is I can start to bucket individuals. First bucketing those individuals that can work through ambiguity, the unknown.

But more importantly, looking at those leaders that can lead through ambiguity or the unknown. And I think if I were to really distill down those capabilities that are so important with the unknown, it's that. I think those individuals that can lean into the unknown or the ambiguity and view those as an opportunity as opposed to an inhibitor, those are going to be our future, our future leaders.

Amato: Is that a question that you ask of potential hires? How do you deal with ambiguity?

Johnson: I do.

Amato: Can you tell by how they answer it, even if the words might be different than their body language, how they might deal with it?

Johnson: I think so, Neil. As I ask that question, I often look for just a physical reaction, one that is of excitement. As I talk about roles and often times, as I recruit for roles, I try not to give a great level of specificity of what the role is. It's more about the impact that we're going to have and allow those individuals to help be part of creating the most creative way of getting those goals.

Amato: You grew up in northern Minnesota. I think linguists might be able to sense a little of that Minnesota accent in you. But in one memorable stretch in northern Minnesota, the temperature stayed below zero – not below freezing, but below zero – for a month in a row. How do you think growing up there shaped who you are?

Johnson: Neil, maybe just a little bit more specificity on that. That was zero degrees Fahrenheit. Our friends that are listening in that focus on Celsius, this is zero degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, I did. In fact, I just visited Minnesota last weekend. I was brutally reminded, Neil, of what 1 degree feels like, and I had been away for a while, so it was a shock to the system.

The environment that I grew up in was amazing. It was amazingly cold; it was northern Minnesota. But I would say, as I reflect on that time and look at where I'm at now, there are probably two attributes that came out of that or that I developed that I carry with me today and that's patience and tenacity.

I think that combination as I've gone through and help lead significant transformations, I think those two attributes I have to keep anchoring to. For me, we've achieved some pretty big accomplishments by having both patience and tenacity.

Amato: In Nashville, I heard you use the word "powerhouse" a few times, I believe to refer to the finance function you are building or hoping to build. What to you are the traits of a powerhouse finance function?

Johnson: Here at Nike and in finance specifically, we've set up the vision that we are a finance powerhouse. What that means is we're valued business partners, that we're delivering functional excellence, and we're helping catalyze growth here at Nike.

Just to maybe double-click into that a little bit, we've set out our measurements. People are at the center of our transformation and as part of our vision and mission of finance. But our measurements are around employee engagement, measuring the highest and best use of our talent, our functional performance, and then our digital acceleration. Digital is so important just as we move into the future.

But back to the point that we were talking about before, I love the use of the term powerhouse. I think it allows us to understand and think about what a powerhouse is today. But what a powerhouse is going to be in the future is different than what it is today. The internal and external factors and challenges that we have, they're constantly changing, so we need to constantly be growing and developing to keep up. Because if we set a finite goal and once we hit that goal, and we don't keep growing, we're ultimately going to lose that ability to be a powerhouse.

Amato: How do you build that strong team when it's spread out around the world?

Johnson: Boy, Neil, that's a tough one. That's one that we're dealing with right now. If I have a teammate sitting in Europe or if I have a teammate sitting just down the street from me, we're managing that in a unique fashion today and over the last couple of years of being on video and on Zoom. But to me, as I think about that, and I think about the culture and what we have, 70,000 to 80,000 teammates focused on, we're all anchored to our mission.

I think having all of those teammates anchored to our mission – and Nike's mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world, and behind "athlete" there's an asterisk. Then it continues to say if you have a body, you are an athlete. Our mission, how I think building that team, a big piece of that is around inclusion.

We look at that in every athlete. If I think about our products, we have our Next Percent technology that's for world-class marathon runners. Then we have our Fly Use technology, and that's for individuals that just struggle on a day-to-day basis of physically putting on their shoes. We think about that and how we can bring inspiration to each one of those athletes.

From there, I think, you step into something more practical to what you do on a day-to-day basis, and that's setting priorities that everybody can see themselves in. If I got a teammate that I'm working with that's down the street or across the world, everybody is in relentless pursuit against those priorities, and they know what that looks like. They know the impact, they know the outcome that we're looking for.

But I use that term inclusion and I just simply say, for me, it doesn't matter where you're at in the world, the cultural differences, inclusion for me is such a powerful act. As I've come into this role more recently, the inclusion that I've seen with my team is best in class. It's really been inspiring.

Amato: Maybe you're aware that Nike's founder, Phil Knight, also was an accountant. In his autobiography, Shoe Dog, he said he liked to hire accountants. What do you think are the keys for today's accountants to be considered for work at innovative companies such as Nike?

Johnson: Well, I'll say this Neil: I've read a lot of books and I'm going put a shameless plug in. I think Shoe Dog is one of the best books that I've ever read. It's so well-written, and especially if you're here at Nike, you just get such amazing insights into the company, in the culture, in the history. But even if you're not here at Nike, it's a really, really enjoyable book.

As part of this transformation, we have a workstream that is defining the workforce of the future. I'd love to give you a really specific answer on that, Neil, but we're still defining that. But what I will say is, one of the things that I helped lead up with a great group of peers of mine was standing up Nike's finance leadership rotational program. As we looked at that, and that spans all aspects of finance here at Nike, we sat down and we looked at our framework of leadership capabilities here at Nike, and we call it leadership defined.

That leadership defined is categorized into three different buckets. Growing yourself – it's important to invest in yourself so you can show up for your team. That's one bucket. Grow others is another bucket, and then grow the business is the third bucket. What we did is we sat down and we said, as we build out the experience and the learning curriculum for this rotational program, we want to intentionally focus on three different capabilities.

I'll describe what those are. The first one within grow yourself is demonstrating self-awareness. It's important as a leader to be self-aware. That's our first area of focus. Our next area is around developing others. We're intentionally looking at individuals that have the ability not just to invest in themselves, but to grow and develop others as well. Finally, growing the business is around thinking strategically.

We talked about at the summit so many different areas that are going to be automated. But what we'll always need is that critical thinking and that strategic thinking of getting ahead of where we're at and each decision that we make today, the impacts in the short term and the long term, and the various dimensions that come into play when making those decisions.

Amato: You mentioned this aspect of those three points you made. Was it important that grow your self was the first one on the list?

Johnson: It was. We have a tremendous leader as our CEO, John Donahoe. One thing that he has really brought into the organization is the overall well-being, mental, physical. Again, when I first saw that framework, I really challenged, "Why is 'grow yourself' first?" I loved a line that I heard, "You can't fill up somebody else's cup if your cup's empty."

The investment in yourself and making sure that you're showing up the best that you can because your mental and physical well-being and investment in your own career development is being met allows you that strong platform to help others and then help the business. It was a good learning moment for me as I look back at that framework as it was deployed, Neil.

Amato: As a runner, I'm dying to know, have you ever gotten to take at least one lap on that track in the forest at Nike's headquarters?

Johnson: I've actually taken several laps on it. What I would say Neil is not only me, but my family as well. When they built the campus, they built it similar to a college campus, they wanted it to be open and allow people to go around. I was really lucky when I came into the organization, one of the areas that I supported was our innovation team.

I've been able to experience what I would consider the most secret spots of the organization of where we're developing stuff. That track – it's called the Michael Johnson track – it's just so cool and holds such a special place in my heart as I go out there and strap on the footwear that I helped early on bring to fruition, helped eventually bring to market. I don't know, it's something special, and every time I take a lap around that track, I think about the amazing opportunity, as an accountant from northern Minnesota, that I've been blessed to have here at Nike.

Amato: I hope in some future conversation we can explore that track topic more. We got the chance to meet in Nashville, and so I'll ask in closing, what are your key takeaways from being around that group at the Future of Finance Summit?

Johnson: Yeah. Well, I think Neil, it's not just the summit in Nashville. It was everything that was planned leading up to that summit and the connections that were made. The time in Nashville, being in-person with that group, was extremely valuable. The insights that we got from the keynote speakers were so great and ones that I've taken back already and shared many of them. I think being with a group of leaders – it doesn't matter the sector, the industry – when we talk about finance and finance functions of organizations, we're all dealing with very similar things. To be able to connect with those leaders was so valuable, to get those insights. We're each on a different point in the journey.

But I think, Neil, what probably the biggest takeaway for me is that group of leaders in the AICPA, as we looked at what we needed to focus on, it's talent and it's value creation. Those are two passion areas for me. I would say the biggest takeaway for me was not only they have the resources and the network, but also to know that those are the two areas of most importance that we need to focus on. But also that group of leaders that's there, we're the ones that are shaping the future of the industry. That for me is the biggest takeaway and the most powerful aspect of being with that group in Nashville last week. (Editor's note: the interview was recorded on Dec. 17).

Again, that was Nike's Tanner Johnson. Thanks to Tanner for his time and insight.

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Also, the IRS has updated its frequently asked questions or FAQs on two 2021 tax topics. Paul Bonner reports that the IRS has extensively updated the FAQs related to the child tax credit and its advance payments. Another recent FAQ update addresses calculation and reconciliation of the recovery rebate credit for the 2021 tax year.

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For all the articles mentioned, you can learn more by visiting journalofaccountancy.com. We will also link to the articles in the show notes for this episode. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.