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May 12, 2008 10:26 am

John Hoke: Stanford helped to make Converse star

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When John Hoke was a young boy growing up in Philadelphia, he suffered from dyslexia but found an outlet for his creative energies in drawing and sketching.

A keen athlete, he enjoyed drawing sports shoes and one day, at the age of 12, he came up with a design for a training shoe with, in its sole, an air capsule that would give the wearer more cushioning and support.

The athletes he liked to watch wore Nike shoes and he wore them himself when he ran, so he sent his design to Phil Knight, the company’s founder. Nike was already working on an air sole that would eventually revolutionise its business but Mr Knight sent a reply, along with a free pair of shoes, telling the young designer to come and work for the company when he was old enough.

Years later, Mr Hoke began working for Nike at its corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

He kept the letter, which hangs proudly in his office. Mr Hoke is now vice-president, global footwear, for Converse, a Nike-owned sports brand, where he is responsible for every aspect of the division, including design, sales, and product marketing. It is a multi-faceted role that requires more analytical business thinking than his previous job at Nike, where he was vice-president of global footwear design. He credits the Stanford Executive Programme with preparing him for the demands and challenges of the new role.

The programme, established in 1952, is the key executive training course offered by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Attracting senior executives from a range of industries, the course strives to take a global approach to business and at least 60 per cent of participants come from outside the US. Participants, intended to be executives with at least 12 years of management experience, tend to be looking to acquire new skills or position themselves for new roles. Attendees learn new strategic leadership skills, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

The programme is selective, with only 144 people admitted every year. Mr Hoke attended the seven-week course in the summer of 2006 and went to Stanford with some very specific aims. As a designer and architect, he had specialised in ideas, such as using recyclable materials to create a training shoe. He was also a strong believer in what he calls the “power of simplicity” and when he was appointed head of footwear at Nike he says he wanted to create shoes that utilised technology yet were not ugly. “My objective was to teach a design ethos around complex simplicity,” he says. “You wear the shoes, the shoes don’t wear you.”

But his talents lay in design and creativity, rather than in more traditional business skills. After being promoted to the Nike footwear job, he says, “I found myself at the grown-up table, with the board of directors. I had also just been asked to join the board of another company. At the same time, I didn’t fully have the command and mastery of the language of business.”

He hoped the Stanford Executive Programme would change that and help him learn the business skills he needed. After beginning the course and studying alongside executives from a range of other industries, he soon found it to be a perfect fit.

“What I loved about it was world-class leaders from all over the planet are brought together. Some of us hadn’t been in a classroom in decades ... all the angst and excitement comes back to you.”

Each day of the course begins with rigorous exercise, the thinking being that students respond better if they are physically refreshed and fit. “We would get up at 6am and begin with a calisthenics programme to get the blood flowing … for some of the folks on the course this would be the first time they had done exercise in a long while.”

By 8am students would be sitting at their desks. Intensive classes would then be held on a range of macro and micro economic issues, such as globalisation or business ethics. “The course challenges your conventions,” says Mr Hoke. “You have obviously done a lot in your life or you wouldn’t be there. But [the course] probes and it challenges your thinking.”

The executives would work throughout the day, take a break for a dinner and then resume for an evening study group before going to sleep. Mr Hoke studied alongside executives from Australia, Thailand and Poland who came from a range of industries. One of his favourite courses was on globalisation, taught by George Parker. “He was one of the elder statesmen of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and he taught us about globalisation through a macro-economic lens. He laid it all out like a maestro ... it’s so complex but he broke it down into simple pieces.”

Executives often see a profound change in their career path after their course, and his own career was no different. “One of the statistics they talk about is that 60 per cent of the class will have a significant life change within 12 months. Mine happened 18 months after I finished, when I was made head of product at Converse.”

He has kept in touch with classmates. “Some have moved to more challenging positions, or they have left and started their own companies, or they have changed industries.”

His own move would not have happened if he had not attended Stanford, he says. “There was a material change in the way I approach things. That was recognised at Nike and activated in a new role.” The course, he says, “helped me use the business language and understand it … when I started the course I was hoping to find answers. But I left asking better questions. That’s the main thing I have taken out of the programme.”

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