During his closing keynote at the Winning Is Everything conference Friday in Las Vegas, TaylorMade-adidas Golf CEO Mark King told a story from 18 months ago to illustrate the corporate philosophy that transformed the golf equipment manufacturer from a “not really good company” into the industry leader in the span of a decade.

Someone at the company suggested TaylorMade offer its traditionally black-colored drivers in white.

“To which I said, ‘That’s the dumbest idea in the world,’” King recounted. “I said, ‘You should be embarrassed and ashamed. We don’t do that stuff around here.’”

When that employee took initiative, painting a driver white and introducing it to some professional golfers, who gave it an enthusiastic response, King changed his tune.

“I thought it was the worst idea in the world,” King recalled. “That story captures how we run our company, with the courage to say: why don’t we do something radical and take a chance? Within month, it was the craze of the industry.”

Not only that, but the company’s market share went from 35 to 48 percent.

According to King, TaylorMade had the environment in place to foster this innovation. When he became CEO in 1999, he was tasked with drawing up a three-year strategic business plan. With the help of his team, King quickly eschewed a more conservative goal of raising sales 5 percent every year. Instead he pursued a dream of becoming the best performance golf brand in the world.

This vision sprouted from King’s “number one job” as a leader.

“The leader has to inspire the people of the company,” he said. “It’s about creating an inspired work environment, where you believe that extraordinary things can happen. When you change the conversation, you change the results.”

All employees should be involved in that conversation, he advised.

King transformed the company culture when he shifted from a traditional command-and-control leadership style to distributed leadership.

Under this model, King “enlists people to think more.” That way, he said, employees feel respected and appreciated, and believe they have a stake in company decisions.

That “created a culture of innovation for us,” he said. “Almost every major initiative we implement at our company comes from the people.”

King admitted that not everyone embraces this model, including company leaders.

“There’s a struggle in the organization, and that struggle produces results,” he explained. “The traditional hierarchy in American business is about organizing control. When you organize something to run smoothly, you have no chaos and you limit innovation.”

One way King advanced TaylorMade, leading it to surpass its main competitor—three times bigger back when he took the reins—was familiar to the accounting audience.

King decided the company had to specialize and be number one in something. For TaylorMade, that was metal woods. From there, the company moved on to other product categories, and the company is now the leader in almost all of them. Among the company’s rivals are Callaway, Fortune Brands and Nike.

“The only way you can take over a leadership position, is you have to create a new model,” King said. “You can’t play the game the way it’s currently being played and think you can out-execute the [previous] leader.”

Or, as King’s “business coach” mother put it to him: “My bat, my ball, my rules.”

Under King’s management style, he would play with a full field.
“There’s an opportunity for sustainable growth in the environment you create for your people,” he said.

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