It’s already been a game-changing year for Sarah Mensah, who was tapped to lead Nike’s North America business in March.
As she settles into her new role leading Nike’s largest market, the VP and GM — formerly a top NBA exec — talked to FN about tipping points in her career, leadership during a time like no other and her commitment to cultivating a diverse culture at Nike.
“I believe in the power of a diverse and connected team. That has never been more important than it is in today’s reality,” said Mensah, who stepped in following the resignation of Ann Hebert in March. “I’ve learned that my willingness to be vulnerable, present and human with the people that I’m working with is vital to creating that connection. Leaders need to be less archetypal visions of perfection. Instead, we have an opportunity to listen, to clarify and to remove barriers.”
Here, highlights from FN’s conversation with Mensah, part of this month’s Women in Power series.
How are you navigating your new role during a time of change and challenge?
“Having the opportunity to lead this geography is something I don’t take lightly. It is our largest geography — and it’s where it all began for Nike. In North America, we lead and play an instrumental role in creating the future of sport, something we have been committed to since 1972. On a personal level, I’m proud to be the first Black woman to lead our North America business. In my previous role of VP/GM for Nike’s Asia, Pacific & Latin America geography (APLA), I was also the first Black woman to be charged with leading that geography. Professionally and personally, this is a time of exciting transformation for Nike, and I want to both honor where we have been and where we are going.”
What are your guiding leadership principles?
“I’m learning that in today’s dynamic, teams value it more when leaders are real and present — versus trying to show up knowing all the answers. I’ve been doing a lot of listening lately. I’m really committed to staying connected. Each week, I and the other members of our leadership team host informal discussions with 20 to 30 employees (via Zoom for now). There’s no script or formal setup — it’s just to give us the opportunity to get to know each other and learn from each other. It’s been eye-opening, reaffirming and restorative to connect with employees who work all across North America — in offices, stores and distribution centers.”
What has been the biggest challenge for you as you’ve climbed the ranks?
“Over the course of my career, the biggest challenge has been learning to trust myself and believe that my insights, perspective and voice matter. I have spent the bulk of my career, so far, in the NBA and often found myself in rooms where women — and, more importantly, women of color — were not represented. There was no blueprint for how to extend my leadership and use my voice. After coming to Nike and working in the Jordan Brand, I had the opportunity to sit at the table with Michael Jordan himself. I was able to learn and draft off of his example. I understood that all success requires us to stretch and push beyond our comfort zones. The intensity and inspiration of being challenged to achieve something more by the GOAT himself stays with me to this day.”
Was there a particular tipping point you can point to in your career?
“Early on in my career, I tried hard to please and to fit in. I told myself that if I just could behave in the right way, I’d be successful. Despite all my efforts, these attempts didn’t lead to increased success and confidence; in fact, they had just the opposite effect. At one point I was a new mother struggling to balance my career aspirations and caring for a new baby. I recall a time when I was hurriedly leaving work at noon to go nurse my baby. I made the statement, ‘Gotta go to the other job, be right back.’ One of my male colleagues commented, ‘Why don’t you figure out which job is most important and do that one full time?’ At that moment something revolutionary grew inside me. I decided to unabashedly be a mom, as well as unabashedly be an aspiring executive, and most importantly to unapologetically be myself. I told myself if I got fired for those things, it would be a signal that I was in the wrong place. The reality was I found tremendous support within the culture of the NBA, and I ended up working for the Trail Blazers for 19 years, eventually becoming COO and one of the highest-ranking female execs in the NBA. Now I’m passionate about creating an environment — for female employees, and for all employees — where it’s OK to be the person who’s doing things a little differently. I want to empower my teams to align purpose and passion and be fervently, loudly who they are. Leaders need to be flexible, and companies need to meet their employees where they are.”
How are you supporting a diverse group of women at Nike through formal policies and also in more personal ways?
“Diversity, equity and inclusion, including representation of women, is a priority for me. I spend a tremendous amount of time in mentoring and coaching conversations both internally and externally each week. DE&I is also a key focus area for Nike, and there are a number of areas where we’re taking meaningful action to help shape a better future for women. The work to build a more diverse, inclusive team and culture starts with all of us as leaders across our enterprise. I was proud to serve on Nike’s Diversity & Inclusion Acceleration Task Force to catalyze solutions to systemic challenges and champion a strong culture of belonging in our community — one that reflects the diversity of the athletes we honor, the people who love our products and the communities we serve.”
How can the industry help more women succeed and ascend to key roles, especially during a time when so many have been forced to leave the workforce?
“At Nike, we’re focused on breaking barriers that prevent us all from reaching our full potential. Barriers that get in the way of accessing sport — especially for youth who are our future leaders. I truly believe it is important to mentor and coach the next generation of women. It’s important for them to know that they belong in the board room and in the locker room. That they should never be afraid to use their voice and speak up.”
What is the one habit from the pre-pandemic world that you will never return to?
“I admit to being passionate about my work, and that can mean long hours. Pre-pandemic, I would spend lengthy days in my office neglecting my own self-care, although my environment at Nike was completely designed to encourage me to work out. I will not go back to this pattern. I now take time every day to walk, meditate or work out using our Nike apps … and to do a lot of this with my family. I’m a better, more balanced leader of teams because of it. This has now become a daily habit and a commitment to myself.”