The term innovative has most recently been reserved for the latest crop of disruptive startups to enter a given industry. When it comes to careers, we think of the founder who has set their sights on the next frontier in technology. And, unfortunately, that archetype is often male and non-minority. But all innovation doesn’t have to be market-shifting, VC-funded or even under the lens of entrepreneurship. To innovate is to simply make changes to the status quo or the defined path. When we narrow our focus on innovation, we miss the people doing the incremental but substantial work in the day-to-day to push themselves, their industries, their communities and — dare we say it — their corporate employers forward.
We shouldn’t miss people like Ilana Finley, who has carved out her own innovative path over her 18-year career at Nike Inc. Starting out as an intern, her rise to Senior Director of North America Media Relations within the Nike brand was gradual but expansive and it’s been anything but typical. She has worked across 8 different communication and PR roles in her tenure, taking her from Oregon to NYC to Amsterdam and from consumer to corporate to philanthropic functions. As she prepares for her next role, as a Global VP for Converse (still within Nike Inc), we talked about what it means to be a career innovator and how the people you meet and the decision you make along the way can propel you forward.
Shani Syphrett: How did you get introduced to communications?
Ilana Finley: I got introduced through a series of internships. I did a magnet program in high school and was introduced to the field in a general way. We were able to choose from classes that allowed us to explore various facets of journalism, from radio journalism to broadcast journalism to writing. I really enjoyed my time there and that prompted me to explore journalism as a major in college. But once I got to college, I tried out broadcast journalism and realized that I wanted to be behind the camera and not in front of it. I eventually found my way to communications and PR. The PR track at the University of North Carolina was based out of the journalism school, which I’m incredibly happy with because the foundation in writing has served me quite well.
Syphrett: Communications is such a broad and versatile field. How did you hone in on your specialty?
Finley: I started off doing an internship at the White House the summer after my freshman year for the Clinton administration. I wanted to explore the world of government and public affairs. While those roles play an incredibly important role in running our country, it wasn’t where my passion or skill set was suited. I eventually got connected to an internship at Nike through a classmate on my track and field team, for which I ran all four years of college. I applied and was accepted for the summer after college graduation. So I packed up my mother’s car and we drove across the country to Oregon so I could participate in the internship program.
Syphrett: What was your first role at Nike and did you feel like you were prepared at the time?
Finley: In the beginning, I was lucky enough to work within a small team for a cult classic Nike brand. And since the team was small, my internship manager put me to work! It was a lot to handle but really to my benefit. She definitely made me earn my place in that internship program. I did press kits, I worked with media, I wrote press materials and did messaging. She accelerated my learning in a real-world context of what a communications professional does for a major company like Nike. That did prepare me, even if I wasn’t fully prepared coming in. She gave me the insight and helped me gain the experience over those next few months that actually set me up to secure a full-time position with the company at the end of the summer.
Syphrett: It sounds like your internship manager played a major role at the beginning of your career. Were there other direct managers or mentors at Nike who helped accelerate your path?
Finley: Yes, three come to mind. I can honestly say, while I put in the work to get here, I’m not sure I could have done it without them. First, I had two direct managers that were really integral to helping drive my career path. One was a woman named Helen Leonard who helped me to understand navigating the corporate environment as a woman and gave me sound advice and guidance on how to avoid some of the pitfalls. The other was the head of our function, Nigel Powell. He provided access and has been a staunch supporter. He is always making sure that there are opportunities, opening doors, and creating space for me to walk through. He put me in the position to have roles that were really critical to my development and climbing up the ladder — whether it was working in our corporate foundation, working in our European headquarters just outside of Amsterdam, or working in markets that I wouldn’t necessarily have experience in as an American.
The third person was actually outside of my function — Gina Warren. I used to call her my “chicken soup for the soul.” I think it’s critical to have someone you can go to for anything, whether it’s just to talk during a bad day or gut-check decisions that you are thinking of. It especially helps when it’s someone who has no direct connection with your specific role or your managers and can provide that objective opinion. She was that person for me. So both inside and outside of my function, those mentors were critical to my career.
Syphrett: Would you say there were any people on the peer level that helped you along the way?
Finley: Absolutely. I’m thinking again of people outside the communications function. I’m reminded of a brand colleague that I worked with when I was with the Nike Corporate Foundation who helped me understand how to operate in a different market. That particular role was quite a shift in the day-to-day responsibilities for me. I went from supporting our category communications — like running and basketball and sportswear — to focusing on the work in the corporate foundation, which was more about finding opportunities to support girls in developing countries as economic agents of change.
Those peers helped me navigate through the development space and understand how people in that world thought. There were also peers from my time in Europe who helped me navigate working with people from different countries and understand cultural sensitivities and biases. They helped ensure sure that I didn’t fall victim to things that an American coming into a European context might not be aware of.
Syphrett: Throughout your 18 years at Nike you’ve held various positions, you’ve lived abroad and now you’re going into a different part of the Nike ecosystem as part on the Converse team. Do you think staying in one place helped or hindered the process of climbing the corporate ladder?
Finley: In my case, I believe it’s been a huge benefit. It has allowed me to develop an institutional knowledge of our company that you don’t find when you move from place to place. I have been able to build upon each experience as I’ve gone into new roles and opportunities. I feel like I’ve been on a two-year rotation throughout my time here. In the 18 years I’ve been at Nike, I’ve had about eight different roles so I’ve never felt stagnant. I think that’s why I’ve remained at the company for so long. I always felt like I had new, really powerful opportunities and new challenges.
Syphrett: Was the two-year rotation something self-initiated or is that a program within the company?
Finley: It wasn’t anything that was formalized. I just raised my hand and expressed that I wanted to try new things and that’s just how it ended up happening. Nike leans toward providing employees with new and different opportunities, so it’s relatively normal for employees within the company to move around to different areas of the business. But I was very clear with my managers that I wanted an experience abroad. So I was able to take advantage of that opportunity when it came up. In other cases, it’s been about saying yes and being willing to try something new. When the role within our corporate foundation surfaced, it wasn’t necessarily something I sought out, but my leadership team felt it was a good opportunity for me and I was willing to try it out.
I had the willingness to say yes, try different things, and trust those around me who I considered advisers. That has allowed me to go after experiences that may seem untraditional for someone of my background — to work in a corporate environment and attend conferences like the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Initiative, to live in Europe for two years, to work with markets like Asia. Even if roles or job opportunities don’t always seem like a traditional fit, it’s often those jobs that can teach you the most and make the biggest impact on your career. It’s those jobs that show that you have the ability to operate in many different environments and succeed.
Syphrett: There was a point in time when you went from being someone who did the work to someone who managed and led a team. What would you say is your philosophy on leadership?
Finley: My philosophy, from a leadership perspective, is to build a really incredible team and then get out of the way and let them do what they do best. I see my role often being more about protecting the team so that they have the resources and the space to do their job to the best of their ability. I am more of an enabler of really great people than anything else. In that process, my job is to guide, direct and make sure that my team is successful. If that happens and I have helped them do that, then I too have succeeded.
Syphrett: How can employees be innovative and entrepreneurial in big organizations?
Any job is as big or as small as you make it. The title and the roles and responsibilities that are given to you are the formalities. It is really up to you to create the vision for the role that you want or can see in your future. That vision can be incredibly big regardless of what level you’re working in. If you have supportive leaders who see that you have the ability to bring new ideas to the table and are there to support those ideas, that’s really when a role can be anything that you make it.
I absolutely believe that Nike has always supported an entrepreneurial spirit. I try to support an entrepreneurial spirit on my own team by encouraging them to bring new, crazy, big ideas to the table — the crazier, the bigger, the better. If those ideas fit within the broader objectives, then we absolutely can and should support that. It’s often thinking in new and different ways that move the needle and teams forward.
Shani Syphrett is a marketer and business strategist helping to build the next generation of innovative brands. Follow her @ShaniSyphrett for updates.