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How Collaboration and Creativity Is Nurtured Cross-Functionally at On

BoF sits down with three employees from the sportswear company — the chief marketing officer, global head of design and accessories team lead — to learn how On fosters creative talent across its business, boosted by cross-team collaboration and mentorship.
On employees at the company's Swiss headquarters The Lab.
On employees at the company's Swiss headquarters "On Labs". (On )
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The first iteration of global sportswear brand On began when former triathlete, Olivier Bernhard, strapped a garden hose to the bottom of his shoes.

Bernhard was experimenting with various household items to find a sole that would offer better support when running. That experiment formed the basis of On’s trademarked Cloudtec technology that features in every pair of On sneakers — and led to the growth of a business valued at $7 billion when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in 2021. On has sold more than 17 million products globally by its 2021 valuation. The company has more than 2,000 employees with 26 retail stores and offices in 8 countries.

Since Olivier Bernhard, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti founded On in 2010, a creative and innovative spirit has remained core to the business, enabling the sneaker brand to branch into different verticals — including trail and road running, hiking and tennis — and extend into new categories, with a growing focus on apparel. Last year, On hired Belgian designer Tim Coppens to lead the apparel category.

To learn how On fosters creative talent across its business, boosted by cross-team collaboration and mentorship, BoF sits down with three of its employees: chief marketing officer, Alex Griffin; global head of design, Thilo Brunner; and accessories creation lead, Lexi Beeken.

Alex Griffin, chief marketing officer at On, stands in an office room.

Alex Griffin, Chief Marketing Officer

How would you describe the culture at On?

Team spirit is a key part of how we work. It’s all about coming together to sit down and solve problems creatively. We search for a unified opinion. It’s an important aspect of our culture — having enough different opinions and asking the right questions to get to that right answer. That’s the secret.

There is a certain restlessness at On — the ambition level is high and we find that’s something we look to cultivate in the team. We challenge ourselves in thinking about how we can find a different path to our competitors. You have to find a different way of doing things and that unique approach often cultivates creative and original ideas.

How does On foster employees’ career and creative development?

It’s all about innovation. Every 12 to 14 months, On becomes a different company. The landscape of what you do and how your team operates evolves with the decisions that we make as a collective. The scope of the playing field that you are in exponentially changes within a high-growth company. You have to accept that whatever your answer is right now, it might not be the right answer in 12 months’ time.

It’s all about innovation. Every 12 to 14 months, On becomes a different company.

We innovate at such a fast rate because we are trying things that haven’t been done before and giving those missions to people which take them out of their comfort zone. There’s an element of surprise and the unknown, so we can do something different.

We have named On’s headquarters in Zurich “On Labs” because we encourage innovation to happen everywhere, in all parts of the business. Just walking across different floors, you see all sorts of different types of creativity.

How does the company aim to evolve?

We have a team that is tasked with taking a brand which is well-known within the running space and expanding that into new sports. So, as we start to venture into more communities, we can seek to define those communities and understand the nuance and differences between them.

Hiring people from outside those respective sports worlds gives a different view, so we try to combine together people that are ingrained in those communities with people that are asking the questions that wouldn’t normally be asked. We are one holistic brand so we don’t have entire subdivisions per sport — it’s instead about creating a sharing culture. We share learnings and this transcends across these different groups.

Thilo Brunner, global head of design at On.

Thilo Brunner, Global Head of Design

How would you describe the culture at On?

Since I started at On, it has felt collaborative — this idea of being creative, rational and functional about product design. It was never about decoration or finding an aesthetic for the sake of an aesthetic, but building upon materials and functionality to reach that bigger goal.

It’s very much a “can-do” environment with an entrepreneurial spirit — the thinking is agile and independent. Even after a decade or longer at On, “exploration” is a key word that comes to mind about the working environment.

How does On foster employees’ career and creative development?

We want to build independent, agile teams, which are small but powerful — and they all spend a lot of time together. But we also want individuals to have a certain independence. We do a lot to ensure we don’t represent a fully hierarchical, classic company.

The pandemic was a good test for this approach because we had to find new ways to collaborate and to improve our teamwork, which is extremely important here. The attitude of never feeling like you have to put yourself out there on your own was enhanced by the pandemic, because people needed to communicate even more and we were able to synchronise all our efforts.

What role does mentorship play at On?

Mentorship goes hand-in-hand with the importance of the culture we want to create here. Culture needs to be invested in, which requires time and energy. Sometimes it’s also about giving people confidence. It might be about boosting the abilities and confidence of your co-workers, particularly for younger employees.

Mentorship goes hand-in-hand with the importance of the culture we want to create here.

There is also the element of fostering personal growth, which can look different for each personality. Some people work together this way, other people work better that way and this can only be discovered and fostered by the more senior, more experienced people investing time and spending time with the junior employees. We need to respond to their needs, talents and qualities.

What excites you about the future at On?

The opportunities. In the very beginning, when you are a small company, you don’t always have access to the best suppliers. Now, 13 years since the company began, people want to work with us because they know that we are a contemporary, fast and forward-moving company. They ask us, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you try this material?” It’s an exciting place to be.

Lexi Beeken, accessories creation lead at On.

Lexi Beeken, Accessories Creation Lead

How would you describe the culture at On?

There are five spirits (positive, athlete, team, survivor and explorer) – these are the qualities which shape us as a company and define our working culture. The explorer spirit really resonates with me, since it is all about making mistakes, learning and being curious.

We are given the space to take initiative, to take calculated risks and think outside the box, while being open to the fact that some ideas might not work. We are encouraged to try new things, without fear of failure and without shying away from the learnings that come from these mistakes.

We also have a feedback culture at On, which encourages personal growth, better collaboration and creates a sense of trust and respect.

How does On foster employees’ career and creative development?

I joined almost three years ago as a freelance product developer and materials specialist. I was given the freedom and trust to establish and grow what became the accessories creation team. I was given the opportunity to take all of my past learnings and experiences to lead this department.

At On, you can specialise in what you are passionate about. So you can say, “my aspiration is this and I want to shift my focus here.” You can build upon what you are passionate about and focus on the areas where you want to grow and put your energy. You have the opportunity to have a seat at the table, bring your ideas and be a part of that decision or brainstorming towards the direction we want to take.

How do you collaborate with other departments?

Our season often starts with a collaborative workshop with the design and strategy teams. This is an opportunity for the team to exchange ideas, share new potential directions, cool product constructions, inspiration that they have collected from fairs or suppliers and to highlight sustainability opportunities.

You can build upon what you are passionate about and focus on the areas where you want to grow and put your energy.

Once the collection briefs are defined, then our product creation process begins and that’s when we work closely with our global partners. We relay that design vision and begin making physical prototypes. Our materials specialist works closely with our external mills, the sustainability team and our design team to develop materials for the season and once we have iterated rounds of development, the products are passed onto the field testing team. For performance items, we also partner with the sports science team who create simulations in our onsite lab.

What role does mentorship play at On?

We have a lot of internal initiatives which are organised by the learning and development team, including workshops, external speakers focusing on important topics such as female empowerment in the workplace, leadership skills and the importance of teamwork and there is a mentor programme as a part of that.

For the mentorship programme last year, you just had to apply, stating whether you wanted to be a mentor or a mentee and then we were paired up. This year, they have evolved the process so that you are paired with someone who can help and guide you in a specific area you want to focus and work on. It’s a great way to get individuals in touch with different areas of the business and different ways of thinking.

What excites you about the future at On?

On a brand level, I am excited about the newly appointed head of ESG (environmental, social and governance), the structure and initiatives she and the team are beginning to put in place — it will enable us to learn, track, analyse and source even more sustainable and better choices for our customers.

On a team level, I am excited about the new product launches we are working on for 2025 and beyond. Our Ultra Trail Vest launched last month and this was a huge moment for us, it really begins to lay the foundations for a space accessories will grow into.

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