Entrepreneurship at all levels: How Decathlon innovates for the future

Decathlon is one of the world’s largest sporting goods retailers, with more than 108,000 employees in more than 70 countries. Every one of those employees, known as teammates, is encouraged to speak up, innovate, and bring their ideas to the table—all in service of the company’s mission to democratize sport and have a positive effect on people and the planet.

We spoke with Barbara Martin Coppola, CEO of Decathlon, about how the company embraces inclusive leadership and bottom-up innovation to keep up with a changing world.

What is the secret of Decathlon’s success?

Barbara Martin Coppola: The key to Decathlon’s success has been, and always will be, our passionate commitment to our teammates and our customers. We believe that every person adds value.

We have a strong purpose and values-based culture. Our mission is to democratize sport so everyone can experience its wonders on their own terms. This attracts employees who are passionate about sport and who want to make a difference. Once they join, Decathlon offers a culture of empowerment and entrepreneurship, so people learn by doing and are entrusted with large jobs that drive change from day one. This creates a magical combination of people centricity, a purpose larger than oneself, and a culture of energy and positivity. The thing I’m most proud of is our collective effort to always innovate and be better for people, societies, and the planet. We have a clear vision and mission for the future of the business, and I know we are going to achieve amazing things as a team.


State of Organizations: Lessons from leaders

How has Decathlon built leadership capabilities and mindsets at all levels, not just in the C-suite?

Barbara Martin Coppola: We lead with purpose—a North Star we built together, as one team, to move people through the wonders of sport. A North Star that makes us wake up every day with strong commitment, determination, and passion, no matter our level within the company.

At Decathlon, we minimize hierarchical structures to enable entrepreneurship at all levels. We’re one team of passionate people striving for a shared ambition: to have a positive impact on the global population and on the planet.

We want people at every stage of the customer journey to constantly look for better ways of doing things. If someone notices an area that could be improved or innovated upon, they will receive the necessary backing and support to make it happen. This is true for all employees and certainly is not reserved for the C-suite. It is the teammates who deal with our customers on a daily basis who have the most direct access to our consumers, so it is vital that we listen to them no matter their level. We foster leadership qualities in all of our teammates, which is also why we place such an emphasis on hiring people who share our values.

We want people at every stage of the customer journey to constantly look for better ways of doing things.

How have you been able to effectively respond to the significant disruptions in the business environment over the past few years, and what will you do differently going forward?

Barbara Martin Coppola: We’ve been able to thrive in recent years because of our ability to adapt to local markets. Every country operates as a separate entity but with shared ethos and values. This means that as a global business, we are very agile. We move forward together with a common global vision while adjusting to local demands in real time. The pandemic was a particularly challenging time, but we were able to adapt our business model in each country to continue doing business in a way that best suited our local teammates and customers.

Looking ahead to the future, we’re constantly seeking ways to innovate. We’re investing heavily in our digital and data transformations to create a deeply personalized experience for our users. We’re in the process of reimagining the ways our customers interact with our brand, looking beyond the traditional in-store experience and exploring ways of harnessing digital innovations, such as virtual reality.

The State of Organizations 2023

Can you share more about Decathlon’s commitment to environmental and social responsibility?

Barbara Martin Coppola: As someone who has lived in nine countries on three different continents, I am particularly proud to see how Decathlon makes sport accessible to millions of people around the world and improves health and human connection. I love seeing the great array of possibilities that arise when you have cooperation among teammates from 100 nationalities, with different cultural backgrounds and languages. Each of our teammates is unique and brings their own personal experiences and passions to their role, but globally there is a shared language and set of values that ties us together as we strive for common goals.

Alongside this, operating in a socially responsible manner runs through our very core. We believe our mission is not only creating value for shareholders but also creating value for society and the planet. Therefore, we have set goals on planet, finance, and people at the same level and importance, even at the bonus level. We have global targets for the reduction of our CO2 emissions, and every single country is fervently committed to this. We take pride in our Ecodesign innovations, and we’re building a truly circular economy with our Second Life programs, trade-in schemes, and rental services. We are here to serve a greater good than ourselves, and we can see that in the unwavering commitment to make sport accessible to more people through 47 years. Thanks to Decathlon, some people could discover sport and afford to be healthy and active.

It’s not just in our recruitment processes that we strive for diversity and inclusion—it’s also in our product research, design, and manufacturing teams. We’re constantly looking for ways to make our products more accessible to all. For example, we’ve recently launched a set of adaptive products for wheelchair basketball and road racing, and we regularly create products designed for sportspeople with different body types, like our post-mastectomy sports bras or maternity wear.

We’re constantly looking for ways to make our products more accessible to all.

What will be the key to Decathlon’s continued success in the future?

Barbara Martin Coppola: During these turbulent times, we’re reemphasizing the importance of remaining deeply focused on the people at the center of our organization. We need to make every teammate feel valued and heard, ensure that the customer is at the center of every decision we make, and always keep an open mind to new ideas and different perspectives, especially if they challenge the “old” way of doing things. This requires a culture of safety that allows people to say what they really think. It’s easy to become too comfortable in a certain routine, methodology, or structure—but the world is changing rapidly around us. We have to stay agile to keep up.

For Decathlon, the future is bright as we embark on a brave new journey. As we fine-tune our focus and step up our efforts in areas like our value chain, customer experience, and sustainability, one thing will remain at the heart of who we are: our people. We thrive off the talented individuals around us and we will always use the entrepreneurial excellence of our teammates to succeed and move people through the wonders of sport.

This interview is part of the Lessons from leaders collection within The State of Organizations 2023 report. These conversations were conducted by members of McKinsey’s People & Organizational Performance Practice with leaders of organizations that exemplify best practices relating to the ten most significant shifts facing organizations today.

Barbara Martin Coppola is the CEO of Decathlon.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.