“Flexibility and humility are the secrets to good leadership”

Inspiring people


Xavi Escales just released his first book, Las Personas Primero [People First]. He's passionate about sports and eager, enthusiastic people. He's been with Asics since 2006. He began as a sales manager and has now been the popular athletic company's country manager for Spain and Portugal for the past three years.

The story of Asics in Spain is the story of how a principled team of people made a company soar. Xavi is a staunch defender of a business management model that strikes the right balance between challenging and looking out for a company's people.


Before you joined Asics, the company ranked 18th among athletic brands in Spain. Now it's number three. How does one achieve that?

It's been a joint effort. Everyone might see me as the visible face of that success, but it really has been a team victory. And, success aside, what matters most is everything that lies ahead. At Asics, we're always moving towards a new goal. We're always thinking of the coming year.

Your business philosophy is based on the concept of putting people first, summed up by your increasingly popular and shared motto #AlwaysPeopleFirst... How would you define this concept?

It's been a learning experience. Eleven years ago, I thought it all depended on me; that I was the one who could grow the company and that if I was a focused and demanding leader, we'd achieve our goals. I gradually came to realize that a company’s people are the ones who achieve things. In the end, you can't visit all of your clients, answer all phone calls, check every single invoice...

You have to ask yourself what happens when you're not around. How is your team working? How involved are they? Are they really willing to go that extra mile? This trend or strategy that we call #AlwaysPeopleFirst focuses on the people. They are the ones who make things happen. They are the ones who steer you towards success.

When did you start using the AlwaysPeopleFirst motto? Do you remember the first time it popped into your head?

The values espoused by Mr. Onitsuka, Asics's founder, are very much in line with this. In fact, Asics is an acronym that stands for Anima Sana In Corpore Sano. This means we're very aware of the company's values, and what we did at Asics Iberia represents our interpretation of those values. We're especially focused on the people who work with us. After World War II, Mr. Onitsuka wanted the Japanese people to realize the value of sacrifice and effort through sport and to feel better emotionally and physically.

We wanted to treat our employees very well so that they could communicate these values to our customers. We began to place people at the center of our strategy and invest in our employees. We installed a gym, hired a trainer, a physiotherapist... Later on we brought in life coaches to help employees work through personal and professional issues.

What steps are needed to apply this philosophy?

I think being a good person with values is what matters most. If an organization's leader sees his or her team as a means to an end, it will be impossible to apply this philosophy. If an organization's leader has values, and believes and practices them, then people will follow him or her.

Do you think this can be applied to any kind of company?

Yes, as long as the company is willing to make the effort. It's much easier for someone in charge of a company to yell at people and end a discussion. Being an empathetic listener and understanding the personal and professional issues of the people who work with you, that's complicated.

What is the secret of leadership?

Flexibility and humility. Flexibility, because our world is in constant flux. What we studied in university—20 years ago, in my case—rarely applies these days. You're in a constant process of renewal. I also believe you have to be very humble. We're reaching an age where experience gives us an advantage, and sometimes we forget that young people have a lot to contribute. They're faster in a lot of areas, they're more knowledgeable about new technology, which means they'll know if you're up to speed or not. This balance between humility and a constant desire to learn and grow are absolutely essential.

Let's talk about failure a little bit. How do you approach it? What is the quickest way to pick yourself up again?

What matters most is accepting it as quickly as possible, acknowledging that you were wrong, evaluating the damage and, most importantly, learning from your mistakes.

Do you think that emotions and incentives are enough to lead a team?

Yes and no. You can lead a team with emotions and incentives, but if you want to achieve better results than the competition, you need to connect with your team on a deeper level. Increasingly, people aren't just working for an incentive or purpose. What they want is to feel like they're a part of what they're doing. And that's something they feel on the inside.

How do you connect with your employees on a deeper level?

The #AlwaysPeopleFirst model is built on three separate pillars:

The first has to do with physical activity. Results have shown that physical activity makes people feel better, more resilient, and improves their ability to handle stress. The second pillar relates to emotional wellbeing. Through life coaching or yoga classes, Asics provides its people with the opportunity to disconnect and feel better on a personal level. Finally, the third pillar focuses on diet and nutrition. We recommend that employees drink at least one and a half liters of water per day. It has been scientifically proven that drinking this amount of water increases your cognitive performance.

What do you value most in an employee? And in a team?

In an employee, their values and whether they're a good person. If this isn't the case, it is very difficult to establish trust. Obviously, I appreciate a responsible and hard worker, someone who's eager and enthusiastic, who enjoys their work and does it with passion. What I value in a team is that people put the success of their colleagues before their own.

What is most challenging about your life?

In my personal life, it's balancing my frenetic schedule and the pace of my work life with my home life. When people ask me about the key to my success, I always say that on a professional level, it was surrounding myself with a great team, and on a personal level, having met my wife.

What would you say to someone who thinks that looking out for a team's diet, physical fitness and mental wellbeing is trivial?

I would tell them that they have a problem they're not aware of yet, and that their competition is probably taking advantage of it. When employees at other companies talk to our team members and realize that they could manage their personal and professional lives better by working at a place that makes this easier for them, those companies will struggle to hold on to that talent.

In a professional environment where retaining talent is increasingly difficult, what is the key to keeping employees committed and on board?

When someone says employees, I see people. At Asics, we have an Open Space with free seating so people can choose where to sit and who to engage with. Every day is different for them. The environment is key. It is also important to set regular challenges for your team. The new generations need daily incentives. You have to generate this drive in every team to constantly do better.

What came first at Asics: the results or employee wellbeing?

The results definitely came a little later. Someone once told me that all good things in life need time. You need four years to graduate from university; you need at least a couple of years to build a home; you need 9 months to have a baby...

It is important to understand that really connecting with someone takes time. You need to prove to people that they truly matter to you. So if someone is seeking short-term results, #AlwaysPeopleFirst isn't the best model.

Are high demands and caring for your employees compatible?

Of course. No employee wants to see mediocre results. We all like to meet difficult challenges, because the satisfaction of achieving something very difficult is far greater than the satisfaction of achieving something that you know anyone else could do.

Can you name three characteristics that team managers should have?

The first, definitely, is values. The team can tell if the team leader isn't a good person, and then they won't commit to his or her project.

The second is to be focused. We live in a time of constant flux, and it is hard to stay on track, so it's important to have a leader who sets the pace.

The third, interpersonal skills. Teams are increasingly made up of people from different generations and backgrounds. It is very important that an organization's leaders can relate to very different kinds of people.

In the book, you use a metaphor about sunny and rainy days. How do you apply this philosophy in the company? (resumiría resposta)

It all began on a trip we took to Croatia where we received an award for best subsidiary in the entire EMEA (Europe Middle East and Africa). The team came back super motivated. We had received the greatest acknowledgement we could've asked for. When everything is going great, the only thing that can happen is things getting a little worse. And after going a little worse, they get a whole lot worse. So I told my team: “It's a really sunny day today, but it's important to wear sunglasses, because sometime when you stare at the sun too long, you can burn your eyes.”

I remember that when we got back to Spain, we began the selling season, and it was a particularly tough one. We were caught in a storm at the time, but that was no cause for despair. We simply had to open our umbrella and remember that the sun would come out again tomorrow.


A Brief Taste

Do you like wine?


What is the best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?

For me, it's not about the best moment, but the best company, and that's undoubtedly my wife.

A song to accompany a glass of wine.

The Time That Never Was by Bruce Springsteen.

A corner to get lost in?

The Penedès.

If you could be reincarnated, who or what would you be?

As myself with the experience I have now.

What do you do in your free time?


A flaw and a virtue.

Impatience and a desire to learn.

What did you want to be as a kid?

An athlete.

What do you want to be when you're older?

An athlete.



Categorías: Inspiring people