Team Captain to Chief Executive: How Sports Help Propel Women to Success


Why do you think there’s such a high correlation between team sports and high-profile businesswomen? If the recent Forbes article “The Secret to Being a Power Woman: Play Team Jenna Goudreau is any indication, playing sports in school not only helps women succeed in business, it sends them straight to the top. Score!

According to Goudreau, a sports background instills valuable lessons for the boardroom, a mental and emotional toughness and the ability to speak a key business language obscured to those who don’t “get” sports."

Some examples of women who have leveraged their sports experience include:

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi [and BlogHer 11 Keynote Speaker] played cricket in her native India;  SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro played lacrosse and field hockey at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania; Sue Wellington, who recently took a sabbatical as president of the Gatorade division of Quaker Oats, was captain of the Yale swim team; Melissa Payner, CEO of Spiegel Catalog, was a gymnast at Ohio State and Arizona State and  Sarah Robb O'Hagan, president of Chicago-based Gatorade North America who grew up in New Zealand playing team sports such as field hockey and netball.

It's no surprise that Title IX helped tip the scales for women. In the Forbes article, Goudreau interviewed founder of the professional networking group Women in Sports and Events (WISE) Sue Rodin who says "We’re now seeing the results and benefits of Title IX.” The 1972 U.S. education amendment allowed girls the right to equal participation in all school activities, including sports programs. One of its early beneficiaries, Lynn Laverty Elsenhans played on Rice University’s first women’s intercollegiate basketball team in the mid ‘70’s. She later became the first woman to run a major oil company and now serves as CEO of $40 billion-in-sales Sunoco.

Goudreau references a 2002 study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer which revealed that a shocking 82% of women in executive-level jobs had played organized sports in middle, high or post-secondary school. Oppenheimer also found that one in six adult women identify themselves as athletic, but that jumps to nearly half among women who make more than $75,000 a year.

The drive to win is arguably the most important predictor of business success. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who earned the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” on her high school basketball court, and newest HP CEO Meg Whitman, a Princeton squash and lacrosse player, likely leveraged their competitive sports backgrounds on the campaign trail—where there is no gray area between victory and defeat

Whether or not a girl grows up to be a CEO or high level political candidate, there is mounting evidence that sports makes a long-term difference in a woman’s life. A NYT article titled As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends points out separate studies from two economists who provide the strongest evidence yet that team sports can result in lifelong improvements to educational, work and health prospects. At a time when the first lady, Michelle Obama, has begun a nationwide campaign to improve schoolchildren’s health, the lessons from Title IX show that school-based fitness efforts can have lasting effects. A large body of earlier research shows that sports are associated with all sorts of benefits for girls, like lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades and higher self-esteem.

It's completely logical that many successful female executives come from athletic backgrounds. Business is, after all, about winning and losing. Working together as a team and figuring out how to address and fix weaknesses is a direct result of playing sports. Basic confidence, along with that feeling of ‘I can do it!’ also becomes an innate part of a female athlete's psyche that lasts into adulthood.

Male or female, if you're going to play the corporate game to win, it helps if you've cut your teeth as an athlete. Among the many male CEOs with backgrounds in competitive sports is General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who was an offensive tackle at Dartmouth and General Motors CEO Dan Akerson who boxed at the Naval Academy. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan played rugby at Brown, Ford CEO Alan Mulally played semi-pro tennis after college and IBM chief Sam Palmisano played football at John's Hopkins.

Kraft Foods chief executive Irene Rosenfeld, one of the few female CEOs who came of age before Title IX, played a number of sports at Cornell. At nearly 60, she is still competing, still honing her skills and crafting strategies, still looking to be a team leader and still keeping score. Rosenfeld credits a coach with encouraging her to run for student council president, which she did, becoming the first female and first athlete at her Westbury, N.Y., high school elected to the post. She also was a member of the National Honor Society and a reporter for the school newspaper.

What many successful executive women have in common is a drive to succeed that goes back to childhood. That drive a drive is usually displayed in the classroom as well as the field of competition. Many say their experiences in sports helped them develop skills, strategies and habits that contribute to success in business. They tend to approach their careers with more confidence, strategy and tenacity. So what exactly do girls learn from playing sports that can be applied to a professional career? Among other things:

  • Teamwork and leadership
  • Discipline, time management, perseverance
  • Risk-taking and dealing with failure
  • Networking and breaking into the old boys' club

Sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman is working on a book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture that deals with similar themes.  She interviewed dozens of parents - mostly highly credentialed and successful executives - who innately seem to understand the benefits of girls playing team sports. In their professional lives as attorneys, investment bankers and the like, they indicated they're predisposed to colleagues who have a sports background and who know how to be disciplined and agressive. In a post this week, Friedman wrote:

..we should expect to see more and more female CEO’s and high achievers, like those highlighted in the article as this generation of young, competitive, athletic women age.

Personally, I'm still unsure of my ultimate career goals, but I played soccer at an elite level throughout high school and continue to play recreationally in college. All of the statistics and anecdotal experience in these articles ring true for me. And as I stay in touch with many former teammates, who are attending fine universities throughout the country, I feel like they'll form the basis of a professional network as we all move on to the next stage of our lives. If the notable female executives referenced here and elsewhere are indicative of a trend, then yes, I'll play on.

Do any readers have experience in sports that helped prepare them for success in the business world? I'd love to hear more first-hand accounts.

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