Many successful women say sports teaches valuable lessons

Credit: Mike Powell/Alsport
At age 24, Betsy Bernard was put in charge of 60 employees at AT&T who were five to 35 years older. She was promoted ''out of my comfort zone.''

But Bernard had been ski racing on the edge of a wipeout since age 5, and she drew from that the ability to see her job as more exhilarating than frightening. Today, Bernard is the 46-year-old CEO of AT&T's $20 billion consumer business.

As women break through the glass ceiling, researchers are on the lookout for what they have in common. One trait emerging is a background in athletics.

EBay CEO Meg Whitman was on the lacrosse and squash teams at Princeton. Mrs. Field's Cookies' founder Debbi Fields is an avid equestrian. Spherion CEO Cinda Hallman, one of six women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, was a scrappy 5-foot-6 basketball guard at tiny Ashdown High School in Arkansas. Sue Wellington, who just 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.

It's logical that female executives come from athletic backgrounds, says Wellington, 43. ''Business is, after all, about winning and losing. Sometimes, it's uncomfortable for women to think about winning and losing.''

Male CEOs often have backgrounds in competitive sports. Jack Welch, recently retired as CEO of General Electric, was a hockey player at Salem High School in Massachusetts and remains an avid golfer. Jeffrey Immelt, an offensive tackle at Dartmouth, replaced him.

A study out in February by mutual fund company Oppenheimer finds that women are following the same path: 82 percent of executive businesswomen played organized sports after elementary school, vs. 61 percent of adult women in a separate Internet survey of the general population.

Although it begs more research, the difference appears significant, because women who have reached executive rank are typically older than women in general. Older women had fewer athletic opportunities in their youth. Payner, for example, was not allowed to pole vault in high school, though she says she did everything short of going to court to persuade administrators.

Today, the number of girls playing high school sports is approaching 3 million, up from 300,000 in 1970.

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 results advance a 1997 survey by the Women's Sports Foundation that found that 80 percent of female executives in Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as ''competitive'' and ''tomboys'' in their youth.

Nature or nurture?

All that leaves a key question unanswered: Is it nature or nurture? Are successful businesswomen born competitive and drawn to athletics in their youth, or do sports ignite a drive in women and teach them lessons applicable to business?

Most female executives interviewed believe it is both. ''I craved winning at age 6,'' says Eli Primrose-Smith, 54, IBM's vice president of global security solutions and a nationally ranked swimmer in her youth.

But while nature drew them to sports, the women say the lessons learned gave them teamwork and leadership skills; discipline and perseverance; the courage to take risks; and the ability to learn from failure.

''Sports teaches you to always try to do better than you did before,'' says Hallman, 56. ''Not necessarily better than who you're competing against, but better than you did before.''

Some female executives gravitate to what seems like non-competitive sports. Marce Fuller, CEO of Mirant and the fifth-most-powerful businesswoman in the USA according to Fortune magazine, enjoys the peace of scuba diving. But the sport is inherently dangerous, and Fuller says she can't resist an occasional dive with sharks.

''I certainly have a fear of sharks, but I like to be in the water with them and face my fear,'' Fuller says. She says she took up scuba diving for diversion, but the business/shark analogy does not escape her.

Executive women say there are lessons to be gained from other activities, such as student government, chess club or band, but they believe nothing trains women for business like athletics. Some say they wished it weren't true, because they have daughters with no athletic ability.

''In sports, you get a competitive battlefield to test yourself,'' Wellington says.

However, Maryann Karinch, a gymnast at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a consultant and author of nine books, says she knows very successful female athletes who fail miserably in business. Though highly competitive in athletics, they border on lazy in other endeavors, Karinch says. ''Some are real slackers in the workforce.''

Driven to succeed

Successful executive women interviewed came from a range of backgrounds. What they have in common has been a drive to succeed going back to childhood, a drive in the classroom as well as the field of competition. They say their experiences in sports helped them develop skills, strategies and habits that contribute to success in business:

1. Teamwork and leadership

''Grandstanding rarely pays off,'' says Christine Cox, 42, chief financial officer of 72-employee MetraTech and high school gymnast, softball player and volleyball captain. ''Letting someone else get the ball is often the difference between winning and losing.''

Pfizer Vice President Chris Baker, 37, played for the nationally ranked Penn State volleyball team during the 1980s. Once during an exhibition trip to Peru, there was no water to drink or to bathe in.

''We hadn't washed our uniforms in days,'' she says. ''Twenty of us got on a 12-person bus. You learn to get along.''

''The worst team pulling in the same direction can achieve more than an individual,'' says Kelyn Brannon-Ahn, 43, CEO of software company Movie Magic Technologies. A softball player since age 7, she took up rugby and cricket in 1987 when she moved to England to become the first female audit manager for Ernst & Young.

Sports train you for management, Primrose-Smith says. ''One person needs to be yelled at, one patted on the back, and one needs to be left alone to perform the best. You learn how to read people better.''

''If you happen to have a good coach, you learn how to develop people into being better than you ever thought they could be,'' Hallman says.

2. Discipline, time management, perseverance

Dina Gartland, a partner at age 31 at geotechnical firm Leighton & Associates, is out of bed at 5 a.m. to train three hours as a triathlete before starting a long workday.

''I don't watch TV,'' she says, but arrives at work energized by endorphins.

Margaret Taylor, 42, formerly a competitive swimmer, says sports taught her that there would be bad days when nothing goes right. Rewards in business go to those who persevere, says the president of management consulting firm CIAGA.

Kristi Nilles, 30, strategic alliance manager at Network Associates, took up running to lose weight her freshman year in college. Almost overnight, she became a world-class duathlete, which features running and cycling, and was starting to train for the 2004 Olympic marathon when a viral infection attacked her heart. She says she saw 10 doctors and nearly died, but is back in training after six weeks in bed.

Payner worked her way back to competition from a gymnastics injury that doctors feared had paralyzed her arm.

3. Risk-taking and dealing with failure

'' When you fall off the balance beam, you can go in the locker room in shame or try to salvage your best performance,'' Cox says.

Brannon-Ahn says sports taught her to make quick decisions and that playing it safe can be riskier than moving aggressively.

''If it's not the right decision, you live with it," she said. ''You don't always win. You have to deal with disappointment and not lose sight of your goals,'' says Primrose-Smith, who just missed qualifying for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in swimming. ''Sports is an unbelievably good arena to learn that in.''

At age 13, Primrose-Smith walked off the tennis court in the middle of the Maryland state championships to make an important swim meet. As an adult, she resigned a marketing job at a major bank because ''I couldn't get any traction, I wasn't providing value.'' She landed in a ''fantastic job.'' Sports taught her that sometimes you must take a leap and not look back.

''Too many women commiserate on a loss,'' Hallman says. Her strategy in failure is to spend a short time thinking about the lessons, then immediately turn to something that makes her feel good.

''Emotional meltdowns have no place in sports or business,'' Cox says. ''You know how painful it is to lose and, but for different circumstances, you can be on the other side of victory. It's OK to celebrate, but not gloat.''

4. Networking and breaking into the old boys' club

Women say running can sometimes be more useful than golf as a networking tool.

''When I was in Tokyo, I went out for a 5 a.m. run around the Imperial Palace with a very senior executive,'' Brannon-Ahn says. ''You get to know each other in a very different way.''

Gartland agrees. ''When you get out of a business suit and into a pair of running shorts, you look at each other on a personal level. It makes friends, and I like to do business with friends.''

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