Some of the most dynamic leaders I’ve worked with didn’t come from traditional business backgrounds. In fact, experience has taught me that we need to look to non-traditional sources for identifying, recruiting and mentoring exceptional leaders if we truly aim to achieve diverse, inclusive and innovative teams. Several years ago, we thought we might be onto something at EY. Our research found that 94% of C-suite women had played sports, and we realized that there was a correlation between successful women leaders and their participation in competitive sports. As Olympian and World Cup Champion Julie Foudy says, “Progress may not be a straight line — but we do know, with tremendous clarity, that sports turns girls into women who lead.”
We felt confident that the skills and experience gained through playing sports would translate into potent leadership skills. Our hypothesis was correct. We decided to see what would happen when top women in business mentor competitive athletes. We launched a pilot program last year, hiring nine female athletes from six countries as EY interns — all of whom competed in the 2016 Rio Games. The Rio interns are receiving world-class workplace experience and mentoring during their internships, and are making very positive contributions to their teams. In fact, several of them will join EY as full-time hires this year.
We’ve seen the success that comes with tapping into this talent pool and we’ve examined why athletes are especially well-qualified for business environments. Here’s what we found:
- Athletes don’t give up
It takes a great deal of endurance and a strong work ethic to spend countless hours preparing for a competition that’s measured in seconds. As crushing as it may feel to lose, athletes pick themselves up, learn from the experience and prepare for the next event.
As tennis pro Martina Navratilova said, “Failure is an opportunity to do better.” In business, as in sport, there is no such thing as an overnight success. The work is done behind the scenes, with countless hours of preparation. The perseverance and focus of an athlete is what strengthens teams and helps get projects through the finish line.
- They have an inclusive mindset
Athletes are team players. They know how to collaborate with and maximize diverse skills and perspectives to execute and win. At EY, this means the ability to contribute to and enhance a high-performing team with a shared vision, the right mix of talent and a keen focus on high-quality results.
Team sports prepare athletes to excel in our new era of disruption — to navigate obstacles and harness diverse experiences and skills to arrive at solutions. They readily embrace new developments and tools that can give them a competitive advantage, and we’ve seen firsthand how athletes engage in healthy conflict, commit to decisions and accept accountability for the outcomes.
- Athletes are natural leaders
Athletes self-motivate and uplift their teams. They don’t only rely on the roar of a crowd to energize them, or the shouts from a coach to push them. They also draw from within. Whether they’re on the field or in the workplace, athletes are particularly good at visualizing success and driving toward it with confidence, precision and dedication.
The drive, discipline and dedication that athletes exhibit are critical factors that contribute to their career success. If your organization only looks to traditional hallmarks found on a resume — which elite athletes may lack due to time commitments and extensive training — then you may be passing up a potential star performer.
\Building on a successful Rio intern program, we just announced our new partnership with Athlete Career Transition, an organization that helps professional athletes transition from sports to the workplace, to recruit female and male elite athletes from around the world for various professional roles within EY. Why is EY taking this non-traditional approach? Because their skills and experience will continue to add dividends for our clients, our culture and society at large, and help bring our purpose of building a better working world to life.
Nancy Altobello is the Global Vice Chair of Talent at EY. She leads EY’s Talent function, focusing on the recruitment, learning and development, coaching and mentoring of its approximately 250,000 people across 152 countries. She also oversees EY’s diversity and inclusiveness initiatives, and is committed to delivering on EY’s purpose of building a better working world.