Why Athletes Have the Best Playbook for (Professional) Success

Chloe McKenzie, Amherst College '14

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Leadership research is the “new thing” in the entrepreneurial space because leadership scholars want to form a consensus around what constitutes the nature of leadership. Without prescribing to one theory over another, I can say with certainty that my experience as a student-athlete has certainly played a large part in my ability to launch and grow a successful company. In fact, the four most important moments in my entrepreneurial journey have distinct parallels to athletics-related experiences. As such, I find it necessary to tell student-athletes: take many mental notes now, as no matter what you do, you can expect yourself to thrive in a high-stakes, feedback-centered environments.

Building My Team – What Is A Good Teammate?

You’ll hear it over and over again, but building the right team is the most important thing when your goal is to be successful. I made the mistake of thinking that I should add people to my team who only bought into the mission. In other words, I thought that it would be enough to have members on my team who believed in what we were doing. These type of people are necessary, but they are not teammates. Think about some of your best teammates, often times they aren’t your best friends, they aren’t always jumping up and down for you, but they are the first to give you constructive feedback. (Yes, I am a feminist, and this is not a provincial, gendered syllogism.) This is the difference between a cheerleader and a teammate. As I said, cheerleaders are absolutely necessary because you will need people cheering you on, but to achieve your goals, you need a teammate; you need people that will be the first to contribute to your advancement.

Why are athletes uniquely equipped to build the right team? Sports helps you differentiate between teammates and cheerleaders. So, what did I do with my cheerleaders? I asked them to quit the team and support me off the field. It wasn’t just one, to date it’s been six. It’s hard to do, but I have points of comparison.

Building A Team/Organizational Culture – Remembering the Days of Constant Feedback

What is one thing that you can expect to receive on a daily basis whether it be practice or a game? Feedback. Not just once, or a few times, we got it constantly. But, think of the benefits of having constant feedback: you are able to hear from multiple people on how you can be better. Indeed, feedback can be frustrating, but knowing how to be better is the best way to be better.

Knowing this, I’ve created my organizational culture to be based on constant feedback. I have implemented feedback loops for everyone on my team on a daily basis, which forces team members to pitch to department directors and come with the best. This environment means you won’t be able to hide from improvement. Team members get their ideas knocked down often, but the beauty is my teammates also knock my ideas down. In order to be better, I too need feedback. Ultimately, when you have a culture that is built on constant feedback, you soften the rigidity of hierarchy and create an environment that compels others to step up and build the conditions necessary for innovation.

Setting Expectations for my Team – Building a Leaderful Environment

It’s worth mentioning that they way most people talk about leadership and developing leaders makes me want to throw up or roll my eyes because that discourse is centered around developing leaders who are already at the top of hill directing their team to pull the weight of the company up the hill. That’s not leadership, that’s hierarchy. Think of the captains on a team. At least with my experience, captains did coin flips, talked to the refs, and were expected to lead from the front on fitness tests. This is not meant to minimize the effort required to being a good captain, but let’s break these images down.

Real leaders are constantly aware of how risky it can be to make a wrong decision. It is important to encourage your team to embrace the uncertainty and use it as a tool to do and be better. As such, real leaders are also blunt. Finally, real leaders are expected to lead from the front, not from the top of the hill. It’s not so much that you are expected to be better, I certainly have team members who are better at certain things than I am (that’s why I hired them), but they are expected to exert the type of energy that inspires others to push more. The captain of my team my sophomore season was slow. So slow. But, she would work harder than me to get to the other sideline during sprints, and that compelled me to go harder.

These images describe a very important phrase that I recently discovered: a leaderful environment. A leaderful environment is when everyone participates in leadership because it is a requirement for success. When you have real leaders on your team, you compel others, no matter their position, to be leaders as well. This necessarily connects to organizational and team culture because being unafraid to give your leader feedback makes you a leader too. Athletes get that because we call our captains out (as we should).  

Making Plays – Being a Decision-Maker

This final point of connection should be short because it makes the most sense. After all of the aforementioned things, the reason why athletes make the best executives is because we are good at making major decisions in high-pressure, fast-paced environments. With the soccer ball at your feet, you have about a quarter of a second before someone comes to wreck you to steal the ball. You have less than a quarter of a second to strategically plan how your next step will result in winning. Winning is what we all want, though winning will mean something different to everyone. Very simply, because we are used to making decisions that work, and don’t, we are better prepared to lead teams and more generally companies.

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To the college athletes reading this, my hope is that you understand the privilege you have to learn how to refine your craft as an athlete, but also take note of how your sport is preparing you for the next thing. If what I’ve said has resonated with you, reach out (info@blackfem.org) as we are always looking for interns with experience and personalities that are conducive to the intense environments that I described. Enjoy your glory moments, as being in the has-been league post-college just isn’t the same, but start thinking about the next step and how you can use your glory moments as your playbook.

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After graduating from Amherst College, Chloe McKenzie worked as a mortgage trader at J.P. Morgan. She found Wall Street intellectually stimulating, but felt as though she was not helping those truly disadvantaged. When she became a financial counselor for homeless families and completed an education fellowship where she pursued work related to strengthening teaching practice and curriculum innovation, she felt compelled to start BlackFem, Inc.

BlackFem is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of creating opportunities for women and girls of color to build and sustain wealth through wealth and financial literacy education. BlackFem hosts free workshops for girls of color and has partnered with over 30 schools to integrate customized wealth and financial literacy curriculum into the classroom and after school.

Ms. McKenzie is Series certified General Securities Representative and Investment Adviser and has a graduate certificate in Financial Planning. She is currently completing her Master of Public Administration from NYU Wagner and has completed graduate coursework in general and special education. Ms. McKenzie works with the Congressional Black Caucus’s task forces on education and economic development and wealth creation.