By Stephanie Wilcox (Middlefield, CT)
Making it to the top in sports takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Making it to the top in business often takes the same three components. In fact, many of today’s female executives say playing sports taught them about competition and teamwork, which translates to their career. Is this merely an anecdote, or do sports really help make girls into future business leaders? One former executive gives a resounding “Yes!”
“I believe my basketball experience can be directly linked to my business experience and success,” said Mary Claire Bonner, who retired last March from Aetna. Before retiring, the New York resident was Senior Vice President of local and regional business (LRB) for Aetna, working directly for the company’s president and “running a large business that concentrated on small and mid-size employer health benefit needs in more than 30 states.” Reflecting on the position, Bonner discovered that her favorite part about leading others was creating a strong team. The skills to be good at this, Bonner noted, started in fifth grade when she joined the basketball team.
“Playing basketball changed me as a person,” said Bonner, who played from grade school through her junior year at one of Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses. “Because I was a point guard, I had to lead in setting up plays. We learned that it’s hard to lose, but losing makes you work harder. You have to be smarter; have a better strategy.”
Bonner points out that developing a strategy on a sports team is like the business concept of developing a strategy, being smart and working hard to win. Others have recognized the same parallel of sports and high achievers and are finding ways to encourage sports involvement. According to the Hall Of Fame Network magazine, the Women’s Sports Foundation, started by female tennis champion Billie Jean King, became established because, “Sport is where our children learn about teamwork, goal setting and the pursuit of excellence. In an economic environment where the quality of our life is dependent on two-income families, our daughters cannot be less prepared for the highly competitive workplace than our sons.”
Is Encouraging Competitiveness Simply “Fixing the Women”?
But does this simply feed into “fix the women” scenarios in which society tries to mold women into a male-oriented view of how a business leader looks and acts (i.e. very competitive, “team players”)? Bonner believes it comes down to accepting competitiveness as a necessity for males and females.
“I’m very competitive and I was going to be competitive no matter what I did,” she said. “Some girls are just not as competitive; and some women think being competitive is bad, yet they still want to do well and be promoted at work. In my opinion, women can’t avoid the competitiveness required to move ahead. If you want to be a female business leader, it’s essential.”
Building Teamwork and Confidence
Is having a role model in sports also essential? In a 2002 survey that asked 401 senior business leaders about their careers and experience with sports growing up, 78 percent of the female executives said they did not have a female athlete for a role model growing up. But Bonner did, and said it helps having someone to look up to in sports. She was inspired by a seventh grade girl on the basketball team who was “cute, athletic and a good basketball player.” “I wanted to be just like her,” said Bonner. And she’s glad she followed her onto the court, leading to her success in business.
The same survey reported that 80 percent of the female executives said they played team sports while growing up. These female executives all made more than $75,000 a year and worked for companies with more than 100 employees, many of them they oversaw. The majority played during high school, either on an intramural or school-sponsored team or both. Twenty-three percent played baseball, 22 percent played volleyball, 17 percent played softball, 15 percent played tennis, 10 percent ran track and 8 percent played soccer. Though basketball was not mentioned in the results, Bonner agreed that it’s not one sport in particular, but the involvement in any team. In fact, when asked if tomorrow’s generation of executives will require the same skills or different ones, Bonner didn’t rule out other activities, like band, as valuable in developing future leaders.
“Good leaders and business people have these same leadership skills, and whatever way you can be exposed to being a major contributor to a team, that’s the important point,” she said. But you can’t deny, “Sports teaches about practice and execution. It requires quick thinking, knowing your part as a solid member of the team, and most importantly, it builds confidence.”
Today is Rally for Girls’ Sports Day! Read more about the National Women’s Law Center’s initiative for girls’ sports here.