What do sports teach women for business?

Successful multi ethnic peopleHadley Catalano

The path to professional success for many corporate elite women was set in motion on the playing field, according to research by Ernst & Young (EY) that links the accomplished attributes of women in leadership business roles to their sports participation.

The EY perspective on sport and team survey, from the company’s Women Athletes Business Network, is the latest in the sports and leadership conversation that legitimizes the connection between organized sport participation and the strength of women in professional leadership positions. In 2002, OppenheimerFunds of MassMutual Financial Group commissioned a survey which demonstrated that of 400 senior women executives, 81 percent participated in organized sports as a youth. Now, over 10 years later, EY has reaffirmed this correlation.

Of the women senior managers and executives that took part in EY’s online survey, 90 percent participated in sports at some level, be it in secondary school, university, or beyond. The percentage of participation rose to 96 percent among C-suite women. By comparison, a larger proportion of women executives participated in collegiate sports than their lower-level managers with nearly 67 percent of the elite group partaking in sports as a working adult, compared with 55 percent of other managers.

Locker Room to Boardroom
Participation in organized team athletics has been connected to successful corporate leadership qualities, including behavioral, emotional, and economic development. The majority of executive women surveyed said that sports helped them develop the leadership skills that contributed to their professional success.

“This new global survey validates and underscores the fundamental role that participation in sports plays in developing women leaders,” Beth Brooke, Global Vice Chair, Public Policy, for EY said in the company’s press release. “Not only do the majority of senior women executives have sports in their background, they recognize that the behaviors and techniques learned through sports are critical to motivating teams and improving performance in a corporate environment.”

The Oppenheimer Funds survey confirmed the usefulness of sports-related attributes by career women, indicating that, of those who played after grade school, 86 percent said sports helped them to be more disciplined, 81 percent said sports helped them to function better as part of a team, 69 percent said sports helped them to develop leadership skills, 68 percent said sports helped them to deal with failure, and 59 percent said sports gave them a competitive edge over others.

Kathryn Kolbert, the Constance Hess Williams Director of Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, explained that she is familiar with many women executives that have participated in sports during high school and college.

“I have long believed that athletic experience develops several successful traits of leadership, particularly teamwork and team building, as well as resilience; the ability to fail, recover and learn from your failure. A really good coach is going to strategize with their team about what they can do better, both individually and collectively, rather than focus on the individual shortcomings,” said Kolbert, who was a tri-sport athlete in high school and a lacrosse player at Cornell. She continued, “In addition, if young women are team leaders early in their lives, they also experience leadership without the double binds they face in the workforce and thus are better able to take ownership of their leadership. Lastly, I think that participation in sports enables women to be ambitious. It’s okay to want to win the league, city or state championship.”

Kolbert explained that her own sports participation helped her to understand the value that leaders bring to the table by encouraging their team to work closely together, strive for excellence, and most importantly to recover from failure.

Money Ball
Executive-level women enhancing an organization’s performance in quantifiable ways was documented in a 2012 EY report. The research cited a study by Betsey Stevenson, former Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, which identified many attributes that could be learned through sports participation, such as the ability to communicate, the ability to work well with others, competitiveness, assertiveness, and discipline. All which can contribute to leadership and teamwork skills that are valued by the market.

Kolbert expanded on this, saying, “Many skills women bring to the workplace improve innovation, teamwork, and bottom-line profits, and that diversity is not just a question of fairness, it improves outcomes and makes the workplace more productive and profitable.”

Leading A Team
Above all, teamwork and leadership were the two primary abilities for which women with a history of athletic achievement were most recognized. EY polled that almost three-quarters of female executives agreed that individuals who engaged in sports at some level participate more effectively within teams, and that translating behaviors and techniques from sports to the corporate environment can be an effective way of improving the performance of teams.

While the management of a business through teamwork mimics the lessons learned during a game, effective leadership – in both business and sports – has been reported to be the result of a high level of emotional intelligence (EI). According to a study led by the International Journal of Business and Commerce, leaders in both environments display similar characteristics and trait assertiveness due to the higher level of EI, including better coping skills with job-related tension, conflict resolution, and communication.

Moving Women Forward
Understanding the common characteristics of an athletic woman as a high achiever, natural leader, and a team player, can be a good business lesson. Unfortunately sports participation is not a silver bullet, Kolbert explained. If it were “a direct line to increasing the number of women in leadership, we would have seen more of an uptick in women ascending to leadership following the passage of Title IX. Regrettably the numbers have not improved significantly in the last 20 years. Women are still only 18-22 percent of leaders in most industries.”

While Title IX did account for about a 40 percent rise in employment for women ages 25 to 34, more awareness is required in order to promote a cross pollination of successful athletes – and women on the whole – into successful businesswomen in leadership positions.

According to Kolbert, “Women need to develop mentors and sponsors to help them achieve their goals. But once they rise up the leadership ladder, women have a responsibility to help other women and develop mentees and protégés.”

She also noted that all women, athletically-inclined or not, can improve on and learn leadership abilities through educational workshops. Reinforcing what the Athena Center calls the Athena Core10, the ten attributes of leadership; vision, ambition, courage, entrepreneurial spirit, resilience, communication, leverage, collaboration, negotiation, and advocacy.