The Benefits of Rearing Leadership Talent from the Sports Field

GettyImages-475396921-compressorWhat do Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and ex DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman all have in common?

They’re just a few examples of the many business leaders who once played college sports. In fact, CEOs who haven’t may count in the minority: especially if they’re women.

A series of studies conducted by EY—designed to understand how playing sports could help more girls advance in business—found that 94% of women in the C-suite once played sports while 52% played at the university level.

Last year, the consultancy put the theory that athletes have strong CEO prospects to the test by hiring nine female competitors from the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I’m happy to note all of these interns in our ‘experiment’ have delighted their managers and added value to their teams. In fact, many of them will be joining EY full-time this year,” global vice chair of talent, Nancy Altobello, said on Sunday.

“TEAM SPORTS REALLY TEACH YOU HOW TO COLLABORATE ACROSS A BROAD SPECTRUM OF PERSONALITIES OR INDIVIDUAL TALENTS.”

Few studies show what proportion of male CEOs played sports, though the list of former jocks is a long one. Moynihan was a fly-half and inside center for the Brown University rugby team, GE CEO Jeff Immelt was an offensive tackle on the Dartmouth College football team and former Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb played soccer at Stanford.

Among female leaders, Nooyi played cricket at the Madras Christian College and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman captained her high-school swim team and played lacrosse, tennis and basketball at Princeton.

“Team sports really teach you how to collaborate across a broad spectrum of personalities or individual talents, and learn how to get the most out of what you have,” said Kullman, who played college basketball at Tufts before leading DuPont for six years.

After observing the nine former Olympians it hired, EY found their exceptional ability to work together could help the company deal with complex challenges presented by digital disruption.

“We’ve seen first-hand how athletes engage in healthy conflict, commit to decisions and accept accountability for the outcomes,” Altobello said.

The study participants also had a strong tendency to see things through to completion, something that EY put down to the weeks or even months of behind-the-scenes training and strategizing common to sports. “Society is quick to celebrate the seemingly overnight success stories. But, in business, like sports, there is no such thing,” Altobello said.

Finally, the participants possessed an “uncanny ability” to motivate themselves and others. One former athlete spoke of a coach who intentionally said nothing during practice sessions leading up the Olympics to challenge teammates to remain motivated and hold each other accountable.

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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