Finding a suitable hire for an executive role isn’t easy. You’ll need to consider various factors, like their previous leadership experience, technical prowess, and ability to work toward strategic objectives. And even if the interview flows smoothly and the candidate looks great on paper, there’s no real way to tell whether they’ll be the right fit for your company.
However, one strong but perhaps surprising indicator of future success is prior athletic experience, particularly at the collegiate level. Here’s why.
People who grow up playing sports and achieve a position on a college team are more likely to develop skills that executive leaders must have.
Succeeding in college sports isn’t easy. While natural ability and physical attributes play a role, they aren’t everything. Other factors, like forming solid relationships with teammates, managing time well, and setting objectives are clear requirements for a successful sports career.
Strong bonds between teammates ensure that players feel connected on and off the playing field. While they’re invested in showcasing their personal skills to potential coaches and university recruiters, they also need to work toward a common goal: winning a match or a game for their school. That means they’ll need to balance their objectives with the goals of the entire team.
Executives face a similar dilemma. They know that personal success will contribute to a positive reputation in their field, which may lead to future opportunities at large enterprises and industry-leading companies. A renowned executive can find their place anywhere — in a new organization, through public speaking, or as a sought-after consultant.
At the same time, executives need to look past their personal goals and make decisions meant for the greater good: the company they’re leading. Striking a careful medium between both is vital to ensuring that their team members — stakeholders like employees, clients, and investors — are winners, too.
College athletes often have excellent time management skills. They must remain committed to their studies while making time for practices and matches. Most try to retain a circle of friendships, too.
Often, athletes spend hours perfecting their techniques and skills. They may wake up well before dawn, ready to hit the court or exercise in the gym. Afterward, they’ll spend several hours in class before heading off to practice. Weekends are typically full of game commitments, leaving little time for other extracurricular activities. To keep everything flowing smoothly, they follow strict schedules.
Executives face similar obstacles. They answer to multiple stakeholders: the board of directors, other C-level staff, investors, employees, and clients. Everyone wants something different from them, and they have to balance their time carefully to meet everyone’s requirements.
Another trait that college athletes and executives share is goal setting. A college athlete is always looking for the next win. A win may be as simple as shaving a few seconds off their mile time or something more long-term, like obtaining first place in their seasonal district championships.
Athletes divide wins into short- and long-term goals, just like executives do. For an executive, a short-term goal might be extending a client’s revenue contract while the company aims to attract a significant new investor over the long term.
The parallels between college athletes and executives are pretty clear, which is why recruiters and hiring managers should pay attention to a candidate’s previous athletic experience.
Both on and off the field, athletes learn to communicate with their teammates, competition, coaches, and fans. They quickly pick up on the right phrases and tones to use with each different stakeholder. In short, they become adept at communication management with everyone they interact with — a skill that benefits executives.
Few executives can survive in their roles without excellent communication skills. They’re always talking, whether they are conversing with a peer, one of the company’s biggest clients, or interested investors. Managing communication with each stakeholder involves assessing each person’s goal and deciding on the right message to convey.
Of course, communication doesn’t just involve words and tones. A genuinely gifted communicator will also understand the value of authenticity. Sticking to their truth while understanding what others want from them helps executives form more substantial and trusting bonds with the people they serve.
If a stakeholder perceives that an executive isn’t just providing lip service but is sharing their thoughts and opinions, that stakeholder is more likely to believe what the executive says. An authentic executive is something special to behold, and they rightfully attract a strong following from those around them.
Diversity and inclusion are having a real moment, particularly within business. Organizations are putting their best efforts toward finding executives, mid-level managers, and other employees from diverse backgrounds, including women and minorities.
For a long time, female leadership has been virtually nonexistent at the C-level. While nearly half of the workforce comprises women, just 35% of leadership roles are filled by women. The problem is particularly evident among Fortune 500 companies, where only 10.4% of CEOs are female.
Companies looking to achieve greater diversity within their executive team by hiring female leadership are smart to look toward those with athletic experience. Women who have participated in sports amass a broad range of skills essential to the C-level, such as team building, problem-solving, and goal setting.
A recent EY study found that of current women leaders in the C-suite, over 94% played sports. Their athletic prowess translates to strong performance in their leadership roles, allowing them to succeed where those without athletic experience may not.
Finding your next executive involves reviewing resumes and setting up interviews, but one factor that often goes overlooked is prior athletic experience. Athletes possess many soft skills that leaders require, like setting objectives, maintaining strong communication among all stakeholders, and managing time efficiently.
The next time you’re looking for a fresh executive, ask your potential hires whether they play sports. Someone with significant athletic experience may be just the right fit for your organization.
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