What every CEO can learn from professional athletes

October 29, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of AT&T

The Fortune 500 Insider Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Glenn Lurie, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, has answered the question: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your first job?

If you had asked me when I was a professional soccer player if I could ever see myself in a suit and tie as a button-down business executive, I would have said, “No way.” Soccer was my job, my career and my passion. But now that I’m in the business world full time, I can see how the lessons this first job taught me are still helping me win.

I was drawn to team sports ever since I was a kid. Soccer clicked for me even when it wasn’t as popular in the U.S. as it is today. I played college soccer at Seattle Pacific University, and later went on to play for professional teams in Cleveland, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Portland.

By the time I played my final season in Portland, I was married, had started my business career in sales with McCaw Cellular Communications (my leadership supported me playing while working full time) and had just had my first child. Now, here I was, a competitive guy working in sales, and just as determined to win as I was on the soccer field. And I did. The cellular industry just clicked for me.

I loved the technology, the cool devices, the fast pace, the competitive environment, the teamwork, and how quickly everything was changing all the time. I quickly realized that I could be as passionate about the wireless industry as I had been with soccer — if not more — but with better long-term career prospects for my family and for myself.

In short, I fell in love with the wireless business.


In fact, I made more money during my first month of selling wireless phones than I did playing soccer the entire prior season. Of course, this was back when people paid as much as $2,000 for the latest flip phone or $900 for a standard phone the size of a brick. And don’t forget that wireless service was a buck for a minute of airtime, with no free mobile-to-mobile calls during nights or weekends.

People always ask me how hard it was to trade in the cleats for a business suit. Sure, it was hard. But guess what? I’ve never stopped playing. Soccer is in my life. Both of my kids play soccer in college and I still sneak out to play on the weekends when I can. But what’s most important is that the same things that made me love team sports — the teamwork, the camaraderie, the competitive spirit, the excitement of chasing a common goal, the need to solve problems as a team on the fly, and best of all, winning as a team — are all in business.

Technology is moving extremely fast, especially in the telecommunications and mobility area. It’s becoming nearly impossible for a breakthrough innovation to come out of a single company or organization working alone. Today, breakthroughs require collaboration within trusted relationships and partnerships.

That’s how we go about it at AT&T (T). We collaborate day to day with equipment manufacturers, software developers, app developers, and a myriad of other players — not just in our ecosystem, but also in others — to run the business and find the next big thing.

That kind of collaboration across companies and industries requires building internal and external teams of people from different organizations, different backgrounds and even competing interests, who work together to reach a clear and common goal — just like on the soccer field.

In essence, I live by what I call the three Ps: people, purpose and passion. Whether in sports, business, or any competitive endeavor, winning requires a team of people who truly care about their fellow employees, who understand their individual purpose with that team, and who have the passion to achieve it.

I have seen it work as we chased huge, audacious goals, doing things that have never been done, beginning with executing the contract with Apple (AAPL) that launched the first iPhone, to building a new startup business with connected devices, and ultimately helping usher in the connected life and the Internet of Things.

After all, nothing can stop a team of committed individuals who put the team first and all row in the same direction.

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