Why More Women Should Think Like Athletes

July 6, 2016, 2:52 PM UTC
Businesswoman looks across city at sunrise
Photograph by Ezra Bailey via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written by Karen Peetz, president of The Bank of New York Mellon.

A recent Ernst & Young/ESPN W survey showed that 94% of C-suite women played a sport—52% at a university level.

This was no surprise to me. I consider my experience as a field hockey and lacrosse athlete at Penn State University foundational to my professional success. It taught me about equality, competition, and grit. It helped me get to where I am today: president of one of the largest financial companies.

Women can borrow lessons from athletics to help them succeed in industries traditionally controlled by men. Here are some I’ve found to be incredibly valuable in my 34-year career:

Be assertive
Diversity in talent starts pretty equally when women enter the workforce, but drops off at mid-management and continues to decrease the higher you look in an organization. To change that, high-potential women need to speak up. Articulate myths or prejudices you want to dispel.

Earlier in my career, I knew one way to advance was through international experience. At the time, most of the management team assumed my husband, young twins, and I would never relocate. In reality, my family was supportive and up for the adventure. I lobbied hard for a move, and eventually earned a position leading a business in London. If I hadn’t spoken up, I might still be waiting for my chance. Just as in sports, visualizing your goal and desired outcome is key to career success.

Accurately assess the competition
Looking back, I should have had more self-confidence earlier on. I compared myself to male colleagues, often feeling they were outperforming me. In reality, I was stronger than them in many areas, but harder on myself. I didn’t always see what my managers saw. It’s natural to compare ourselves to others, but women tend to inaccurately assess their competition. The lack of confidence and perceptions of others’ abilities can prevent us from pursuing stretch roles and assignments. Remember, you don’t need to know everything to know anything. The more confident you are in your abilities, the more successful you will be.

One way to boost confidence is to seek honest feedback. We need to constantly ask our managers, clients, coaches, and mentors where we can improve in order to prepare for the next step. Like sports coaches from my past, mentors and sponsors helped me see my strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me to continuously improve. This prepared me to seize new opportunities.

Surround yourself with a winning team
Just as athletes have coaches, teammates, and cheerleaders, women on the rise should build a winning, supportive team. Surround yourself with seniors and peers who mentor you throughout your career and sponsors who choose to champion for you. They have the power to make things happen. Don’t overlook the importance of family support, either. Getting them aligned with your career aspirations and having them firmly behind you is a critical ingredient for your success and happiness. Lastly, look for a strong network of like-minded individuals outside or at work to motivate you.

Flex your business muscles
The biggest mistake women and men make is expecting opportunities to come to them. You must find them, groom yourself for them, and advocate to get them. I found it was crucial to gain business-line experience. Women are advancing in support functions, but often lack the actual profit-and-loss experience to advance into broader senior leadership roles. Go where the action is and flex your business muscles. Just as in athletics, play different positions to expand your potential to contribute and lead your team.


Stick with it
I learned through sports that things don’t always go well, but it’s how you deal with tough times that makes you a leader. I’ve had leadership roles in many tough business and personal situations, such as the 2008 financial crisis and September 11th. Being a leader means having grit—sticking with it when the going gets tough—and caring about people. In any industry, but particularly in a male-dominated one, you will always be challenged. Whether on the sports fields or in business, it’s the gritty people who lead with integrity to help their teams and companies succeed. They become leaders that people want to follow.

Working in the financial services industry is a challenging and fascinating career choice for women. Thinking and working like an athlete will increase your chances to be among a growing number of strategic female leaders at the top of organizations.