Many of the skills that make for a promising athlete can translate surprisingly well to the boardroom. Tenacity, perseverance, strategic thinking, team leadership—with traits like these, it’s no surprise that many athletes go on to become successful in the business world. Whether they played sports avidly in school or actually became professional athletes, there are plenty of successful business people who have taken advantage of the skills they learned on the field to make bank in the office.
Founder of the wildly successful financial institutions Montgomery Securities and Thomas Weisel Partners, Thom Weisel has leveraged his competitive spirit and high-octane charisma into years of leadership in the fintech world. A speed skater since age 7, Weisel went on to win the midget Boys Wisconsin State Championship when he was 10, as well as setting the national record for juvenile boys in 1955. He even went so far as to earn third place in the Olympic speed skating trials in 1959. He also has a lifelong love of skiing, cycling, and surfing that has translated into several advisory and philanthropic gigs, including for the US Ski and Snowboard Team Board.
Just as Weisel himself has brought his athletic prowess to his business, he also appreciates those skills in the people he employs. Of his employees at Montgomery Securities, he says, “They were..smart and had good communication skills. I believe athletics teach[es] people about life, how to win, how to be confident, how to dig deep, and how to sacrifice.”
You probably know her as a seven-time Grand Slam singles champ, but Venus Williams is also the founder and CEO of EleVen, an active wear company whose mission, according to Williams, is to “get people moving, healthy, and feeling damn good about how they look and feel.” Not content to keep her drive to the tennis court, Williams pursued a degree in fashion and started EleVen as a response to her own struggle to find athletic clothing that let her express her sense of style and also move freely.
And how has her experience in tennis affected her business? In an interview with Forbes, Williams commented on the lessons athletics taught her about overcoming obstacles. “I think as an athlete you’re always overcoming all kinds of challenges,” she said. “That’s the name of the sport—it’s a challenge. So…applying those lessons of perseverance and learning from mistakes and setting goals has definitely helped me in business.”
Today, Immelt is coming to the end of 16 successful years as the CEO of GE. But back in college he was a young football fanatic on the Ivy League squad, working his way up from co-captain of the JV team to starting offensive tackle by his senior year.
As a business leader, he has brought his team leadership and problem-solving skills to the table. “It was great to be a part of a team that…wanted to do something very dramatic and wanted to win,” he says of his college football experience. “Not every play works, not every situation works, but you’ve got to figure it out, and there’s always a next play. And I think all of those things just happen to stick with you for a lot of your life, and in my case, for my whole life. This essence of trying to build a culture of excellence that I learned in sports I very much brought to the business world.”
These days we may most easily associate George Foreman with his Lean Mean Grilling Machine (introduced in 1994), but of course his first career was as a professional boxer who made a name for himself in the 1968 Olympic games when he knocked out Jonas Čepulis and won gold.
After a long and illustrious boxing career that included miraculous comebacks and several more significant knockouts, Foreman retired from the ring and focused his considerable sales acumen on a series of products, including the Foreman Grill, which has sold more than 100 million units worldwide. Foreman also lends his name to a line of environmentally green cleaning products, diabetic shoes, personal care products, and more. “Put your name on something, it better be the best,” he notes on his website. “You only get one shot.”
Athletics may seem to be a completely different field than business, but many of the traits that serve athletes of all stripes, both professional and amateur, are also relevant to the business world. Athletes can bring an unparalleled level of energy, commitment, and discipline to business, setting them—and their companies—apart from the crowd.