My fifth-grade classmate Mary Beth was one of the nicest people in our school. But playing against her in the girls' basketball league, I found her incredibly intimidating.
This was not the NBA. Back in those days, girls' teams had three guards and three forwards and only the forwards could shoot. Forwards stayed on one half of the court, guards on the other. I was a forward.
But Mary Beth towered over me, and I was exasperated every time I was up against her.
After one game, my dad pulled me aside and told me I'd never be able to compete with Mary Beth on height, so I'd have to find another way around her. And he taught me how to do a jump shot. I was the only girl in the county who could do a jump shot, so I was a phenom. And I got over my frustration with Mary Beth.
I recently relayed this story at a panel hosted by NBC Sports on how strategies learned through sports can help develop leadership skills and career success, particularly in women. Learning that jump shot was a lesson that later helped me build a business: Don't let obstacles like Mary Beth stand in your way. Play to your strengths and develop other skills to compensate for your weaknesses.
I have long advocated for women in leadership, especially since stepping down as CEO of WWE in 2009. It is well documented that women are underrepresented in leadership. Women are 51 percent of the population, but only 20 percent of Congress. Women earn the majority of college degrees, yet on average earn only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. Women make 80 percent of household spending decisions, yet only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Numerous books, conferences and pundits have examined theories behind these gaps, but whatever the reason, a simple truth remains -- we need more women in leadership.
It's not just the guys who can advance their careers on the tennis court, baseball diamond or golf course. Even my old recreational center basketball games held some valuable lessons:
Make plays happen. Don't wait for them to come to you. As a basketball player, I was competitive but I also wanted to include everyone on the team, so I passed the ball a lot. My coach told me that wasn't always the best thing to do. If you have a good shot, take it, he told me. That will benefit the team, too. In business, I advised employees not to wait for the phone to ring. Take initiative and make the phone ring on someone else's desk.
Play every position. Like a good utility player, be willing to do anything, even if it's not in your job description. Early on, I answered the phones, managed the books, even wrote our first magazine. As our company grew, I understood every aspect of the business because I had been there, from licensing products to negotiating contracts. I have even been in the ring as a performer and learned how to take a few hits! You will not excel in every position, but you will know from experience how you can best contribute to the team's overall goals.
Be a good coach for your team. I believe in leadership by example. As a CEO, I never expected anyone to work harder than I was willing to work myself. A coach calls the plays, but understands the strengths and weaknesses of each player and gets them to work as a team toward the greatest benefit for all. Praise in public, criticize in private.
Learn to accept defeat. Business, like sports, is about winning and losing. Of course you would rather win, but handle a loss with dignity. Learn from your mistakes, understand what could have been done differently, and do better the next time. All eyes are on the coach or the boss to set the tone after a setback. If the boss stays down, it's like a pernicious infection that will spread throughout the company and bring everyone down.
Bring your "A-Game" every day. Show up ready to deliver. In sports, practice your drills, condition your body, and give it your all at every game. As a CEO, I had a motto for employees: "Treat every day at work like it's your first day on the job." Take a risk. Come in with a fresh approach. If that fails, try again. If you have never failed, you haven't tried.
Be competitive, but be yourself. Women who are assertive at work are too often labeled as bossy. Or that other "b" word. Don't think you have to act like "one of the guys" or be someone you're not to express your authority. As a leader, set expectations and hold people accountable, but be authentic. You may still be labeled, but you will never regret being yourself.
You don't have to go to business school to learn to be a leader. Opportunities to lead are everywhere, and the path to the boardroom may just run through the locker room. Or in my case, through Mary Beth.