Until this September, I had never been to a global athletic event before. When I was offered the opportunity to be in Rio and to experience the Olympics up close and personal, I jumped at the chance. Now I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the amazing events and the even more amazing athletes who compete at this level, the one big take away is that these talented and driven individuals, exhibit many of the same traits as the world’s top entrepreneurs. I’ve personally witnessed these entrepreneurs in action at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year conference that convenes each year in Monaco and I’ve always been impressed with the way they build the confidence needed to win.
Anyone with a burning drive to challenge the status quo (for oneself, and ones standing in the world) can learn a thing or two from athletes and entrepreneurs alike who win big. Working within the rules, yet testing the boundaries of competition. This especially applies to women.
As a winning entrepreneur myself and someone who never understood the benefit of team sports while in school, I wondered how winning athletes felt. So I asked those at the top of their game what they had to say about competition: playing by the rules, picking winners and losers and the ultimate value that competing at a high level meant to them.
I quickly summated the following three key takeaways:
1. Having a benchmark.
Having a benchmark against which to internally self-measure themselves by enabled these winners to develop "good habits." The kind of habits that get you up at 4 a.m. each day, doing what no one else has the disciplinary self-motivation to do. It's been said that "Practice makes perfect." When we're talking about world-class athletes or entrepreneurs, we're talking about decades of good habits, practiced consistently. No shortcuts or excuses. Confidence comes from years of personal sacrifice to get to the top of your game. Athletes and entrepreneurs develop an inner resilience that somehow, they instinctively know that they'll always find a way to show up strong, even when others are in disbelief, or far better equipped. From this, teams are strengthened and energized. It's one of the main reasons that 94 percent of all female C-suite execs played college sports. "Confidence comes with mastery, and the combination enables me to reach new heights,” said Pauline Brown, former athlete, luxury brand builder, and now senior business lecturer at Harvard.
2. Committing to a better you.
"You can only be as great as what you commit. No one can do it for you," said former Nigerian born Olympian soccer player for Canada, Charmaine Combs, as we sat together at the Germany vs. Australia tennis match. In other words -- if you want to be a good leader, or a good athlete, or a good businessperson, you must practice, practice, practice. It's self-perpetuating. The more you desire it, the more you'll take the personal initiative to achieve it. Research shows that when the mind practices a run, the athlete’s performance improves. I personally watched Michael Phelps this Olympics as he mentally ran through his routine to win the gold, and listened to him share (at EY 2015 Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs) how much mental preparation goes into winning. He said: "From this discipline, comes confidence in knowing that I'll do my best, despite the distractions that will come my way."
Simone Biles, the powerhouse 19 year old gymnast, 14 time world medal winner, four-time U.S. champion, and winner of the all around gold at this Rio Olympics (from Spring, Texas) said over and over this Olympics: "Confidence is something you create within yourself by believing who you are." It became her favorite quote these games.
3. Seek out networks that support your goals.
Sports lay the groundwork and can become a force multiplier. The same goes for business. For female entrepreneurs wanting to scale, the EY entrepreneurial Winning Women program, (sponsored by EY's Kerrie McPherson), where women see an average annual growth of 54 percent after joining, is a program that builds confidence and success. This network has been shown to expand these women’s knowledge about business strategies and practices; identify potential partners, strategic alliances, customers and suppliers, as well as prospective sources of private capital. And much like sports it can provide access to informal, one-to-one guidance and support. It helps identify opportunities to improve through the advice of seasoned coaches, and increase national and regional visibility for themselves and their businesses among key stakeholders and the media.
One thing's for sure. Supporting women who want to challenge the status quo, fuels their growth, and builds community. It's no coincidence that companies with the best record of promoting women to high positions (Roy Adler, HBR, 2001) do better 8 percent to 69 percent better actually. Aside from the economic benefit, girls who play sports do better in school, suffer fewer health problems, achieve more in areas traditionally dominated by men and hold better jobs as adults.
I know these facts all too well. As an adviser on the NWBC, a non partisan group which advises the White House, Congress and SBA, on policy affecting women in business, it's my job to do the research and find the gaps. No matter what obstacles women face, they are rising to the challenge and championing a better working world for themselves, their families and communities.
My business started out like many others in America, I had a dream, and nothing else. Well actually, I had 99 cents. I started my company with a package of garden seeds and built it to a market leader through supportive networks, funded by state, federal and private sectors. I began with very little confidence, but a passionate belief that I could be a disruptor in the pest control industry. The confidence came when I connected with and grew my support network of advisors, coaches and collaborators.
So, go for it -- develop good habits, commit to a better you, find your network and build the confidence to win big.