Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman has been recognized as one of the most powerful women in the world—she was No. 9 on that very Forbes List in 2016, for example—but did you know she helped hone her drive early in life with a passion for sports?
In high school, Whitman played basketball, lacrosse, and tennis, and even captained the swim team. She then took her athletic prowess to the collegiate level, competing on both the lacrosse and squash teams at Princeton.
Whitman has logged an impressive business resume since graduating from Princeton in 1977. In the 1980s, she was the vice president of strategic planning for the Walt Disney Company, and she served as an executive for DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro in the 1990s. From there, she moved on to a 10-year run as CEO at eBay.
In 2011, she was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard, a position she has held since, although she recently announced her resignation, effective Feb. 1.
In her book, The Power of Many, Whitman says she often uses the lessons learned from athletics in her business dealings.
“I liked team sports the best,” she writes. “When I’m pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: ‘Let’s pass the ball around a little before game time.’ ‘Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?’”
Overcoming adversity is a big part of what made Steve Young an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s incredible to realize his football career almost didn’t get off the ground in college.
Arriving as a freshman at BYU in 1980, Young, more of a running quarterback, found himself buried on the depth chart behind picture-perfect passers (and future NFL starters) Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson, among many others. Some coaches were even seriously considering moving Young to the defensive side of the ball.
During that period of uncertainty, the bewildered freshman called his father back in Greenwich, CT, and told him he wanted to quit football and come home. His father, Grit, famously told him that he could quit football, but if he did, he couldn’t come home.
Young, of course, stuck it out and went on to develop into one of the best college and pro quarterbacks of all time. A two-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP, Young is a member of both the college and NFL halls of fame.
When a serious concussion ended his pro football career, Young—who had earned a law degree during the course of several NFL offseasons—was primed and ready to jump right into the business world.
“I see myself as a deal guy first,” Young says. “I’ve put football behind me. Roger Staubach once told me – and I’ll never forget it: ‘When you retire, run. Never look back.’”
In 2007, Young and a business partner co founded HGGC, a private equity firm. The firm, which has closed several billion-dollar deals, separates itself from other venture capitalist entities by only investing in companies where management stays on after the sale.
Young has kept a hand in the sports world, as he also works as an NFL analyst for ESPN.
“I have worked hard to build an expertise in two different fields, and I am proud of that,” Young told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2017. “I have built one over the course of 35 years as a football player and analyst. The other, in private equity, I’ve established over 18 years. I’m focused on being excellent at both – and without sacrificing one for the other.”
This former two-sport star at Lehigh University knows a thing or two about breaking glass ceilings. When she was named CEO of Deloitte three years ago, she became the first woman US CEO to lead a Big Four company.
Growing up, Engelbert came from an athletic family with seven other siblings who were active in sports. At Lehigh, Engelbert played on both the basketball and lacrosse teams and—in a preview of her extraordinary leadership abilities—served as a captain for each squad.
As the leader of one of the largest professional services organizations in the world, Engelbert recognizes the value an athletic mentality can bring to the workplace.
“Athletes have to overcome a daily struggle to avoid feelings of self-doubt when facing temporary setbacks,” she says. “The same is true in the workplace. If you experience a setback, shift your mindset and view it as an opportunity for growth.”
This one-time dual-sport star from the University of Colorado is actually the answer to a trivia question: “Who is the only athlete to ever ski in the Olympics and be drafted into the National Football League?”
Bloom’s athletic accomplishments extend from the slopes to the gridiron. A freestyle skier, Bloom is a three-time world champion, a two-time Olympian, and an 11-time World Cup gold medalist. He was also a football All-American at the University of Colorado as a wide receiver and punt returner.
Bloom has also made his mark in business, starting the Wish of a Lifetime Charity in 2008 and marketing software company Integrate in 2010.
In addition to those professional pursuits, Bloom has also served as an analyst for ESPN, FOX, NBC, and the Pac-12 Network.
Bloom’s athletic mentality is apparent whenever someone questions his ability to get something done.
“They told me that about college,” he says. “‘You’re going to get hurt, you’re too small, you’re not going to play.’ I love people like that – it inspires me to do it even more.”
After being part of a national championship college football team (1991 Miami Hurricanes), you might say that Dwayne Johnson went into the family business: professional wrestling.
Johnson—whose father and grandfather, as well as several other relatives, had been pro wrestlers—didn’t just get by in the ring: he became one of the world’s most celebrated athletes throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Johnson parlayed his wrestling fame into a lucrative acting career, breaking into Hollywood’s mainstream with roles in “The Mummy Returns” and “The Scorpion King.” His appearance in “Fast Five” in 2011 helped reinvigorate “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. His latest starring role was in the recently released “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”
Not bad for a defensive lineman from Miami.
“Football changed my life and it gave me a platform to get out my aggression,” Johnson says. “And it gave me a sense of value.”
As these five examples show, ex-collegiate athletes typically have developed a variety of character traits which help them succeed in off-the-field competitive environments as well. The same drive which pushed them to success in sports, still exists as they jump into full-time careers.
Whether it be determination, accountability, overcoming adversity, understanding teamwork or just an unquenchable competitive nature, athletes have proven capable of taking their talents into the upper echelons of myriad big businesses.
To learn more about the athlete-employer dynamic, visit InXAthlete.com.