ELITE athletes spend most of their early and formative years training in sheer determination to become the best they can be at their chosen sport. So intense is their drive to succeed that it often leads some to become great not just at one sport, but many.
Most sporting stars start at a young age, dreaming big to become the next Olympian, dedicating their youth to long, gruelling hours of training so that one day they can make their mark on the world stage. And, let’s be honest, Olympians are elite-level human beings. They often have the ability to tackle just about anything.
A career in sport is not the only area in which elite athletes thrive. They carry a long list of impressive attributes, ranging from adaptability, self-discipline and time management to teamwork and resilience – skills that are highly sought after by employers. It’s no surprise then, that elite athletes often go on to also making a significant mark in the corporate world.
Working in addition to competing, training and studying, as well as nurturing personal relationships or being a mother, is not an uncommon story for our elite female athletes. They are known multi-taskers and high-achievers who often take on too much but still deliver exceptional results.
Sarah Kruger, Managing Director - Human Resources at Accenture (Australia and New Zealand), says athletes have all the behaviours that leading organisations look for in prospective employees.
“Elite athletes bring a different perspective into the workplace and a point of difference,” explains Kruger. “Often, they have more life experience than your average university student.
“The work we do is constantly changing. The skills we develop this year are not the same skills we will develop next year, so athletes – who are trained to grow and learn – will invariably have the ability to do well.”
Jane Waldburger, Olympic medallist, Minerva Network Mentor and leading civil engineering executive at Aurecon, agrees that professional sportswomen are a valuable pool of talent.
“Elite athletes have unique leadership traits and entrepreneurial skills that are readily transferable to the business environment,” says Waldburger.
“Some organisations, including Aurecon, acknowledge this and are putting more weight on life experience, which is something that elite athletes can easily demonstrate.”
Waldburger has worked with Aurecon for 17 years, starting as an undergraduate for the first two years in casual employment, before progressing to working full-time whilst also training full-time. She balanced engineering with elite water polo for seven years culminating in a Bronze Medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Her reliable time management and good communications skills enabled her to successfully manage her competing priorities with full-time work, thanks to a company that was flexible and willing to adapt to her needs.
“Communication is key,” Waldburger says. “It is important that the business is aware of the athlete’s priorities and schedule ahead of time, and also the athlete needs to know where they stand, particularly when they need to take extended leave to train and to attend competitions.
“I was very clear and upfront about where I had commitments. I wrote a formal letter to my boss at the time which eventually went up the chain to executive level and that’s how I was, quite unexpectedly, approved for additional paid leave when I competed in the 2012 London Olympics. It felt like a sponsorship of sorts and it’s the kind of support that bigger organisations can afford to consider.”
Waldburger says athletes don’t always recognise that the skills they have are highly sought after and transferable in the workplace; and that they can and should ask for flexible opportunities.
This is where the Minerva Network makes a positive impact. The not-for-profit organisation matches some of Australia’s leading executive women with some of the nation’s best female athletes. The pro-bono mentor/mentee engagement helps to unlock what the athlete is seeking for their own personal and professional development throughout their active athletic career, and maps out where and how they can apply their skills to thrive in other areas beyond sport.
Kate Aitken, Minerva Co-Founder and Head of People and Culture at Optus, explains it this way: “Elite athletes are ruthless at time-management. Their goals are set to a strict cycle and their days’ activities are entirely based around that plan . . . for an Olympian or Paralympian, that’s a four-year cycle which is longer than an annual business cycle.
“When it comes to juggling their athletic career with working in the corporate sector, athletes are trying to retrofit their lives and commitments into a world they don’t know much about.
“The great benefit of this engagement is that the mentors share their real work/life perspective and experience, which athletes wouldn’t otherwise have access to, and collaborate with their athletes to interpret their ambitions and help them find where their skills cross over. With Minerva’s help, the athletes make the transition faster.”
Minerva acknowledges and thanks the many contributors to this series: Lisa Cedres (author), Arthur Stanley/VenuesLive (editor), Kate Argent (Minerva Network) along with our interviewees Sarah Kruger, Jane Waldburger, Ashleigh Werner and Kate Aitken.