Could Today’s Olympians be Tomorrow’s CEOs?
Top employers and business leaders have reason to believe.
By Nancy Altobello and Dan Black
With the 2018 Winter Olympics now in the rear-view mirror, a number of PyeongChang competitors already have their sights set on Beijing 2022. For many Olympic athletes however, the return home means parting ways with their sport professionally and entering the workforce for the very first time.
According to a survey by the US Olympic Committee, nearly 43% of Olympians who retired from sport found it difficult to enter the workforce. This is partly because while many elite athletes are eager to start this new chapter in their lives, they often don’t know where to turn when it comes to finding a new career outside of sport. In addition, they’re often unaware of the various types of career opportunities that could be available to them.
“I was not expecting to enter a career in business,” said two-time Olympic fencer and Columbia University graduate Nzingha Prescod, who is now a data analytics consultant. “I think a lot of elite athletes could attest to that. There’s an assumption that after you retire from your sport, you get a job as a coach, or as a sports broadcaster — a job that’s related to your sport — but that’s not the only option.”
Some Olympians — including those with degrees from a wide range of academic institutions — might have been overlooked by employers because their resumes lack traditional hallmarks of achievement such as prior work experience and internships — experiences they may have missed out on due to time commitments and extensive training for their sport.
But as the war for talent wages on, today’s top companies are now looking beyond traditional resume indicators for people with diverse skills who can lead teams and solve increasingly more complex problems.
The “new” new hires
With more than 57 million freelancers in the U.S., employers are tapping into the “gig economy” more than ever before for qualified contractors seeking flexible, shorter-term assignments that can support borderless teams. Businesses are also increasingly hiring professionals with backgrounds in data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation to manage emerging technology.
At EY, we’re proactively tapping into these unconventional talent pools in new ways. We’re also harnessing the leadership potential of elite athletes and Olympians and helping them transition from careers in sport to careers in business.
Why? According to our research, elite athletes possess transferable skills that make them incredibly beneficial for business. In fact, 94% of women in the C-Suite of businesses played sports — 52% of them at the university level.
Several other organizations also recognize the business case for hiring Olympic athletes — including Visa, RBC and Dick’s Sporting Good, which offer flexible work arrangements to accommodate elite athletes’ training schedules. Many employers and Olympic sponsors also support the International Olympic Committee Athlete Career Program, which aims to provide job assistance and career counseling to athletes who possess high Olympic potential.
From the Olympic podium to the corporate boardroom
A few years ago, we explored the connection between elite athletes and success in business by hiring nine female Rio Olympians — including one Paralympian — as part of a six-month internship and pilot program. The Rio interns received workplace experience, mentoring and career coaching, and, in turn, they made positive contributions to our teams. In fact, the pilot program was so successful that seven of the Rio interns — including Nzingha Prescod — were hired to full-time positions at EY at the conclusion of their internship.
We’ve since expanded this effort by sourcing qualified candidates from various sports backgrounds and supporting them in their career transition. We’re also hiring female Olympians as interns in March who are competing in PyeongChang 2018.
So, what is it that makes Olympians especially qualified for business environments? According to EY/espnW research, there are a few key differentiators:
1. They see projects through to completion: This perseverance and focus is what strengthens teams and helps get projects through the finish line.
“In business and in sports, there is no such thing as an overnight success. You put the hours in behind the scenes with weeks, sometimes even months of preparation going into the planning and execution,” said Prescod.
2. They have an uncanny ability to motivate themselves and others: Athletes don’t just rely on the roar of a crowd to cheer them on or the shouts from a coach to push them. They also draw from within.
3. They know how to team, engage in healthy conflict, commit to decisions and accept accountability for the outcomes: This means maximizing diverse skills and perspectives to execute and win, which is especially important in the era of disruption and for the future of work, as companies face increasingly complex problems that traditional solutions can’t adequately address.
It’s no surprise Olympians thrive in a culture of high-performing teams, and their perseverance, drive and leadership are all transferable qualities that are incredibly beneficial in business.
As today’s top employers and business leaders prepare for the future of work, they’re increasingly seeking a broader range of candidates with diverse skills and unconventional backgrounds — including Olympians. Not only will this lead to improved performance across teams, it will ultimately lead to better business results.
Nancy Altobello, EY Global Vice Chair of Talent, leads the global talent acquisition strategy, focusing on the recruitment, learning, development, coaching and mentoring of approximately 250,000 people in over 150 countries. Dan Black, EY Global & Americas Recruiting Leader, is responsible for the global talent acquisition strategy, including sourcing, attracting and hiring people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
As Global Recruiting Leader, Dan Black is responsible for the global talent
acquisition strategy, including sourcing, attracting and hiring the 250,000
people that work at EY. Dan oversees a team of more than 1,000 campus,
experienced and executive recruiters around the world. With more than 20
years of recruiting experience, he also regularly consults with EY clients
on their global recruitment and overarching employer brand strategies.
Dan also currently serves as Americas Recruiting Leader, where he is
responsible for campus, experienced and executive recruiting for EY in the
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.