Top Business Leaders – their Famous Moves on the Field and Off it

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We all know that leading an active lifestyle by playing sports has innumerable benefits, primarily, that of enhanced health and wellbeing. But did you know that it eerily portends your success at the workplace too?

Several studies have linked adeptness at playing a particular sport since youth to highly successful careers. In fact, highly credible surveys have revealed that an unusually large number of CEOs excelled in sports while at school and/or college. According to a study, 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs played sports in college. This is even more pronounced for women. More than a couple of studies have indicated that women who played a sport have shattered the glass ceiling!

In 2013, Ernst & Young surveyed 821 high level executives which revealed that a staggering 90% of the women surveyed had played sport either at primary and secondary school, or during university. Among women currently holding a C-suite position, this proportion rose to 96%. Remarkably, a 2002 study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer revealed that nearly half of the women earning over $75,000 identified themselves as “athletic.”

They say that sports builds character and though it definitely holds merit, the overarching truth is that sports reveals character than no other!

CXO Life, in this post, gets you the stories of some powerful business leaders, renowned for their razor-sharp business acumen and exemplary managerial skills who took their lessons on the field to the boardroom. Let’s look at some phenomenal achievers who aced their moves!

Irene Rosenfeld

Irene Rosenfeld, former CEO, Mondelez International

Irene Rosenfeld, born Irene Blecker, was CEO of Mondelez International until November 2017 when Dirk van de Put succeeded her. Whilst in college, she excelled in several sports, often captaining teams, which she attributed to be a “key factor in my leadership development”.

Interestingly, in elementary school, Irene wasn’t among the best at sports, often being the last to be selected for kickball or dodgeball. However, her perseverance helped her gain confidence in her abilities gradually and by high school she turned into a formidable player across several sports – playing basketball, volleyball, softball and field hockey. Irene chose to study at Cornell University due to its revolutionary sports facilities for women during that time. Basketball captivated her the most though she had to unfortunately relinquish a potential intercollegiate basketball career due to a broken leg. Her competitive spirit however led her to pursue intramural sports.

She is reportedly an avid roller-blader and her efforts to have helped her home town Chicago win the rights to host Olympic games in 2016 are duly noted. Though she is observed to have a low-key, private persona, she is known to uninhibitedly pursue what she wants. Irene is credited with driving the restructuring and turnaround of Mondelez’s key business in U.S, Canada and Moscow.

Brian Moynihan

Brian Moynihan, CEO, Bank of America

Brian, CEO of Bank of America, is a steadfast rugger and had played rugby at the Brown University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had also played rugby at his law school in Notre Dame and with the Providence Rugby Club. The Wall Street Journal had reported how Brian loved to compete and played on the back line which comprises the smaller, offensive players who pass up the ball laterally while advancing down the field. His position as a fly-half required one to be quick, versatile and tactical quite similar to his current leadership position. He had reportedly even helped Brown University raise $1 million to build the Brown Rugby Field in 2004. According to Brian, rugby stands out due to ‘the continuous play where everybody on the field plays all positions and touches the ball’.

It is his steadfastness that has enabled Bank of America emerge as a formidable competitor to the leader JP Morgan Chase. His strategy of ‘responsible growth’, charting a conservative trajectory which shunned risk but fit the needs of today’s customers, is resonant with more of a 1950s style of banking that has enabled the bank to gradually edge closer to the grand goals Brian, the ‘unexpected pick’ for CEO, had set for the bank in 2011, during the depth of financial crisis!

Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi, Chairman & CEO, PepsiCo

Having ranked consistently among the world’s 100 most powerful women, Indra Nooyi is Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and is credited with steering the company toward profitability with the restructuring and diversification of the soft-drink manufacturer’s brands. While she grew up playing cricket in college in India, her love for sports saw her take up baseball in U.S. Recently, the International Cricket Council (ICC) Board appointed her as its first independent female director; Indra will officially join the board in June 2018.

“I love the game of cricket. I played it as a teenager and in college, and to this day, I cherish the lessons the game taught me about teamwork, integrity, respect, and healthy competition,” she stated in an ICC press release.

Her dogged determination to see through the completion of the work at hand, quick decision-making skills coupled with her strategy to innovate, debuting new product lines offering more nutritious foods and beverages, minimizing impact on environment whilst creating opportunities saw PepsiCo grow tremendously. According to Business Week, since she started as CFO in 2000 the company’s annual revenues rose 72%, while net profit more than doubled, to USD 5.6 billion in 2006 alone.

Dan Akerson

Dan Akerson, former Chairman & CEO, General Motors

The former Chairman and CEO of General Motors, who was a middleweight boxer at Naval Academy, is known for having restored GM its independence and profitability from bankruptcy. Dan, who had been a cross-country runner, took up boxing in college when he was eventually cut from playing as a shortstop in the academy’s varsity baseball team. But, instead of feeling dejected, he took to boxing with such sheer determination and will that it amazed his fellow mates. He reportedly worked hard to stay around 167 or 175 pounds through exercise and dieting.

Much like destiny presented him with boxing, Dan was a former telecommunications executive and was far from an ‘auto-guy’. He took over the reins of General Motors in 2010 more out of a sense of duty. His ‘outsider’ perspective enabled him to be refreshingly frank in the assessment of the company and he believed GM had much to do. He boosted quality while transforming the product line up to among the freshest while taking some tough decisions. Even despite the numerous challenges, GM became profitable and won back an investment grade credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service for the first time in eight years.

When we first came out of bankruptcy, we were playing a lot of defence,” Akerson had reportedly been quoted as saying. “Now, we’re playing offense.” In 2013, Akerson announced his decision to step down from the position to be by the side of his wife, Karin, who was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. But not before the champion had taken the GM stock to record-high levels.

Akerson is currently the Chairman of LDiscovery, LLC and United States Naval Academy Foundation.

Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman, former CEO, 
Hewlett Packard Enterprise

A seasoned Silicon Valley tycoon, Meg Whitman, is the only woman to have served as CEO to more than one Fortune 500 company. She stepped down as CEO Hewlett Packard Enterprise in February 2018 though she remains on its board. Her most notable achievement remains her decade long stint at eBay which she grew from a $5.7 million-in-sales and 30-employee dotcom startup to an $8 billion 15,000-employee e-commerce powerhouse!

Meg was extremely passionate about sports right from high school. She captained the swimming team and played tennis, lacrosse and basketball to the collegiate stage. At Princeton, she competed on lacrosse and squash teams. As a debut author, in her book titled ‘The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life’ she describes her affinity for team sports – “I liked team sports the best. 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 defence?'” Her love for sports saw her and her husband Griffith Harsh join a bid (December 2017) to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento, California.

It isn’t surprising that this drive to win has seen her grow top businesses from scratch while also restructuring them. Meg oversaw what is the touted one of the biggest corporate splits (by revenue) of HP Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. Her penchant to build it up from small has driven her yet again to head a new mobile media startup. She recently has been appointed as CEO of NewTV, backed by Jeffrey Katzenberg that aims to ‘revolutionize entertainment with short-form premium content customized for mobile consumption’.

Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts, Chairman & CEO, 

Brian Roberts is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of U.S. cable giant, Comcast Corporation – owning broadcasters NBC, CNBC and MSNBC, movie studio Universal Pictures, home to “Minions” and “Jason Bourne” movies and some theme parks. Though he was reportedly not great at basketball and was cut from the high school team, Roberts excelled in Squash. He was accorded the No. 1 player, a co-captaincy, earned the first team All-Ivy and All-American during the four years he played Squash at the University of Pennsylvania.

He remarkably earned a slew of silver medals (in 1981, 1985, 1997 and 2009) and a gold medal (2006) in Israel’s Maccabiah Games. On October 21, 2012, Roberts was honoured by Maccabi USA as a ‘Legend of the Maccabiah.’ “If you’re going to accomplish something in business, you have to be tough, physically and mentally,” Brian is reported to have told the Sports Illustrated in 2004.

Perhaps it is this grit and reserve that is reflected in the latest strategy of Comcast to go after promising M&A opportunities without inhibitions. A case in point is Comcast’s recent hostile bid for Europe’s largest pay-TV operator, Sky Plc which, if it comes through, will reportedly position it as world’s largest pay-TV operator, more than doubling its subscribers and expanding its international presence as growth slows in its core U.S. market.

Lynn Laverty Elsenhans

Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, 
Director, Baker Hughes

A pioneer, Elsenhans, who earned an MBA from Harvard University, became the first woman to lead a major oil company when she was chosen President and CEO of Sunoco in 2008. Always a trailblazer, Elsenhans was an exemplary undergraduate student at Rice University and was the member of the first-ever intercollegiate basketball team. Even though the inaugural season was a dampener with the team going 0-11, Lynn learnt from the losses and picked up in the later seasons.

At Rice, she was honoured with the Student Service Award for her achievements both on and off the court. Lynn was actively involved with Rice through various committees including Women’s Athletics and was a member of Board of Trustees from 2002 – 2015.

She went on to garner numerous awards for her professional excellence across a stellar career which comprised a 28-year-long association with Royal Dutch Shell where she eventually presided as executive vice president of global manufacturing. “When I first started, there weren’t many women in the industry, and women’s credibility was very much questioned,” Rice’s student magazine had quoted Lynn.

Currently she is Director of Baker Hughes, a GE company, since July 2017 and is also an Independent Non-Executive Director at GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

Raised in India, cricket played a crucial role for Satya Nadella, who became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, whose dream as a boy was to play cricket professionally. In an interview with Geekwire he said, “The sport had a very rich heritage at my school and I went on to play school and junior cricket as a bowler (right arm off spin). At a certain point, I realized that I had reached my limit and luckily discovered my next passion in engineering and technology!” Even though he couldn’t pursue cricket for longer, the experience impacted Satya profoundly.

In his autobiography, Hit Refresh, Satya divulged the three principles from his “all-too brief cricketing past” that applies to business leadership and that he uses even today as a CEO. “The first principle is to compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation, then importance of putting your team first, ahead of your personal statistics and recognition and finally that leadership is about bringing out the best in everyone, when to intervene and when to build the confidence of an individual and a team.”

Indeed, the man walks his talk and it is evident in the way he has led Microsoft successfully. Satya’s sharp acumen especially of focusing on other lines of business including cloud computing and augmented reality has helped charter a new phase of growth for Microsoft which helped propel the company’s stock to touch all-time highs. In a letter (published on the website early this month) to all the employees, Satya announced Microsoft’s latest reorganisation displaying one of his boldest moves to transition effectively into the cloud computing era.

He stressed on the importance of team effort in imbibing a growth culture mindset within the organisation in the letter – “We can’t let any organizational boundaries get in the way of innovation for our customers… Each one of us needs to push on what technology can do for people and for our world. It will take courage to keep learning and growing together — encouraging one another’s individual strengths, building more diversity and inclusion across our teams, and collaborating as One Microsoft. It’s amazing what we have been able to accomplish together, and yet I still believe we are in the very early days of what is possible.”

While the list goes on, it is evident from the above stories that playing sports helped these leaders take lessons from the field to the boardroom and implement their vision by taking the team together. Why don’t you write to us on why you think playing sports makes so much of a difference?! –

And yes, don’t forget to get it moving too! Today is the #WorldHealthDay!