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Why Are More Ex-Sports Pros Moving Into Top Level Business?

The rise of the ‘athlexecs’ and how to win at work and on the field.

“What next?” For the professional sportsperson, it might be the most daunting and difficult question they face during their careers. Many will have had to forego further education and will have had little, if any, experience of working for others. Second-career opportunities have traditionally been difficult.

But increasingly, leading firms in the City of London and elsewhere are actively recruiting podium-toppers, trophy-lifters and medal-winners into exec-level positions. From Citigroup to Goldman Sachs and Aviva to Aon, industry leaders are entering the ex-pro transfer market, encouraging athletes to switch from locker room to boardroom and join the likes of Ashes-winning England cricketer Matthew Hoggard and Rugby World Cup champion Matt Dawson, among many others.

Quite simply, says Dr Steve Bull, performance psychologist and author of The Game Plan, this is all down to the new employees’ attitude. “What these people don’t have of course is technical knowledge, but the businesses say, ‘We can teach them that, that’s not a concern’. The attitudes and the personality and the dedication: that’s what attracts.”

You have to have tenaciousness and have the ability to deal with setbacks, however big or small

While thwacking a ball into a net and tracking Forex positions may seem, on the face of it, poles apart, the mental attributes and character traits required to excel in both are the same. “Former athletes, by definition, are very motivated people – persistent, dedicated and good at goal-setting,” says Bull, who splits his time coaching elite level sports stars and executives. “That transfers into business beautifully.”

Tom Voyce, who played for London Wasps and England, among others, in a professional rugby career spanning 14 years, is now an account manager in Investec’s Fund Solutions Origination team. He says he was initially surprised by the similarities between the two roles. “Something that I didn’t think I’d get to experience after my playing career was to be part of a team and a wider group whose ethos and mentality is so aligned with the sporting one.”

Voyce admits that he had to play catch-up with his colleagues’ knowledge of the industry. But he was able to play his unfamiliarity with his new field of play to his advantage, drawing on his ability to react, at times instinctively, to changeable and unpredictable conditions. “In rugby, to beat your opponent, you’ve got to come up with new, innovative ideas. A lot of my current colleagues probably hate me, because I’m challenging them on a daily basis: why are we looking at it this way? Why aren’t we looking at a different approach?”

It’s not only how former athletes crave a good result that makes them valuable assets, however, but how they cope with bad ones too. Down the hall from Voyce at Investec is Emily Maguire, who retired from the Great Britain hockey team at the end of 2016. Today, she’s part of Investec’s client management team.

Her most formative experience came four years after winning a bronze medal at London 2012. “I was lucky enough to go to the London Olympics, but I didn’t make Rio,” she says. “I wasn’t injured, I simply wasn’t good enough. Having to deal with that is up there with one of the most difficult things that you could ever have to deal with. The fact that I’ve been able to deal with that and come out the other side I think speaks to my character, and I think to the characters in general of athletes. You have to have that tenaciousness and the ability to deal with setbacks, however big or small.”

This resilience is one of the key reasons that Richard Branson, for example, has strongly advocated hiring former athletes. It is also the reason that recruitment firms such as Add-Victor and Athlete Career Transition – both of which specialise in placing ex-sports pros into top City jobs – have experienced such high demand. Though it should be pointed out that the transition is not always a smooth one.

“In rugby, you know what good looks like,” says Ollie Phillips, a director at PWC’s digital transformation practice and former captain of England Rugby Sevens. “If you win at the weekend, you’ve done well. Whereas at work, you can do something but you won’t have any feedback for months. Years, sometimes.” Working life as a professional athlete is a process of continuous feedback, where errors and bad practice are acutely analysed and trained out of you on a daily basis. This fosters an innate malleability in athletes that, if properly nurtured, can become a huge asset to a City firm, says Phillips.

“If leveraged, utilised and supported properly, those individuals in professional sport can absolutely excel [in business], but there needs to be an understanding from the top management bringing them in that you need to spend some time with them. Coach them,” he says, and then “you’ll really tap into everything that they’re brilliant at, and then their soft skills will blow everybody else out of the park.”

The former pros will also see familiar traits among new colleagues, in those who bridge sport and work with excellence in amateur competition. During office hours, Rob Sherwood is Head of Trading at energy tech company Limejump; in his spare time, he competes in, and often wins, top-level amateur triathlons. “It’s all about pushing yourself and being the best,” he says. “I saw a lot of it in my last job at Merrill Lynch. There were a lot of people there who just wanted to be better than everybody else and would choose the hardest challenge they could find just to say, ‘I can do this and you can’t.’ It’s all about one-upmanship.”

As a trader, Sherwood’s win-loss equation is arguably higher than as a triathlete. A ‘win’ at work can net him much more than an abstract award of points; if the opposite occurs, it could have a detrimental impact on his entire company. It should come as no surprise then that when it comes to sport, Sherwood isn’t content merely to go out on the occasional fun-run. “Completing something doesn’t drive me,” he says. “Going and doing a marathon and saying I finished it is not, for me, very worthwhile. I’d rather go somewhere and race. That gives me much more of a thrill. I guess that’s the same in trading as well: you’re all striving to get to the depths of why the market is moving in a particular way, and whoever can get there quickest can take advantage of it. It’s a very competitive job, which I guess is what I like.”

This, says Dr Steve Bull, is a common mentality in the world of finance. “What City people have in common with elite athletes is they’re driven, they’re goal-orientated and they’re competitive – if not against others, then themselves. They enjoy the cut and thrust of challenging environments and they like testing themselves. That’s why business people like to hear about athletes’ stories and they like to be around athletes, but equally that’s why athletes slot very comfortably into that environment, because they’re rubbing shoulders with, in a sense, like-minded people.”

With a disciplined approach to work, competitive spirit and winning mentality, it’s little wonder that the ex-professional athlete is becoming such a sought-after commodity in business. Today, the answer to “what next?” seems to involve a challenging, rewarding job and a very bright future.

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