Why great leaders will ignore bias and convention

"Boom. There is the difference." I’d texted this to one of my talented team members this morning. She had been encouraging me to write a blog about our women-led, senior management team at Virgin Sport.

I was pushing back. "It’s not the fact that they are women that’s compelling," I said, "It’s that they are super talented individuals, with different strengths, perspectives, styles united by a purpose and crushing it as a team. Not the mere fact that they are women." That alone as a "hook" made me bristle.

You see, I believe we are beyond the stage where women leaders in sport and fitness are novelty. At a time when most spectator sports still rule TV screens, "participatory" sport and entrepreneurial fitness companies are increasingly capturing hearts, minds and viewers.

While leadership in the traditional sports industry remains male dominated, women leaders and founders in participatory sport and entrepreneurial fitness companies have been changing the game for some time.

As you get closer to the playing field in "spectator" sports, you’ll find fewer women leaders. For decades, sports teams and sportswear companies were run by men for men.

The tide, however, is turning.

While most top spots in traditional sports teams and leagues remain reserved for men, there is a movement afoot when it comes to participatory sports and fitness start-ups. Just like Richard was cut from a different cloth forty years ago, these women are playing a different game. Women passionate about sports and fitness are solving real problems for their audiences, and creating their own way.

The Nikes, Under Armours and MLBAMs of tomorrow may very well be some of the women led start-ups of today. Like Richard, the disruptors of their day, Phil Knight, Kevin Plank and Bob Bowman, approached things differently. They were the upstarts - the innovators.

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In our traditionally male dominated industry, I see more women founders than ever before: Jessica Alba of the Honest Company, Payal Kadakia of ClassPass, Tyler Haney of Outdoor Voices, Susan Lathan of Orange Theory, Sally Bergesen of Oiselle, Susan Krouse of Swell. When it comes to scaling some of the most popular fitness and wellness businesses, founders and Boards of Directors are turning to Women CEOs (and, in two cases, former Virgin alums) to run the show: Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle,  Sarah Robb O’Hagan of Fly Sports, and Katherine Ryder of Maven.

While the door to traditional sports remains mostly closed - bound by convention - these women are opening others.

Arguably too close to the topic, I pushed back again: "I have been lucky to work with great women leaders and managers in sports and fitness (versus my law firm days when we were much fewer and far between)," I shared. "Give me some depth of perspective, how does a majority women leadership team inspire you as a team member?"

My eyes popped open at her response.

She, in her late 20s, and others on the team, shared that they haven’t been so lucky:

"When you look at a fact like that in our lifetime women weren’t even allowed to run a marathon, let alone run THE marathon, it’s inspiring to see progress against biases in the field."

Progress against biases. Boom. This is 2017 after all.

Twenty plus years older, reading her note, I realised – since starting in sports, I have been the creator of my reality.

I ignore bias and convention. I have always worked for men. All male partners on my law firm team. Male (or mainly male) boards of directors at New York Road Runners and Virgin Sport. Some have been great mentors. Others, not so much.

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But that’s not what I focus on. I focus on achieving results and earning the right to be a decision maker. It’s with that right, I can succeed and create an environment in which teammates can thrive.

Whether on the college crew team or Notre Dame cross country team, my law firm team or NYRR, when there were no women before me. I didn’t see it that as a hurdle. But I rarely limit my view to what’s been done before.

I focus on being as successful as I can be - knowing I can create a new reality for me and my teams.

I applauded my teammate for action. "Well done. You didn’t sit for it. You left. You are here now."

My next immediate response: "Fight your way to results and the reality you want to create for you and others."

Don’t ever let reality dissuade you.

It makes me shudder to think of talent like my team getting stuck due to bias. Which is why I feel strongly about all kinds of diversity. When it comes to job opportunities, what should not matter is one’s gender, race, sexual preference, socioeconomic strata, school or neighborhood name.

As leaders, we shouldn’t have to ask people to ignore bias.

I am optimistic since I know, over the long term, the best team members are united in purpose, but super diverse in thought, style and experience. Companies can - and we only achieve that by ensuring people are free to be their best. Our brilliance and talents lie in who we each uniquely are.

As leaders we have two main goals: to achieve the results necessary to fulfill purpose, and to create value in our businesses and create environments in which people thrive.

So, let me tell you about my kick ass senior team. They are rock stars. They work their tails off. They are supremely effective. The cover x, y and z.

And, did I mention? They are majority women.

Loud and proud of them, meet Victoria Brumfield, Our Head of Operations. She has over fifteen years of experience creating and building one of a kind events like the NYC Triathlon and is one of NYC’s best sprint cyclists. Our Head of Marketing, Erin Sprague, most recently led the women’s division at Specialized and is a former collegiate runner and World Guinness Record holder for being the youngest person to have run a marathon on each continent, while raising money for youth fitness. Our Head of Strategy and Technology, Jessica Frey, an industrial engineer, started at IBM, helped New York Road Runners scale as a member of the strategy team, swam competitively growing up and is an ultra-marathoner. Our Head of Finance, Sarah Wallace brings over ten years of finance experience, starting at PwC, focused on business development in emerging markets in EMEA, was a competitive swimmer and likes to run.

Both Erin and Sarah are expected to deliver baby girls within the next few weeks. Adding to our growing population of future sporters, while leading the charge.

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