I had the pleasure to interview Virgin Sport Global CEO Mary Wittenberg. In her past role, Mary essentially built the NYC Marathon into the largest one day sports event in the world during her tenure as President and CEO of New York Road Runners, and is now bringing her expertise to build and launch four Virgin Sportfitness festivals in 2017. Mary is an A-list, incredibly well respected female CEO who has shattered the glass ceiling in sports and business, and has built a reputation as one of the most responsible and driven CEOs in the industry, which is why Richard Branson hand picked her to oversee his latest, red-hot fitness venture.
What is your “backstory”?
Before leading Virgin Sport as our Global CEO (I prefer Chief Exercise Officer!), I served as the President and CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR) and Race Director of the New York City Marathon. I feel proud and humbled to have been the first woman to lead NYRR, helping to develop the New York City Marathon into the world’s largest, and arguably best, marathon bringing 50,000 finishers together and raising over $25 million for charity each year. I loved working with my team to pioneer the World Marathon Majors and National Running Day while expanding NYRR’s commitment to the five boroughs of New York City through youth running programs and a year-round calendar of major events, classes, and health programs. I’m a former Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and currently an avid runner, aspiring cyclist, November Project devotee, and fitness enthusiast. It’s been an amazing experience establishing a Virgin Sport footprint in London over the last two years and I can’t wait to kick-off the inaugural US-based fitness festival, Virgin Sport San Francisco, on October 14th and October 15th.
Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
I feel incredibly lucky to work with Richard Branson who is such a visionary entrepreneur and leader. Richard is a people’s champion. His empathy combined with his energy helps him see — and seize — opportunities that other don’t. Marry that with his willingness to chart his own course and follow his heart and instincts, and you get the one-of-a-kind game-changer that he is.
Richard wholeheartedly believes in making a difference in the world. He stands for what he believes in and is willing to flout convention and politics to do so. He is the master at taking on a challenge and wrapping it in lots and lots of fun. Richard is game for anything that is smart — even if it seems impossible. This is the man who flew across the Atlantic in a hot air balloon and lives by the motto, “screw it, let’s do it!” His playful outlook on life makes any endeavor that much more exciting — whether it’s crafting a mission to get millions of people moving through sport or building a new startup to make that dream a reality. Richard has always been ahead of his time — and while he’s always thinking about the future, he’s also very present. He values time with his family just as much as he does progress for his next-gen ventures, like building a spaceline of the future. Richard works incredibly hard both in general and in support of our Virgin Sport team. I find his willingness to do so humbling.
I’m having a blast combining the sweat of sport with the swagger of the Virgin brand. Working alongside Richard and Virgin Sport Co-Founder, Freddie Andrewes, and our incredible team, we’re creating totally unique festival of fitness experiences that get people moving and excited. This year, we were thrilled to launch our first events in the UK and we’re counting down the days to kick off Virgin Sport San Francisco this October.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe so much in the power of sport and fitness within our lives — especially as a means of connection to community and healthy living. I have been fortunate to spend over two decades focused almost every day on helping and inspiring people to move.
At Virgin Sport, our mission is to move the world through sport. We aim to get millions of people moving, and to bring people together in ways that inspire and create community. We want everyone to feel and be a part of the team. We aim to be a connector — bringing together people of all fitness levels and abilities, from pro-athletes and workout warriors to the friends and family who’ve been an important part of their fitness journey. We want everyone to know they can sport.
We do this by curating a wide range of fitness and other activities at our festivals to inspire participants and fans (or as we call “spectathletes”) to be active. For our upcoming Virgin Sport San Francisco Festival of Fitness, we will have the SF Bay Half Marathon for the longer distance runners, a Twin Peaks Hill mile run mixed with core exercises and costumes for something short and sweet, and a full-day of fitness and cultural programming for post-race participants and their fans.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
If you have a vision and it is rooted in a real need that people have, which you think you can solve, be bold and stay bold.
I am good at being bold at the outset. I can see opportunities. I need to remind myself to stay bold, especially after I seek all the countervailing views (which I do) about a given idea or plan. The bolder the idea, the more important it is to maintain my focus and stay committed when others, rightfully often, take time to see, and bring to life, the opportunity.
At NYRR, I wanted for years to start free 5ks. I really saw the power of free fitness as a means to reach even more people. Yes, it ran counter to our then paid “race” model. And yes, doing super grassroots events was a shift from our world-class logistics, full-service event model we put on display at events almost every weekend. Yet I knew this was the right route to go and it would be super complimentary to everything else we were doing. I look back and think that I was too patient because we spent years thinking about it (and I was concerned about the team’s workload). Instead, I should have said let’s go: If it fits with our mission, we can develop the resources to pull it off.
Most recently at Virgin Sport, I see the opportunity to bring friends and family together at sporting events in a way that’s never been done before: Just because you’re not participating as an athlete doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel like part of the experience. The idea is to create truly inclusive events, whether you’re running in a race or just there to cheer someone on, we are placing real emphasis on giving everyone the opportunity to participate in some way.
We need to stay bold and better relay what makes us different. We don’t do ourselves justice when we market only one part of our festival, whether that’s a half marathon or a 5k, because that’s putting us in the same box as so many others. I know it can feel safer as everyone knows what a half marathon is. We need to do some more work on really honing our product and our messaging, but all the raw material is there — it’s a matter of packaging and delivering it better and not being afraid to paint the vision of something new.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Trade up for what matters most.
Focus on what’s important. There will always be jobs where you have lots of inputs, whether you have a large board or a large team, but you need to be able to identify what is a priority. I look back at my early days at NYRR and I wasn’t always so patient and thoughtful about pacing and what was mission critical. I remember a stage of NYRR development where we were working on our next strategic plan, and I wanted to wrap it all up, the vision, the strategy and the multi-year plan. A board member gave me great advice: Take your nose off the grindstone. Step back, breathe, and give it room. Give people space to start the journey without fully scripting every desired outcome.
As a start-up, it is all the more important to every day say no to so many fun, shiny projects we want to take on. We have a big vision; over time our product and services will fulfill that, but today’s mission critical is focusing on the building blocks only. The first steps are key to the long run. Figure out your most important priorities and then focus and deliver those first and foremost.
Listen super pro-actively.
The more senior you get, the more it is vital to listen pro-actively. As a leader, it’s critical to sit back and listen. Not only let other voices in, but assume that people are not going to share. Tap into that EQ. If you see someone hesitating, they might not speak up, but you can see it in their body language. There was so much I learned during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I often talk about the biggest lesson, which is the power of pause. I also learned to listen pro-actively. I remember like it was yesterday, that first morning after the hurricane hit. We divided and conquered assessment duties with the city. Our job was looking at and assessing the race course. At that time, before the gas shortage and the full damage of the storm was clear, the course itself was in relatively good shape. Most of us were focused on that part, not yet fully understanding the big picture. As everyone jumped into high-gear talking about all the ways we could address challenges to ensure we were ready if the city wanted us to be, there was one guy on the team who was super quiet. And he had a look on his face that by week’s end, I was thinking that he knew to pause. He knew to question longer and to let the challenge and the reality present itself to us versus trying to solve it that moment. From that point forward, if I needed a gut check, I made sure to walk over and specifically ask him for his point of view.
Every day at Virgin Sport, I find the “analytics” on my team. They have become my go-tos. The ones who sit back and study situations. Often the last to speak up, they are my balance and pause and the ones I can count on to think most deeply, most critically.
Create a team you want to be on.
Since starting at NYRR, almost 20 years ago, I have been purpose and impact driven. As the years have gone on, I have also realized how fortunate I am to work with good people. In addition to purpose and impact, who we work with day to day matters. The more diverse the team the better. In every way. Across the board, I want to work with kind, good hearted people, who like to help others be their best.
The same thing applies to our business partners. We spend a lot of time with our partners — they are part of the team. Today, the spirit and personality of our partners really matters when deciding who we work with. I want my team to enjoy working with our partners and vice versa.
Communication is everything.
As a leader, it’s not enough to have vision — you have to effectively communicate that vision to your team. Ideas are great, but you need your team to understand both what you’re saying and what you want to accomplish big picture to actually put plans into action. I realize that I’ve been fortunate to have translators in my various roles. People who can parse what I think needs to get done and help me disseminate or better explain next steps.
Over the years, I’ve also had to work to better understand different communication styles. It’s so great that everyone has their own unique way of expressing themselves and their thoughts, but as a leader, it’s my job to adapt and make sure that everyone feels that they can effectively communicate with me. This might mean that I take a different approach depending on the person — but I realize that trying to figure out each person’s communication style and working with that, instead of trying to mold them into something else, really pays dividends.