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How Playing Sports Made me a Better Female Leader

Ellen Sundra, vice president of global systems and sales engineering, grew up playing competitive basketball. Now she takes the lessons she learned from the sport into her successful career in technology. Read about how sports have shaped her career, especially as it comes to persevering as a woman in a male dominated field.  How has […]

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Ellen Sundra, vice president of global systems and sales engineering, grew up playing competitive basketball. Now she takes the lessons she learned from the sport into her successful career in technology. Read about how sports have shaped her career, especially as it comes to persevering as a woman in a male dominated field. 

How has playing sports made you a better leader? 

There’s an interesting statistic that 90% of female executives –  96% of those in the C-Suite – have played sports. Some of the most famous women executives are notorious athletes – Quibi and former HP CEO Meg Whitman was a swimmer, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket, Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsenhans played basketball. For me, I have played basketball my whole life, starting in my driveway growing up and then through college (and still coach it today). 

The lessons learned from sports will be different for every person, but the biggest lesson it taught me is character. Not only did it teach me the drive and self-discipline needed to fight for a win, but it also showed me the resilience to move forward after a tough loss. On top of that, I think a large variety of sports teach the value of teamwork and communication. That translates into the professional world, where those traits build trust and make us more efficient.  

What did sports teach you about being female leader in particular, especially in a male dominated field? 

Growing up, basketball forced me to get comfortable on the court with a diverse group of players – young and old, male and female. I would head down to the local basketball courts for a pickup game with all the guys and didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t do it with a mindset to break any gender norms – I was just competitive and wanted to play basketball! For me, it’s much the same in the technology sector, which is still an industry that struggles on the whole when it comes to gender diversity. While I very much want to see that improved over time, I’m not going to let it be a factor when setting goals or being part of the team. I sometimes think that because I didn’t enter the basketball court, or an executive meeting, being acutely aware that I was the only female in a male-dominated environment, that I didn’t really notice that I was different. I was there to play, no matter who was on the court with me.

Do you tend to hire other leaders who have played sports?

I don’t intentionally lean towards former (or current) athletes, but I’m never surprised when those that I value working with have a history of playing sports. I attribute that connection to the fact that the values they learned on the field or court are often the same ones I value in a colleague. Maybe I enjoy working with them because they are self-motivated, a strong team-player, or a great communicator, only to find out later that they learned those traits playing volleyball or hockey in college. 

Are you encouraging your children to play sports? 

All three of my kids play basketball, but we didn’t force them into it. They all got started playing with me and my husband in our driveway. It became a fun family activity for them and now whenever we go on vacation, the first thing we do is look for a basketball hoop. 

I love that my children all play sports, especially since it’s a sport I enjoy playing with them. But I also think there’s a fine line between encouraging them to get into sports and forcing them into it for the leadership or resume benefits. I’ve seen way too many kids burn out at an early age. The most important thing is that they love the sport and want to play. A proud moment for me is when I talk to my daughter about why she likes basketball, she says it’s because she enjoys the time with her friends and making new friends.  Appreciating the comradery of team sports is something she will seek in the workforce as well. It’s not all about being competitive and driven to win, but also about building that teamwork, trust, and strong bonds with your peers. The lessons naturally happen, whether you win or lose. 

What is one lesson from sports that you hope other people can learn from?

The analogy that I use the most is that it’s really important to have the right people in the right roles. For instance, on the basketball court, you definitely want me on your team. However, at 6 feet tall, you probably don’t want me to play point guard. You want me in a position that I will succeed in, something that utilizes my skill set. That same dynamic plays out in the corporate world. Perhaps someone is fantastic technically, but people management isn’t their strength, or vice versa. Everyone has to be in the right role if you all want to succeed as a team. 

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