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Tips From The Top: One On One With Mary Wittenberg

I spoke to Mary Wittenberg, president of EF Education First Pro Cycling and formerly the longtime CEO of New York Road Runners and race director for the TCS New York City Marathon, about her journey and best advice

Photo Credit: Jojo Harper
Photo Credit: Jojo Harper

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?  

Mary: I started my “sports” career as a baton twirler. For better or worse, I was pretty good at it.  

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your success and growth?

Mary: I was the oldest of seven kids growing up in Buffalo, New York. A colleague once described me as able to thrive in the throes of chaos, and I credit my siblings for that! I grew up believing I could do anything I put my mind to, and I learned quickly through sports, especially the ones I was terrible at, that effort, attitude and initiative go a long way. When I ultimately discovered rowing and running, I was more capable and interested because I had tried the others, and I learned you can succeed through perseverance and the right mindset.

I originally planned to work in law for three years before moving into sports, but after 10 years and making partner at my firm, I surprised colleagues and clients when I left to work at the nonprofit New York Road Runners, best known for the New York City Marathon, as the “number two” and director of administration.

NYRR was where I fell in love with my work, and I immediately saw this huge opportunity to introduce people of all ages and abilities to running; I believe so firmly that athletics can unlock people’s potential and create meaningful community and connection with others. In many ways, I would have stayed forever, but when Virgin and Richard Branson called, I jumped at the chance to pursue two dreams: leading a startup, and expanding my concept of community-based running and fitness, this time taking it around the world. It was an amazing experience and we created a unique “festival of sport,” but our timing to market wasn’t great and it became clear we’d fail to scale fast enough to be the global business we’d intended. 

For the first time in my career, I didn’t have a clear picture of my next step, but I knew I wanted to help people unlock their potential and foster community in meaningful ways. Cue EF Education First. EF is a massive (but still entrepreneurial) family-owned company with a mission to open the world through education. The organization believes in the power of creating understanding and bringing people of different backgrounds and cultures together to unlock potential and opportunity, and it’s now my job to use EF’s own pro cycling team to further the company’s mission and unite its 52,000 employees across offices and programs in 114 countries. Our pro cycling team embodies our EF “explore the world “ethos – all resulting in a great natural personal fit for me.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Mary: It’s vital to set a clear and ambitious vision, stay grounded in your “why” and be world class in your “how:” 

  • Paint the picture of the envisioned future and help your team see themselves in it. 
  • Stay grounded in your “why.” Our mission is to inspire the cyclist and explorer in us all and it’s at the forefront of everything we do.
  • Elevate your “how” over any desired result. Cycling is the world’s most beautiful sport, but there have been dark eras when the focus has been on the result without regard to the “how.” It’s also a sport for everyone, but the pro peloton can seem impenetrable and not relatable. Our “how” at EF Pro Cycling includes “winning right” versus winning at all costs and “opening the peloton” through our engaging team, and this is part of what attracted me to the role in the first place.
  • Make decisions for the long-term. Be willing to stand up to critics and be the sole voice that points out what others may not.

Leadership roles aren’t meant to be easy. What matters is being willing to stand up for what you believe is right and leading the way to a future that everyone may not see. 

Adam: ​Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them? 

Mary: Joe Kleinerman, who helped found NYRR in 1958, saw men and women as equals, promoted women’s running and developed the concept of age group racing decades ago, way before others. At 90 years young, he was so proud when I was emerging as a leader at NYRR and would have been proud when I went on to become the first woman leader of a big city marathon and NYRR. 

The Hult family: I am thoroughly enjoying working with Edward and Philip Hult, the leaders of EF Education First. They are who they are – each is quite different from the other, and they want their teams to be comfortable as their true selves. They are both fast, confident decisionmakers; I have already seen them turn down significant deals for cycling team sponsors because the brand fit didn’t feel right.  

There is also this incredible generation of women entrepreneurs who have found success by being very much themselves – they go after their businesses in a way that reflects what’s important to them personally. Spanx’s Sarah Blakely, Glossier’s Emily Weiss and Outdoor Voices’ Tyler Haney are three of them. They saw opportunities and approached their businesses in ways that let them focus on customers, not products, and they didn’t compromise anything about themselves in the process.

 Adam: ​What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams? 

Mary: 

  • Treat your team like a sports team. Rally behind one goal, know that you are in it together, be honest with each other, provide direct feedback and create a safe place so people can focus on learning, changing and growing week after week. Foster a great team dynamic. No one wins in business on their own.
  • Diversity is your best friend. Complement yourself with people who have strengths different than yours, think differently and will challenge you. EF realizes this by bringing students and travelers together from around the world, and our pro cycling team lives it every day. Our multicultural team is full of riders and staff with different skills and strengths that when taken as a whole help us win and be the best we can be. This wouldn’t be possible without diversity of thought and experience. 
  • I love getting to shine light on other people’s accomplishments. Whether it’s a colleague on my team, someone who’s raising money for a cause or a person who’s fighting to create more equitable access to sport, I want folks to know who’s doing some “good” and making a difference.
  • Keep it fun. As a leader, help keep a “real life” perspective and a spirit of fun so people can thrive.

Adam: What are the best lessons you learned from running an event as encompassing as the New York City marathon?

Mary: The power of community and connection: When you run, you make friends with folks who, at surface level, you don’t have anything in common with. When you lead an event, it’s the same thing; you discover that people across sectors and geographies face similar challenges, and you all have to work together to solve a common goal. It’s a powerful experience.

Do what feels impossible: From pros to explorers to new athletes, there’s a lot we can share in going after our dreams. I’m especially inspired by people who are chasing a goal, checking off a bucket list item or improving their health. They’re doing something that seems impossible, and they’ve taught me the goal isn’t always to win, but to learn and improve along the way.

Value humility: Even though your event or project has huge positive impact for many and may create a dream-come-true opportunity for some, remember it may be seen as a traffic jam to others! Especially as you dream big, it’s important to try and stay aware of what your stakeholders need (and they may be a broad set). 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Mary: 

  • As I mentioned, every leader has the opportunity to think about the “how” beyond their results. Make sure you find yours. 
  • Think beyond this moment and your company’s goals. How is your company or team going to be a productive force in your local neighborhood? Industry? Society? 
  • Do what’s right, not what’s easy. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Mary: “Leaders eat last.” 

It’s less a piece of advice and more a philosophy that Simon Sinek encapsulated with the title of one his books. I learned early that leadership means taking care of everyone else. Whether as the oldest sibling or the coxswain of the men’s college crew team, it’s up to you to build an environment of trust, safety and equality. Check your ego at the door and be centered so you can be there for everyone else. 

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Mary: Help people learn. Be honest with your teammates and help them embrace change; while it’s important to honor the past, they’ll be best served focused on the present and the future. 

Set your people up for success and care about their future beyond working with you. When leaving one role for another or in periods of change, it’s really important that leaders free their teams of personal allegiances. When I left NYRR, it was important to make sure those I’d worked closely with shifted gears and looked forward, rather than holding onto our relationship and the past. 

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Mary: With teenage boys at home, a lot of my free time and energy is devoted to them and my husband. I’m super aware of how short a time we all have together. We also have fun hosting friends at home – which often happens to center around post-weekend workouts. 

I rewire my brain and gain fresh perspective with my morning run or workout (cycling now included!) almost every day. I’m lucky, as my favorite activities of running, cycling and fitness are constant sources of learning, growth and social connection. I try every couple of years to take on a challenge that scares me a bit. Cycling in the Alps during the Tour de France this year had me nervous, but it left me exhilarated and appreciative of the power of the bike as a means of seeing the world. 

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