Fierce competitiveness and a commitment to excellence bond a distinctive cohort of athletes turned directors, who are pushing for the same levels of excellence in the boardroom as they did on the field.
Jenn Morris OAM MAICD recalls acutely robust conversations when she captained the Australian Women’s Hockey Team, best known as the Hockeyroos.
“[Coach] Ric Charlesworth was brutal — he was brutally honest and he was brutally fair,” says Morris. “Feedback was given quickly, honestly and for the betterment of the team, not for individuals.”
Her team went on to win gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.
Today, in Morris’ second career as a non-executive director of Fortescue Metals Group, Liontown Resources, Levin Health and Sandfire Resources, the lessons she learned on the hockey pitch still stand her in good stead.
“When people’s words are different to their actions it causes problems and breaks culture,” she explains. “It paralyses people’s contribution, because people aren’t sure what the game plan is and when it is going to change again.”
Morris is just one of a long roll call of high-performing sportspeople who have made a successful transition to the boardroom.
While moving from the pinnacle of one field to that of another isn’t necessarily an easy or straightforward process, many have found that the niche skills honed on the track, field, court or other settings uniquely equip them for a board or chair position.
Former Australian test cricketer Ed Cowan grew up in a business-oriented family but always knew the cricket pitch was where he wanted to be.
“Sport was always something I loved doing and wanted to pursue, and I played for 15 years full-time,” says Cowan.
His transition out of sport was a five-year project involving work experience, mentoring and plenty of personal reflection.
“For so many sportspeople, the fear of finishing their sporting career is the fear of not having something they’re deeply passionate about... but the difference between having a job and a career is very clear to me,” he says.
After completing a commerce degree, followed by a master of applied finance, he went to work at investment firm TDM Growth Partners and, for four years, has been on the NSW Cricket Board.
“I’m so lucky to have played cricket for so long — the game gave me so much and, like others, I felt I needed to give back to the game,” he says.
“I’m a huge believer in the diversity of thought around board tables. I don’t look particularly diverse, as a white male, but having lived the experience from the other side of the table as a player rather than an administrator, I think I can provide a lens as to what the current playing cohort would think and feel about the decisions that have been made in the boardroom.”
Cowan says high-performing athletes are familiar with the long hours of preparation and practice that underpin any moment in the sun.
“People see sportspeople only when they walk through the tunnel to the crowd clapping and they walk off either to clapping or booing,” he explains. “But it’s what happens behind the scenes to get to that point. Much like in business, people see the results being produced, but they don’t see the duck paddling underwater. And that is a sportsman’s week — the preparation, the reflection, the training, the emotional anguish, the effort and the resilience that’s required to keep turning up.
“That life is pretty closely mirrored to that of a high-performing executive,” he says.
High-performing athletes bring a unique combination of qualities to their boardroom game.
Elite sportspeople have something of a head start when it comes to shaping the peak performance mindset that enables them to get to the top of their game and stay there. “It’s a lived experience that’s not easily replicated,” says Ed Cowan.
Athletes rapidly bounce back from the “confrontational” conversations that occur in high-performance environments. “When things aren’t going as well as they should be, athletes tend to be relatively comfortable receiving feedback and they develop resilience through that,” says Iain Roy GAICD.
No business progresses in a straight line, so being able to deal with highs and lows is crucial. “Whether in times of need or times of achievement, the one thing executives will be looking for is that level head — clear thinking under pressure,” says Cowan.
A positive approach to life is associated with positive outcomes, including better health and greater success, but it does have a dark side. “I’m mindful of my natural bias to optimism, particularly in a boardroom, because you need to be providing checks and balances,” says Cowan.
Preparation drives continued commitment. “While you might have the main game, which is the board meeting, reading the board papers, having informal discussions with executives and management, and doing your own research is absolutely critical,” says Jenn Morris OAM FAICD.
Sportspeople tend to go full-tilt and make amends quickly. “In a boardroom, you need to have a clear and thoughtful approach that can deliver outcomes over a long period of time,” says Cowan. “[There’s] a need to reflect or sit back and observe in the first instance.”
Ticket to play
High-performing athletes’ skills and experience are their “ticket to play”, says Morris. “But it’s ultimately your reputation, and that’s built over your whole career,” she explains.
Morris points out that the high-performing mindset that is shared by most sportspeople is something that is immediately transferable to corporate life.
“I have an unrelenting pursuit of improvement and performance — that’s just generally a part of my make-up,” she says.
“It’s having the mindset to constantly question: is there another way to do this? Is there a more cost- effective way? Is there a more efficient way? Should I be asking more of myself and more of my team? Can this be done differently? Can it be done better?
“Elite sportspeople have this steely discipline to go further and achieve performances and outcomes that haven’t been done before — that’s why records are broken. So, I think that mindset has a real value... It’s not about winning or losing, it’s having this mindset to push further than anyone’s ever pushed before,” she says.
Tolerance of ambiguity is another quality high- performing athletes have in their toolkit.
“You might have this overarching plan, but things change constantly,” says Morris. “Planes are missed, training venues close, you get bad decisions all the time, but you’ve got to be able to adapt, adapt, adapt.”
Morris’ path to the boardroom demonstrated her own tolerance of ambiguity, mixed in with an ability to embrace uncertainty.
After hanging up her hockey stick, she was appointed to the board of the Fremantle Football Club and later became a partner at Deloitte Australia in Perth.
In 2016, she was contacted unexpectedly by Fortescue Metals Group directors Sharon Warburton FAICD and Mark Barnaba AM MAICD, who explained that chair Dr Andrew Forrest AO wanted to add another director to the board.
“They said he was looking for someone from any industry other than mining,” says Morris. “The second thing he wanted was someone who had achieved something significant — not just once, but had repeated it — because Fortescue was embarking on its next stage of development.
“They’d raised the money, built the plant and operated it, and reduced the costs, and he wanted to guard against complacency,” she says. “He said he wanted someone who understood going from one achievement to the next and the seduction of continuing to do what you have always done. He wanted the next level of performance.”
Morris carefully weighed the offer because it meant leaving Deloitte.
“I loved the firm and I still have a lot of good contacts there, but I decided to resign,” she says. “A lot of people did question me leaving the partnership and giving up at least two-thirds of my salary, but that’s pretty much me. I get to the edge of the springboard and jump, and hope there will be water there by the time I land.”
The decision led Morris to other opportunities.
“Sure enough, when you open one door, you open 10, and when you open those 10 doors, you open another 10, and so on,” she says.
Morris adds that there are many parallels between being a team member in a sport and in a corporate environment.
“You do have to be an individual and carry your own weight — and one of the most important qualities is having the ability to speak up,” she says. “It’s a risk when directors and boards are perhaps turning up, but not speaking up.”
Total value of the AIS Education Scholarship program since its inception in 2021
AIS investment in Australia’s winter athletes and sports over the past four years
Number of female athletes supported by the Minerva Network’s mentoring program
Proportion of executives who believe playing sports helps women progress faster
Number of participants supported globally by Athletes for Hope
Sources: Australian Institute of Sport, Minerva Network, EY and espnW, Athletes for Hope Australia
Iain Roy GAICD, CEO at Sports Integrity & Governance Partners (SIGPA) and a director at Women Sport Australia, says athletes tend to make strong candidates for a board position.
“They bring a diversity of experience and opinion to the board table and their intrinsic grit and determination, experience in high-performance settings and commitment to do the work is valuable,” he explains.
“Attached to that is a level of self-discipline and time management — in order to get to the top they need to be putting in the hours, while balancing their commitment to sport with other life commitments.
“For those who are in non-professional sports, there’s often a study or work commitment in their week that they need to balance. There’s an interesting parallel here with directors juggling board commitments with day jobs.”
As the former head of Cricket Australia’s independent integrity unit, tasked with investigating the 2018 Australian ball-tampering scandal, and through his crisis and risk management work with SIGPA, Roy has had to initiate many difficult conversations.
“Child safeguarding, bullying, toxic cultures — it’s been refreshing to see how open athletes are to having conversations with me on these topics,” he says.
The burgeoning arena of sports governance means that Roy is never short of something to do. For example, after leaving Cricket Australia in 2018, he was asked by Basketball Australia to conduct a review of their critical incident response in relation to the brawl between the Australian and Philippines men’s national basketball teams.
“Although it started as an on-court incident, it very quickly morphed into a board review of systems and capabilities to understand whether the organisation had reacted appropriately,” he says. “I spent a few weeks with them, providing recommendations on how to strengthen their internal processes and governance arrangements.”
In 2019 Roy co-founded Athletes for Hope Australia, the first international chapter of a US- based initiative that seeks to connect athletes with charitable causes that are close to their heart.
“We do this via discovery workshops, where we inspire athletes to understand the platform they’ve got to make a difference in community causes,” he says. “We help them discover what it is that makes them tick, and then connect them with those community causes that are aligned with their passion.”
Upskilling athletes in areas outside the sports arena — including by providing opportunities to learn about governance — is also part of the organisation’s broader remit.
“Governance is not a familiar concept to athletes, so it requires some directed education for them to understand what it takes to be a member of a functioning board,” says Roy. “They also learn that their sporting career is more than just training and playing — it’s about continuing to grow into a better, more rounded person.”
Yet Roy feels there remains more work to be done if athletes are to contribute effectively as directors.
“There’s a need for strong induction programs and more governance awareness training, so athletes transitioning out of a sporting career feel they’re able to contribute to full board discussions,” he says.
Roy points to the work being undertaken by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Sport Australia. The AIS has launched an Athletes With Impact workshop series to better equip committee members for their representative roles, maximise their influence and governance relationships, and contribute to the future of their sport.
Athletes With Impact can also provide guidance around the role of committees and the expectations of boards.
Sport Australia, meanwhile, has developed The Start Line, a program designed to boost the capability and confidence of board members, from grassroots to national sport boards, to govern sport effectively.
“These sport agencies can help to elevate the athlete coming out of sport, but Australian companies and not-for-profit organisations should reflect on the support that an athlete aspiring to be a director might need. It works both ways in that sense,” says Roy.
“While the AIS and Sport Australia are doing a good job in building governance and leadership capability at the moment, if there’s a broader industry- based effort, we might find that athletes are really well placed to contribute at the board table as they exit their sporting careers.”
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