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sport and strategy consultingElite sport, and strategic consultancy; at first glance, these two activities appear to be poles apart. But are they? We look at how strategic consultancies seen to have more than a sprinkling of ex-athletes.

On the face of it, one activity is practiced by the very young, who have limited time to shine; while the other is the preserve of mainly older individuals – where (in the main), the longer a specialism is followed, the better and more valuable they are.

But when you actually think about it harder, the worlds of sport, and consultancy have a lot more in common than they have differences. Both share the same passion for working out how a combination of small improvements turn into giant leaps; both understand what it takes to achieve transformation – turning underperformance into peerless, hyper-performance. Both arguably understand the difference between processes, outcomes and goals – which perhaps explains why the world of strategic consultancy appears to have more than its fair share of ex-elite athletes.

For example, double Olympic gold medalist Tom James, who retired from the sport of rowing in 2013 (after winning at the Beijing and London Olympics), is now a consultant at Oliver Wyman, while Rio Olympics gold, silver and bronze medalist, Maya DiRado, has already hung up her swimsuit and joined McKinsey as a business analyst. Patrick Manning, partner at Bain and Company from 2003-2014, was also a former rower (silver-medalist at the 1992 Olympics).

So, what’s the appeal? Is it just coincidence? “There’s certainly one side of consultancy that many ex-athletes seem to go into,” says Tom James, speaking exclusively to Consultor. “That’s the leadership, teamwork side of consulting, where the parallels are certainly there.” He adds: “From my point of view, whether the same parallels are there with strategic consulting, I’m less sure about – as the nature of the job exposes you to lots of different business areas, and you can’t waffle your way through stuff. People expect you to be a proper consultant, not someone with a point of view from having done sport.”

James echoes concern that can sometimes exist about what sportspeople – often with no business experience – can really add. After all, there was uproar when Chelsea Clinton – then aged just 22 – was headhunted by McKinsey, even though she had no real business experience. “I was certainly anxious,” says James “about what I did when I knew my time in sport was drawing to and end. What I decided was that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life dining out on successes I’d had in my 20s, being a TV pundit, or something like that. I wanted more options for myself, to build a second career.”

It is in this respect that he says being a top athlete has made some difference. “What I can say, is that elite sportspeople have been at the top of their sport, so it’s natural that these same people want to be the best at something else – and this was what appealed to me about consultancy.” But, James says being a sportsman didn’t gain him extra favour at the interview stages at all; he had to get through the entrance requirements just like anyone else (which he says his Cambridge University education helped a lot). “Performance does play into your previous experience, so maybe this is an advantage,” he says. “But mainly it’s been down to a lot of hard work.”

Being professional

James admits he hasn’t done an MBA, but what’s also pronounced is the extent to which sports people do tend to seek out this qualification by enrolling at business schools. For example, Derek Bouchard-Hall, was a former professional cyclist, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, winning gold in the team pursuit event at the Pan American Games. After retiring in 2002, he studied for an MBA and became a consultant at McKinsey, working in both Boston and latterly London.

DiRado, 23, already had a degree in management, science and technology from Stanford, and said, of her shock move away from sport (it was only her first Olympics), that being a competitive swimmer might well have taxed her body, but “not my brain.” Manning was already studying for his MBA at Harvard while training with the US Rowing team.

Sportspeople are undoubtedly focused, cool under pressure, are natural achievers, and are naturally curious about improvement. Perhaps because they have had personal success themselves, they want to share, and ‘give back’.

Maybe this also explains why the direction of travel also works the other way too – where athletes join consultancies, gain business experience, but then leave to forge successful careers in other organisations. Swede Bengt Baron (100m backstroke winner at the Moscow Olympics), had a short career at McKinsey’s Stockholm office, but is perhaps better known for taking his consulting skills with him. He had high profile roles at Coca Cola, and (between 2001-4) was CEO of Absolut Vodka.

Bouchard-Hall too has since had roles as an executive at – the world’s largest retailer of cycling, running, and triathlon equipment – and most recently (2015) was appointed president and CEO of USA Cycling. What’s clear though, is that their consultancy time – rather than their sporting time – is what they think about more fondly now.

Speaking to Business Insider Australia in 2015, Bouchard-Hall said: “McKinsey was the best training. The things I learned at McKinsey and in my MBA about the fundamentals of managing a business have been immensely valuable. There are lots of ex-bike racers. But I was an ex-bike racer who had spent a lot of time in management consulting, focused on improving the performances of businesses using traditional, tried-and-true methods.”

Peter Crush for

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