I knew that elite athletes have to be fiercely competitive, but nothing quite prepared me for a recent chance encounter with Katarina Witt.
The figure skating impresario, who has taken home numerous Olympic gold medals and other accolades over the years, spoke at the "We Own It Summit" in Philadelphia in May. There, she and I also had a chance to chat privately.
Witt said her coach used to pair the more junior skaters with the more senior ones, in order to give the younger skaters someone to look up to. "I was very disrespectful to my colleague at this time," says Witt. "I thought, 'I will beat you one day.'" Then that skater married Witt's brother. Her reaction? "I think, 'Okay, now I beat you more.'"
Witt has carried that attitude throughout her life, whether she was being stared down by other skaters, producing ice shows with business partner and fellow Olympian Brian Boitano, or leading Munich's bid for the 2018 Olympics. Here, Witt talks about competition and leadership, in both sport and business.
Q: How do you approach competition? In skating or in business?
Katarina Witt: I liked competing right away. My first competition was at the age of 6. It was my birthday and I won. I never really enjoyed practicing so much. I just loved competing.
At the end it doesn't matter what you do. If you're an athlete or a swimmer or a figure skater or you open a new business, you have to believe in it. It didn't matter what I did afterward, I did it with the same passion. I am very much emotionally involved, which makes it difficult.
Q: Was your coach a mentor as well?
Witt: My coach was the most successful coach in the world. It was difficult for her to see me as a 9-year-old, and growing as a woman and becoming an adult. She was really strict. But I needed somebody tough. You need a strong person who you respect. It was a love-hate relationship for sure.
I would bounce the door closed and she would say, 'Was that you?' And I would say, 'No, no, no, that was the wind.' Sometimes when we had to go running I would hide behind trees or go into a bakery. But that was summer practice. I always knew when to get serious.
Q: How did you become the leader for Munich's bid for the 2018 Olympic games?
Witt: I was thrown in. I had no idea what it takes. I gave up my life for two years. I did draw from being an athlete, how to channel your energy, how to prepare. And I had been a show producer, so I knew about getting sponsors involved and how to treat them the right way. I knew how to create a presentation, how you should have people speak, and in which order.
Motivating my team was easy. They saw how much effort I put into it. I loved what we were doing. I replaced another leader who came from a big company, but he was leading his bid like he was leading his company. It did not really work with this team, where you have people who give up a lot of their own life and don't make a lot of money. I didn't treat myself like I'm leading the bid. I'm part of the team.
Q: How did you get your perspective on leadership? That it's more about being part of a team? We don't tend to think of skating as a team sport.
Witt: I learned it through the ice shows I produced. With the international shows, you have a team. You have a lighting director, lighting people, sound. You have the choreography; you have the skaters. I love that kind of collaboration always, where at the end different kinds of puzzle pieces create that picture that everybody has worked on.
Q: Yet the Munich bid didn't succeed.
Witt: Pyeongchang won for 2018, for all the right reasons. We lost in a way that we knew we never had a chance. This for an athlete is the worst: motivating a team and having 200 people who are dedicated to this who are not making much money. And afterward realizing that we never had a chance. It basically destroyed me for a half a year.
Q: Is it hard to be both a business leader and a celebrity?
Witt: I am an open book. I love talking to people, and I am authentic. You have to keep a mystery about yourself as well. As I look at French actresses, I love that there is a myth about them. I think it's sad that I know everything about Hollywood stars.