The business side of professional sports is no doubt the toughest industry for most women. Men play, coach, and run the teams. That doesn't mean women don't have a passion for pro sports, or can't navigate through the executive ranks. It's often just more of a challenge.

But it can be done. Here is a look at three women who have risen to the top of their respective jobs in professional sports. They share what they have learned about breaking ceilings and offer three pieces of advice on how women can succeed in a male-dominated culture.  

1. Don't worry about being "different."

Michele Roberts is a giant among tall men. As the executive director for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), the former trial lawyer is not only the first woman to hold the position, but the first to lead any major professional sports union in the country. Her advice to women in a male-heavy industry is to not view yourself as "different."

"Being different does not mean being inferior ....  I tell my nieces not to worry about whether you're the only one, but worry about whether you're the best one," she told The New York Times.

As an entrepreneur I have found there is also an advantage to being unique and not offering the same thing as everyone else. Use your strengths rather than push them down. That will be the reason people remember you and your business.

2. Always crave knowledge.

Kim Ng currently serves as senior vice president for baseball operations in Major League Baseball and is the highest ranking woman in the sport. Ng played sports growing up, including softball at the University of Chicago, but one of her challenges was to learn the minute details of a sport she never played.  

Ng has been quoted as saying, "if you want something, you have to be aggressive," and that attitude no doubt explains her wide expertise in all aspects of baseball operations--from salary arbitrations to player development. She has been described as someone who has "an insatiable appetite for understanding why things work," according to an profile. The lesson here: be an expert in all phases of your business and constantly strive to learn and acquire new knowledge.

There is never a time when I feel like I know it all with my business. There are always new ways to deliver services, implement technology, and improve collaboration. I find conferences are a great way to learn about the  latest trends and converse with like-minded people. Sometimes even the smallest new insight can make the biggest impact.

3. Be yourself.

Amy Trask became the first female chief executive officer of an NFL team (the Oakland Raiders) in 1997. Her main advice: Always  be yourself.

This wisdom was given by her mother via Shakespeare's Hamlet. "To thine own self be true," her mother always told her when she was young. In other words, pretending you're somebody you're not is a recipe for disaster.

An example she often cites is when she respectively shared her opinion about a poor executive decision made by her boss, Raiders owner Al Davis. Davis directed a profanity-laced rant at Trask, but she didn't back down because that wasn't her. Instead, she laid out her argument with facts and a positive takeaway message. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind and offer constructive feedback even when faced with aggression.

Balancing this as a woman business leader can be tricky. I have found that it's important not to allow yourself to be walked on, but don't come off like a "man." It's important to protect your unique qualities as a female business leader and not try to be what you perceive as the only way to lead.

Women can face many challenges in businesses that are run almost entirely by men. The best way to ensure success and reach your goals in the face of gender-based obstacles is to learn from those who have made it to the top. It's never easy, but these pioneering women have shown that you can climb ladders and break ceilings, and go as far as you desire.

Published on: Mar 16, 2019
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