Bring Your Best Game: Lessons Learned From A Woman Working In A Male- Dominated Industry

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A little disclaimer before we get started, let me just say that what I am talking about today are my own stories and opinions, and don’t reflect the position of my past or current employer.

Having spent over a decade of my career in television sports, I’m often asked a variety of questions with similar themes:

“How did you achieve your success as the only woman in a department full of men?” “What secrets can you pass along to other women who work with primarily men?”

It always cracks me up.  I certainly don’t have any “secret sauce” per se, but what I do have are examples in my life that led me to this career in the first place, and men in my life who believed in me from an early age. And besides, I always thought being a woman in sports had more advantages than disadvantages.

When I was first asked to guest blog on “The Daily Feels”, Janis simply asked me to tell “my unique story as a female executive in a world of men.”   In the past few months I’ve been part of two-panel discussions at Manhattanville College and Sacred Heart University: “Getting in the Game: A Symposium on Women in Sports,” and “Women Blazing Trails in Sports”: How to challenge the status quo, overcome bias and break barriers with confidence.”  I’m always honored to be a part of these discussions, but I am generally surprised by the idea that we are still talking about “barriers” in 2018. I mean, if I was in a life or death situation in the ER of a hospital, I wouldn’t even think about the physician’s gender or ethnicity…I would just hope they knew what they were doing!  Shocking- yes.  But surprising?  Not really.  For as long as there are two genders on earth, and only one of them can have children, I’m pretty sure this will remain something of an issue. The trick is, how to recognize when or if it’s an issue, and how to successfully navigate without making yourself crazy!

So…let’s talk about barriers. I took a look at the dictionary definition of barrier, and here’s what it said:

  1. Anything serving to obstruct passage or to maintain separation, such as a fence or gate;
  2. Anything that prevents or obstructs passage, access or progress “A barrier of distrust”
  3. Anything that separates or hinders a union: a language barrier

Pretty simple. But then again, maybe not.

Because I believe that we are all a sum total of our life experiences and how we were raised, let me give you a thumbnail sketch on who I was when I entered the workforce, and how those early life experiences affected me in my first years out of school.

I was raised in the Midwest, the oldest of three.  My father was an executive at AT&T, and my mom started working in PR at our local hospital when I was ten.

My given name is Teri…not Teresa or anything fancy, just plain T-E-R-I.  I’m pretty sure my Dad wanted a boy, and maybe that’s why he raised me to be an independent, strong-minded woman from the get-go, long before it was popular to do so.  Believe me, that totally backfired on him as I’ve gotten older!

My Dad always said that I was the “lucky one” in our family, because I was the one born with brains, and “being smart was something that would serve me well over a lifetime.”  My sister was the “pretty” one, and she wasn’t as lucky, since looks were transitional, according to my Dad.

I started to swim competitively at age 6 and swam all the way through college, where I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and become an All-American.  However, I didn’t make the Olympics–I wasn’t even close, and to this day that still really annoys me…(and my father).

So from the beginning, the foundation of my life was built around goal-setting and achievement.  That became my self-definition as I got older, and it served me well in sports and in school. I trained five hours a day, trying to better my times, and out of the pool, I was focused on getting straight A’s.  But then after college, I had to enter the “real world”.  And the real world was not as black and white, not as simple.

My original plan was to go to Law School (because if you’re from a tiny town in the Midwest, being a doctor or a lawyer is akin to being a God), and that seemed like the logical next step…(along with getting married). But then I won an internship at a television network in NYC, and my world turned upside down and inside out.  What?? NEW YORK CITY?  I had traveled the country swimming in the biggest swimming meets in the US, but I had never been to New York City.  And wow, what an eye-opener!  They served food on the streets…that you could actually eat!  I could have lunch for $2.50 and be full!  I learned about all kinds of food I had NEVER heard of and met people who were so different from me, SO interesting, and I was hooked. I HAD to be there, I HAD to find out what I had been missing!

Of course my learning curve was straight up…and I was fascinated by everyone and everything. THEN, they hired me for a REAL job!  I was gonna be rich!! They paid me $25,500 a year, and I thought I had ARRIVED.  I had the greatest job in the universe. And of course I bugged my boss the way 22-year-olds bug people they professionally admire. I asked too many questions. I offered too much help.   And one day, I finally found the courage to ask for a bigger job, with more responsibility. And my boss immediately said no. But then a few weeks after that, one of the station managers from Chicago was in town and was looking for a new salesperson, and I became the most affordable option available. I was told I needed some “seasoning”, and once I got it, I could come back to NYC. So off I went…to get “seasoned”.

That next decade taught me lessons in humility and the power of subtlety. Those were the days when everyone was advised to tell the Manager or high-level executive that they wanted “HIS JOB” in an interview.  Be aggressive, especially if you were a woman. Given that my self-definition was focused on achievement, I tackled that job like an athlete…I wrote down my goals and showed them to my boss, and of course, I added my opinion on what he needed to do to make the department better.  As it turned out, the one thing I thought needed to be changed was something my boss had just put in place, and he thought it was the greatest idea since sliced bread.  He stood up and said, “are you seriously telling me to change the one thing that I just declared as our best promotion line ever.”? When I (stupidly) said yes, he suggested that I get back to my office and re-think my position.  So yeah….great impression with my new boss.   Luckily he didn’t fire me, but I learned a valuable lesson in researching whoever I was working with before being so strident and declarative that I knew all the answers.

That particular barrier was my own: I was only focused on what I thought the rules were, and I did things the way I was taught my entire life.  What I didn’t consider, at the time a 23-year old, was how the other person experienced me in any given situation.  In fact, that subtle nuance of knowing what drives one’s boss or colleagues is really what can make or break your career, in my opinion. Early in my career, my grandfather used to tell me the following:  “it’s not what you have to say that’s important, it’s how the other person has to hear it, in order to get them to do what you want them to do.  So, if you have 10 customers, you need to tailor ten different pitches to match how they need to hear your information.”  That advice has served me well my entire adult life, at work, and in life.

Fast forward as I made my way into the sports media world…and what a world it was!  Again, I thought I had the GREATEST job in history!  I got to travel the world, not just the US, and sometimes, when I was lucky, I witnessed history.  When Tiger Woods won the 2000 and 2005 British Open, I was standing right behind 18 green and watched him hole in that last putt.  Amazing.  And because of my job, I had actually gotten to know Tiger and his agent over the years. So, I was in the “inner circle”, and I loved it. It was special and unique, and I savored every minute.  I even loved covering sports that I thought were not as interesting at first, because I got to learn so many things that I never knew that went on behind the scenes. Oh, and being on the field before an NFL game was my new normal, and it was nothing short of spine-tingling.  Every. Single. Time.

My job was to negotiate the deals between the Network and the Leagues, so I was in a powerful position with lots of visibility with some of the most famous people in sports.  Once that negotiation was over, my job was to then oversee the entire show, making sure that we were executing against our contractual obligations in every telecast.  For example, what that means to the viewer is this: for the sports that I was assigned to, whatever you see on the air is my responsibility.  And sports is LIVE, so it’s intense, because every second counts and every second is money.  But I thrived in that environment, even when things went bad, and especially when things went bad.  I’m a “fixer” by nature, so I became adept at seeing the landscape and making quick decisions on the fly, based on everything I knew.  It wasn’t a finite science, but I was prepared for the worst and learned to have a plan B, C and D in place if I needed it.

You’re probably wondering about those barriers in sports about now.  And if you have any interest in sports television, then you’ve likely read a lot about that issue. Again, I am going to use the word “subtle’ here, because the times I was faced with what I considered to be a barrier, were not overt, Hollywood-type moments. I just watched “Disclosure” on Amazon a few weeks ago, with Demi Moore as the aggressive boss and Michael Douglas as her subordinate. Yeah, that never happened to me. A few “Hey T, that dress looks REALLY good on you today,” and “those long legs of yours are lethal weapons”, but honestly those comments made me laugh! But, here’s where I think you can make choices in your career: you can be cynical, or you can be hopeful.  Even when things hit me wrong in my gut, I chose to be hopeful because it truly wasn’t about ME.  I learned, through much trial and error, to see the pictures in the other person’s head.  How do they see ME? What is their story?  More often than not, and especially in a negotiation, people bring all kinds of baggage to the table, unknowingly, that will affect the outcome.  If you go one or two levels deep, get to know the other person’s fears, goals, and POV, you’ll have a far better outcome than just focusing on your own goals. Hard to do when you’re at the table, but as women, I think we are naturally curious, naturally interested in how people think and what might drive them.  These are all useful tools to engage before you get to the table, because you’re basically creating the kind of trust that encourages collaboration on a daily basis.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “we teach people how to treat us”, and I am a big believer in that theory.  If you engage people by going more than one question deep, ask that next question that no one else asks, you’re teaching people that you are truly interested, that you are really listening to them.  And people want to be heard. Being long-term in your focus and using this strategy has never failed me in relationships ..because again, it builds a foundation of trust and empathy that can go a long way in any intense negotiation.

I’d like to share with you two of the most important lessons I picked up from two of my mentors in my business who happened to be men.

The first lesson I learned was about humor. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is “take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” Remember the 22-year old annoying Teri with her first job in NYC, trying to prove to everyone she was the best worker in the building? Yeah.  That was me, Sally Serious.  I wore my ambition and my intensity on my sleeve.  This wasn’t the pool or a classroom exam, it was a brand new sandbox and I didn’t have the tools. Luckily I got slapped down early and learned to focus outward in my mission to “win”, as opposed to me, me oh and yes, there’s me.  I’ve made some cringe-worthy mistakes in my career, not the least of which was tripping and falling into the arms of a former POTUS in our private room at the Kentucky Derby while I was taking pictures of my colleagues.  I lost my footing in ridiculously high heels and a BIG hat.  As I felt myself fall in slow motion, I could only imagine what everyone else was seeing…and then, when he grabbed me and whispered “I’ve got you covered,” I was eye-to-eye with him and I said ” and you’ve got my vote”.  Literally, my whole table erupted, and I don’t care what your politics are, that was a MOMENT never to be forgotten!  Our guests for the event were my biggest clients…and they never let me live it down.

The second valuable lesson I learned was about the importance of honesty and authenticity in your daily work. It’s tremendously important. I am not just talking about getting your facts straight, although that’s always important. What I mean is it’s important to do so with courage, character, and grit.  To quote Jon Favreau, a friend, and former Obama speechwriter:

“if we are honest, these days we are fed a lot of spin by a lot of different people–politicians, PR types, press flaks, advertisers, you name it. It’s true in Washington and its true in the private sector.  Language has been so sanded-down, sanitized and focused-grouped that it’s become meaningless. The reason people do this is because they are, for the most part, terrified of taking risks. They are scared of saying something….anything, that might be criticized or taken out of context, or used to attack them.  Many people will say it’s too risky to throw caution to the wind, but that’s not what I am saying.  Caution, by its’ very nature, feels bland, non-essential, and keeps you stuck. It’s benign, bland and boring.  And it won’t foster change.”

A few years ago my team was asked to put together a huge event for one of our most important clients, and we had all worked ourselves to the bone to try and make their team happy. It seemed like everything was a problem, and nothing we did was satisfactory.  It was one of the most challenging situations because no one could figure out why our “partner” was being so difficult!  After all, we had a new long-term deal, and this was just a small part that became overwhelmingly difficult for no apparent reason!  When we got to the final meeting with both sides in the room, I was sitting across the table from the CEO…and he was ripping us to shreds.  He is a well-known guy, a brilliant negotiator, and someone I have greatly admired my entire career.  But he was wrong.  Flat out wrong.  And the room grew silent.  Everyone wanted to crawl under the table.  So, I decided it was now or never.  I said, “with all due respect, you can hold my feet to the fire anytime and every time when it comes to fulfilling our obligations and promises to you. But what you CAN’T do is rip me and my team apart when you have rejected every possible plan we have offered, utilizing all of our Company resources…”

Again, silence.  He looked around the room for his most senior executive and said “is she right?  Is she telling the truth?”   And the guy stumbled and mumbled and he said yes, I was right.  It was a brutal moment because they had clearly not briefed the CEO prior to the meeting.  My goal was not to throw their team under the bus, but at some point, the truth always prevails.

The CEO stormed out of the room, turned around and said: “Teri, I would like a moment with you please.”   I felt sick, but I followed him out to the hallway.  He thanked me for my “balls” (his words), and said he hoped that I would continue to focus on the success of both of our brands and keep him informed if his team wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain.

So, I wasn’t cautious there, I went with my gut and what was right. And we fostered a greater relationship in the ten years that followed.

Knowing that this particular CEO was a man of integrity and character served me well, and that inside knowledge about the man behind the man continues to serve me every day.  As my grandfather told me long ago, “you can learn everything you need to know about a person by watching their consistent behavior over a period of time.  It takes time, but it will give you greater insight than any book or class.”

Most recently, I had lunch with a close friend and mentor who’s President of a sports network.  He always has such a wonderful way of simplifying a complex issue, and I have learned so much from his unique point-of-view.  The lesson that day? “If you show people that you understand what matters to them, you’ll own them for life.”  Pretty simple. Show empathy. Be curious.  Make what matters to them your biggest priority.

In this world of #MeToo and the narrative around that subject over the past year, I’ve watched and listened as so many seem to struggle to find a balanced and fair conversation around this issue.  It’s definitely worth the time to work through this dialogue, but it sure seems to me that taking a step back and recognizing what matters to each and every person with whom you work, and live, is a great place to start. The rest will fall into place with that as your mission.


teri

 

 

 

 

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