Good as Gold: 3 Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Matt Levy

What can business leaders learn from professional athletes? Three former Olympic and Paralympic swimmers who have transitioned from the pinnacle of their sport to the top of their chosen careers share their hard-won wisdom.

From the last week of July to the first week of September, the world’s eyes will be fixed on the speed, strength and skills of nearly 15,000 competitors at the Olympics and Paralympics. But what happens when it’s all over and some of them quit medal-hunting to look for regular jobs? Do tens of thousands of hours of elite-level training and competing at the highest echelons of sport translate into useful skills in the demanding business world?

Yes, according to three gold medallists who represented the nation in Australia’s top-performing sport. Their insights into what helped them navigate corporate careers underscore just how much the business world can learn from sport. And while their stories differ, the former athletes’ advice to executives seeking to excel is similar – back yourself and grab every opportunity.

Matt Levy OAM PLY

Matt Levy OAM PLY

Sport: Para-swimming (freestyle, butterfly)

Highlights: Nine Paralympic medals: three gold, one silver and five bronze across five Paralympic Games – Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio de Janeiro 2016 and Tokyo 2021

Business skill: “For me, the biggest quality from my sporting career is perspective.”

Crushing disappointment at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics gave Matt Levy a tough lesson for his subsequent business career. He felt that he’d “ticked every box” to make the team but returned with no individual medals, having made no finals and achieved no personal bests, even though he was a member of the gold-medal-winning relay team in the 4 x 100m.

“But then, when I thought about it, I had a moment of clarity and perspective,” says Levy, 37, who was born 15 weeks premature and has cerebral palsy and vision impairment. “I wasn’t giving 100 per cent at training – I was just turning up, doing the ks. I needed to be more targeted and have small goals throughout the session to keep improving.”

During almost 12 years working in change management at Westpac and, since 2023, at Paralympics Australia helping companies employ people with disabilities, Brisbane-based Levy has strived to set himself small targets every day and not “just turn up”.

“That means making sure I’m not taking anything for granted,” he says. Levy will think carefully about why he’s in a meeting and what the other person wants from the project being discussed. He describes an “Aha!” moment for a client recently, when he questioned them about what they wanted and they realised the project was as much about inclusion as dollar outcomes.

Levy, whose latest book, Going the Distance: Identify and create your own lane to success, is about reaching your full potential, says the skills that he developed through sport and have assisted him in business are time management, goal setting, attitude and perseverance. It’s the latter that enabled him to break into the corporate world by sending his CV to Westpac, despite having no business experience or qualifications (he’s since completed a business degree and an MBA). “Look at everything as an opportunity, as a learning experience.”

Annabelle Williams OAM PLY

Annabelle Williams OAM PLY

Sport: Para-swimming (freestyle, butterfly)

Highlights: Two Paralympic medals: bronze at Beijing 2008 and gold at London 2012

Business skill: “I used to call it compartmentalising but actually I think it’s focus.”

Twelve years after retiring from competitive swimming, Annabelle Williams juggles a busy portfolio career using a technique she developed at age 17. At the time, she was training for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, vice-captain of her school and hoping to get into law – but was wasting a lot of time worrying about swimming when she was studying and vice versa. The solution? A strict timetable so she could focus completely on the task at hand.

“Now, it’s very natural for me,” says Sydney-based Williams, 35, who was born without a left hand and forearm. Her schedule includes motivational speaking and workshops, board meetings and diversity consulting, as well as time with her two young daughters, barrister husband and friends. From late July until mid- September things are even more hectic, with six weeks in Paris commentating at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Williams’s initial post-swimming career was as a corporate lawyer with global firm Allens Linklaters then in-house at the Australian Olympic Committee, as well as board positions at Paralympics Australia and Swimming Australia. But the real turning point came in 2019 when she did a two-month executive MBA at Stanford University in California. She gave the valedictory speech to more than 200 of her fellow students, mainly CEOs from across the world, on elite sport and life with a disability.

Several urged her to quit her day job and set up a motivational business, to share her insights into determination, inclusion, resilience and courage. “All the skills you develop as an athlete help in the business world,” says Williams. Even though she’s worked incredibly hard at her career, using the grit, determination and work ethic she’d built up as a swimmer, it’s the huge amount of support and kindness she has received that’s made all the difference. “I’ve been the beneficiary of kindness my whole life.”

Kieren Perkins OAM

Kieren Perkins OAM

Sport: Swimming (distance freestyle)

Highlights: Four Olympic medals: gold and silver at Barcelona 1992, gold at Atlanta 1996 and silver at Sydney 2000

Business skill: “You become incredibly adept at dealing with what you can control and not getting caught up in the what ifs.”

Ask Kieren Perkins when the skills he learnt as an elite-level swimmer have helped most in his corporate career and he doesn’t hesitate. The 2018 Hayne Royal Commission into banking misconduct was “not a nice or easy time to be a banker”, he says. His then role as a NAB executive meant that the 14-month maelstrom of negative publicity was challenging.

“Everyone loved putting the boot in – you really did feel under siege,” says Perkins, 50, who is now CEO of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC). “I led my team through it by not getting caught up in the commentary, which you can’t control, and working on the things you can control, like looking after customers and the team.”

Perkins was at NAB for 12 years from 2009, after running his own leadership consulting business when he retired from swimming following the Sydney 2000 Games. He also joined the boards of Swimming Australia, the ASC and the Starlight Children’s Foundation but describes NAB as “my first hardcore corporate job”, at age 35. He completed NAB’s training to become an entry-level business development manager in private banking and spent plenty of time sitting next to junior people learning the ropes.

“There are so many great things you learn through [sport] about the ability to manage yourself and the way you interact with others,” he says, adding that it’s a surprise to people who only see the “15 minutes” of long-distance swimming success. “The reality is that the rest of the time there are tens of thousands of hours put in to your career working with others – coaches, dietitians, masseurs, physios, your family and teammates. One of the things I’ve always understood is that you’re only successful if you’re surrounded by good people.”

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Image credit: Nic Walker, Chris Wooldridge

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