Women’s Tennis Association President Micky Lawler: “Why the the biggest challenges a woman faces are also her biggest opportunities”
The biggest challenges a woman faces are also her biggest opportunities. A woman’s emotional side, her female and maternal instinct are not myths; they are real, and they can be used to put tremendous passion and commitment to achieving an endless number of goals. A very good friend and mentor who is a retired Army General used to say to me: “If there is anyone who can revive a dead horse, it is you.” I know he used to say it in a euphemistic way to get me to give up. Women don’t give up. This can be terribly annoying, but you need that staying power if your conviction is right. If you approach the annoying part with a sense of humor, it will be less annoying. One thing that does require deep forgiving breaths is when you know that your statement, opinion or recommendation is received with skepticism while if it were coming from your male colleague, he would be considered a genius. Those are times when you dig into your reservoir of patience and you give yourself a huge eyeroll that no one can see.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Micky Lawler.
Micky Lawler, President of the WTA and former Octagon executive, is driving the value of women’s professional tennis to unprecedented heights, from kicking off 2018 with the biggest investment to date in women’s sports with the WTA Finals ten-year deal in China, to 2019’s $14M record prize money including the largest winning check in the history of professional tennis (men or women). Throughout her tenure, Lawler has launched WTA Networks, reimagining the league’s digital and social platforms and has inked global sponsorships with luxury brands such as Porsche and Moroccanoil. Lawler, a certified interpreter fluent in five languages and mother of three, has also led a dedicated front to generating new fans by securing innovative rights agreements with content networks like iQiyi, Amazon Prime and Tennis Channel. She also led a groundbreaking partnership with SAP analytics to put WTA on the data-driven cutting edge.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Micky! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was at the right place at the right time and got very lucky.
While I had grown up with tennis, and sports in general, my childhood was strongly influenced by living in nine different countries. My father worked for Philips Electronics and had a fascinating career from which my brother, sister and I benefited greatly.
I graduated high school at 16 from the International School of Kenya in Nairobi; and, from there, I went to the American University in Paris. I wanted to be a language interpreter and help nations and people understand each other.
I came to the US in 1981 and went to graduate school at the University of Delaware, where I was a teaching assistant in the Language Department. I left Delaware in 1985 as both a simultaneous and consecutive interpreter, and as an Applied Linguist.
Since I did not have a working visa to stay in the US, I moved to Paris, where quick typing and shorthand were required skills for women in the workforce. I was terrible at both; so, I taught English, Spanish and even a bit of Dutch to executives.
On my way to meeting a language student, I saw an ad for a trilingual press attaché for the Men’s Professional Tennis Council. I applied, got the job…amazingly…and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I began working for the WTA in 2015, there was a need for revenue growth. In my opinion then and now, there was/is a tremendous opportunity to bring to light the fascinating stories of the athletes. I remember, one thing I’d always loved, was how Olympic broadcasters introduced new athletes to an audience — how they had become Olympians, or in our case professional tennis players, was always movie-script worthy and so very interesting. At the same time, I had been closely involved in developing the WTA’s footprint in China. Media consumption in China was transitioning into OTT, thereby offering so much more choice to the Chinese consumer. The pace of content development in China was incredible. So, we approached iQIYI, who is now our media partner in China, and began working on connecting entertainment and sport. IQIYI’s team is extraordinarily talented, creative, loyal and so dedicated. This model of content creation helped us focus on telling those athlete stories; it helped us grow our brand and our audience; and, as a result, our revenue grew as well… We still have a long way to go on that front, but won’t that always be the case?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
On my first day with the Men’s Tennis Council, I was asked to send a fax to New York. I had no idea what a fax was but pretended to be in total control of this task. I looked up “fax” in the dictionary under every possible spelling (facts, phacts, phax, etc.) and nothing, nada… So, I called my dad, who ran the electronics division at Philips, and asked him if he could offer any insight into this mystery machine that would send entire documents around the world in real time. Shockingly, my father had never heard of a fax, which sent me into a full-blown panic. He assured me, however, that his assistant would know, and he would ask her the following day. Since waiting until the following day would have gotten me fired, I made my way to the post-office and transcribed the entire document onto a telex machine. This probably ended up being the most expensive telex ever sent and cost me two months of a salary I had not yet earned or received.
What this taught me?
a) Technology moves at lightning speed.
b) Always come bearing solutions.
c) Find creative ways to ask questions without sounding like you have just come in from the middle ages. For example, “can you show me the fax machine to make sure it is similar to the hundreds of fax machines I have worked with in the past?”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It is impossible to single out one person who has helped me along the way. To start with, my parents were and continue to be extraordinary role models. They taught us the importance of the simple virtues that define good character. Then, of course, there was the opportunity I was given to come to the USA on a Rotary Scholarship and work as a graduate research and teaching assistant. I learned the benefits of productive hard work. My late grandfather, who was a soccer player for Holland, taught me kindness and empathy. He always put others first. Actually, our CEO at the WTA, Steve Simon, has similar traits to a young version of my grandfather. Steve gives the job everything and then some.
Finally, the athletes with whom I have been privileged to work throughout the past decades have been and continue to be a huge source of inspiration and motivation. One learns a lot from those who are the best in the world. So, how lucky for all of us!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
To manage stress and life in general as an executive, I have learned the importance of prioritizing physical fitness. Even on days when I want to crawl under a rock because of jetlag and fatigue, I force myself to exercise. It helps me think, stay strong, and feel ready for whatever may come. I also try to minimize “whatever may come” by being prepared.
Walking into a big meeting I am always clear on the win-win outcome that is in everyone’s mutual best interest. Most of the time this involves compromise, and that is perfectly fine, as long as it is balanced and fair.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
To be honest with you, what is going on this country (and not only this country) is infuriating.
When I was a typical Dutch-looking child, living in Latin America and then Africa, I never felt anything but total acceptance by those societies in which I was a minority. The first time I ever felt there was division of color was not in Bolivia or in Kenya; it was in Delaware. I had just arrived in Newark and was going through international student orientation. After our first morning session we went to the cafeteria for lunch. The cafeteria looked like a three-star restaurant to me; so, I was very excited that this is where we’d come for meals…BUT there was one extremely disconcerting fact that was new to me. There was a section where only black students were seated. Naturally, I took my tray and went to the “black” section. I sat down and was stared down. I pretended not to notice and engaged in animated conversation. The students let down their guards very quickly and our differences only made our connection richer. The color of someone’s skin is as unimportant as the color of someone’s eyes. Now, being a woman whose been around the block a few times, I can certainly tell you stories about inequality; so, I get it, racism is real. To me, the moment we open our minds and see the tremendous opportunity of a heterogeneous society, is the moment we’ll be able to lock away such ignorance forever.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
You have to take your tray and sit at the black people’s table and the women’s table too. One day at a time, you mix those tables and make them more diverse. By the end of the week, you will no longer talk or think about differences in anything but a positive way. Any person who thinks that a black person is less capable than a white person is the same person who thinks the world is flat; and, guess what? That person does not get a seat at your table!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive is comparable to the captain of a ship. She or he will determine the direction and best way to arrive at the desired destination. Leaders who work hand-in-hand with this executive/captain manage different business verticals or groups within a company. Together they make it all happen.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Executives work tirelessly, at least the ones I know. There is no glamour; and, if you have an ego, leading a company is not for you. You have to care a lot for the people first and foremost, and for the common goals towards which you work as a team. Empowering your team by working to people’s strengths allows for individual growth and success for the whole. You have to see the journey as one that takes your organization from strength to strength.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenges a woman faces are also her biggest opportunities. A woman’s emotional side, her female and maternal instinct are not myths; they are real, and they can be used to put tremendous passion and commitment to achieving an endless number of goals. A very good friend and mentor who is a retired Army General used to say to me: “If there is anyone who can revive a dead horse, it is you.” I know he used to say it in a euphemistic way to get me to give up. Women don’t give up. This can be terribly annoying, but you need that staying power if your conviction is right. If you approach the annoying part with a sense of humor, it will be less annoying.
One thing that does require deep forgiving breaths is when you know that your statement, opinion or recommendation is received with skepticism while if it were coming from your male colleague, he would be considered a genius. Those are times when you dig into your reservoir of patience and you give yourself a huge eyeroll that no one can see.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Previous to becoming part of the WTA team, I had been used to great independence in growing a business. The WTA is a little different. It is a non-profit organization run by a non-executive Board of Directors that represents the owners, both Players and Tournaments. The independence I was used to had to shift. It took me some time to figure out a balance that worked for members whose interests were not always aligned. I had been part of that Board for a decade; so, the transition to becoming a member of staff should have been easy. Surprisingly, working in the actual trenches, gave me a somewhat unexpected point of view.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a successful executive I do not know that there is a one-fit-all set of inherent characteristics. However, what has helped me is being able to walk that fine balance between confidence and humility with care. While there are days when I am too humble, I am never too confident. My colleagues are my lifeline. I look up to them and value their opinion and expertise more than I can say. Sharing your vulnerabilities is a strength. You have to stay genuine; and, you need a strong sense of humor and be able to make fun of yourself. You cannot fear failure and you need a flexible, open mind to course-correct more often than not. Finally, you have to know what you do not know and count on those who do know. Empowering those who have entrusted their careers to you is fundamental to successful and happy leadership.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
This is a tough question for which to provide one example. It is a little like asking if there is a particular breath that helped fill your lungs with air. There are hundreds of examples and they are all equally important.
I believe life is about supporting the growth of those who work with you. It is about making opportunities happen. This has been my overarching mission from day one and it will continue to be for as long as I am allowed.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I would not have listened to anything that would have helped me along the way. I was in my 20s when I started and knew everything there was to know about literally everything! It is not until you are actually on the journey that you realize just how little you know; and that is a feeling that should never fade.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Focus on people’s strengths and on their goodness with zero prejudice. Everyone has something to offer. Find that first something and you will find much more. Differences offer opportunity. Be kind to other women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill.
Sir Winston Churchill was a master at articulating life lessons that are and will always be relevant. He had a way of sharing a window into his remarkable mind through language and leadership that is endlessly enlightening.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Arianna Huffington. I met Arianna in Washington, DC through a mutual friend who organized a weekly at-home play date for our kids. While I thought I owned all of my two-year-old son’s heart, Arianna’s daughter, Isabella, stole it. Needless to say, it was a traumatizing experience. Little Isabella imposed upon me the most awful realization that if I had never picked up Trevor from the Huffington’s house, he would have happily forgotten all about me. From then on, I followed Arianna’s incredible career closely. Arianna has not only made her mark on roads less (and not) traveled, but she has also redefined female possibility. To say she is impressive is an understatement; and, I would love to finally put my jealousy to rest by offering my sincerest congratulations and admiration.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.