How does a professional sportsman parlay his skills to become a successful manager? Two stories give us some insight into the teamwork and self-discipline which both sports professionals and business managers require.
After successfully playing University basketball for years, a team colleague of Hikmet Ersek said to him: “Hey, I think it’s time that you look for other opportunities.” At age 26, this was a turning point which led Ersek to eventually become Western Union’s Executive Vice President and Managing Director for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Asia Pacific. “Those words were really good for me!” Ersek recalls. “I had learned a lot from basketball but I also realized that this could not go on forever. It’s very important to understand this at an early age. Otherwise you become aimless and forego important opportunities.” It was this suggestion that led Ersek to start his post-basketball career with Mastercard. Everyday Ersek brings to his work and his company the skills and values instilled from his time as a basketball player. The most important element, he believes, is teamwork. “I am responsible for 160 countries and if I don’t trust my team, this team will not work. In basketball you learn the same thing. You can be the best player in your team, but if nobody passes you the ball, you all loose. Everyone needs to be part of the team. If you want to be freed up, somebody needs to stand in for you. You learn that teamwork can make the difference. Teamwork is absolutely vital”.
Ersek believes that the determination and self-discipline to exert beyond one’s current capabilities is a second strong value instilled by sports. “If you engage in sport, you learn to stretch yourself and want to be even better than you are currently. You learn to methodically overtake yourself and this is something that I did, and continue to do, as a manager,” he adds. “A third value – which I touched on before – is trust. You have to trust people and be aware of the environment in which you operate, just like you need to know every part of the basketball court, and to know about members of the opposing team.” Ersek further stresses. “I think that you have to empower your people to free them up. Otherwise, they will remain in the box with no initiative or motivation. These, I believe, are the values that I have brought with me from basketball and are ones that still shape my professional and personal life.” Ersek also believes that there are lessons that sports people can take from business. “For those sports people who think that performance enhancing drugs is their way to success, a stint in business will soon change their minds. In business you learn to make processes optimal. You learn that taking short-cuts and cheating will get you nowhere in the end. Your business relationships need to be for the long-term.” “Sports people who go into business also rapidly learn how to adapt to their new environment,” continues Ersek, “because team members have no choice but to work with each other.” And lastly, he believes that sports people bring to business a sense of fun. “After all, in sports you know how to get pleasure from both playing and watching the game”, he concluded.
Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Spring 2009