Leadership

If you want to be a CEO later, play sports now

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Tim Clayton | Getty Images

What do a disproportionate number of CEOs have in common? They played sports when they were younger.

Former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb was the captain of the Stanford Soccer Team. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan played rugby at Brown. Even Mark Zuckerberg was a high school fencing star.

But according to a series of Ernst & Young studies, it is even more common for female executives to have played a sport.

Ernst & Young surveyed 821 high-level executives and found that a whopping 90% of women sampled played sports. Among women currently holding a C-suite position, this proportion rose to 96%.

In high school, Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was the captain of the swim team and also played varsity lacrosse, tennis and basketball. At Princeton University she played NCAA squash and lacrosse. In her book "The Power of Many," Whitman writes: "I liked team sports the best. When I'm pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: 'Let's pass the ball around a little before game time.' 'Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?'"

Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Andrew Burton | Getty Images
Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Whitman is not the only female CEO that has found athletics fundamental to their success.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in college.

Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi speaks at The New York Times DealBook Conference
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images
Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi speaks at The New York Times DealBook Conference

Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsenhans played on Rice University's first women's basketball team.

Lynn Elsenhans, Chairman & President of Sunoco, Inc. speaks during the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum
Tim Rue | Getty Images
Lynn Elsenhans, Chairman & President of Sunoco, Inc. speaks during the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum

Mondelez International CEO Irene Rosenfeld played four varsity sports in high school and NCAA basketball at Cornell University.

Irene Rosenfeld, chairwoman and CEO of Mondelēz International
James Leynse | Getty Images
Irene Rosenfeld, chairwoman and CEO of Mondelēz International

There are a few reasons why playing sports may boost your odds of business success.

Athletics builds character

Sports keep you physically and mentally healthy, teach you important relationship skills and forge determination. These benefits often spill over into the business world.

Sporting organizations help with networking

The NCAA has a robust career center. Wall Street's "Lacrosse Mafia" recruits All-American players at staggering rates. You can even scroll through the 42 best lacrosse players on Wall Street.

Northwestern sociologist Lauren Rivera notes that hiring rates increase the most among candidates who played "sports that have a strong presence at Ivy League schools as well as pay-to-play club sports, such as lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, squash and crew."

Sports often reflect privilege

It may not be that playing sports causes someone to become more of a leader; instead, the truth may be that people who are already competitive and have leadership potential are drawn to sports as kids. They and their families are also often more likely to be affluent, since participation on so many teams requires significant cash outlays.

Sports consume time, energy and resources that many families cannot spare. People who are well-off are more likely to play sports as well as more likely to become CEOs. If you can afford fencing lessons, your child's odds of becoming a CEO are already quite good.

But why are women in the C-suite more likely to have played sports than their male counterparts?

It might be that sports encourage women to break gender norms, something that is often required for them to reach executive positions in the business world. Sports teach young women and girls skills beyond teamwork and dedication. Learning to be aggressive, competitive and tough may make them the kind of employees eager to take on more responsibility and seek promotions.

It could also be that the same families that encourage girls to be athletes encourage women to be competitive and successful at work and at everything they do.

Whatever the reason, it is becoming more and more apparent that starting on the court or field may be the best path to the boardroom, especially for women.