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Volume 23 No. 9
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Forum: Champions talk leadership, building a career in sports

Leadership attributes and advice for young people are constant touchpoints in our industry. Many look for pearls of wisdom and guidance when it comes to the challenges of leading people, and we are constantly asked about the qualities young people need to get into the sports business. That’s why I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask five accomplished executives — among our Champions Class of 2019 — at the World Congress of Sports how they define leadership and the advice they give young people. Here are their answers edited for brevity and clarity:


 Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren: “Leadership would be doing things that at least 99 percent of the people around you don’t do. They can do it, but they don’t do it. That is really true leadership, to make your mind up and have the grit to do things that others will not do. And also, be consistent. That is the sign of a true leader.”

 Former IMG co-CEO Bob Kain: “Great leaders have to be great executives, first. You can’t lead until you’ve accomplished some things to gain respect. You receive a lot of credit when you’re climbing that ladder and accomplishing things. When you become a leader, it flip flops. You have to stop taking credit and start giving credit. It’s a total transition. You go from being the doer to sometimes the cheerleader and the inspirational leader. Not everyone can do it. Those skills don’t always translate. Some of the greatest salespeople, most successful people in our company, weren’t going to ever be great leaders. And you had to convince them [of] that, which isn’t always easy because they always want to climb the corporate ladder. But not everybody can make that change.”

 TeamWork Online founder Buffy Filippell: “People who are inspirational. That’s what makes a great leader. There are different traits of leaders, but the one commonality is that they inspire you to be your best. You get so excited about where you’re going with this person and you want to be a part of them.”

 Ron Semiao, NFL vice president of programming and media events: “Work hard, so you can lead by example, and support your people. You need to trust your people, support your people and guide them.”

 Earl Santee, Populous managing director for the Americas: “I’ve just focused on being the best servant leader I can be. My job is to make others better, and I do it by understanding who they are and what they want. My job is to find the road map that they can be successful on. It’s personal.”


 Semiao: “I’m going to use the words of Jim Valvano. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

 Filippell: “The one thing the younger people may not know how to do as well is communicate what you offer. What is a skill set that you do? Tell me what is the best skill you offer me so that I can fit you into wherever I need you.”

 Warren: “It takes grit. Meaning that you are willing to do anything and everything that it takes, within the rules, within the laws, and by treating other people with respect, to get things done. It’s a long game, and an overnight success is probably 25 years. You have to have the stomach to be able to just grind it out and be mentally and physically tough.”

 Santee: “Sometimes young people are afraid. Afraid to commit. Afraid to engage. Afraid to understand. And they’re worried they’re going to make a decision that affects them for 100 years, not just the first year. So, getting them to understand they have a long career ahead is hugely important in how they look at things.”

 Kain: “Be prepared. Figure out what you’re trying to do, what you want to do, what the company does. Be prepared to speak to the company in some intelligence. Tell them your best skills and be willing to get in at just about any level. You can come in and talk about a company and know so much about it before you interview. Get ready, be prepared, try and find a niche and go after it.”

Abraham Madkour can be reached at

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week at the 24:02 mark: