On July 9th, 2016 Serena Williams won the women’s singles final of the 2016 Wimbledon Tennis Championships, making her the only tennis player – male or female – to have won singles titles at least six times in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and equaling the world record previously held by Steffi Graff for the highest number of Grand Slam wins in the Open Era. She then went on to win the women’s doubles final that afternoon, playing with her sister, Venus Williams. As a high-performance athlete, Serena Williams not only epitomizes physical excellence but also demonstrates exceptional mental prowess and strategic management.
Below are a few insights that executives in Africa can learn from Serena Williams.
1. Stay focused on your ultimate goal (but don’t let it distract you)
Serena Williams had her eye on achieving the 22 Grand Slam Championship milestone for several years before finally attaining the record. Along the way, she got distracted by the pressure to succeed, and overwhelmed by some of the losses she experienced. The key in returning to her level of performance was the important realization to “start focusing more on the positives” and go back to doing what she had trained to do. Whether you aspire to be the regional head or the CEO or the Board Chairman, it will likely take several steps to reach your ultimate goal. However, you can’t skip the present to get to the future. Staying focused on your goal, but remaining grounded enough to deliver on the responsibilities of your current role, is critical to fulfilling your long-term ambition. So if you find yourself disillusioned about your pace of progress, or frustrated that others seem to be moving ahead faster than you, despite your ability to achieve equally (or outperform them), the same principle applies. Take a step back to objectively understand what it takes to get to your goal and diligently work towards it one step at a time.
2. Consistently deliver on your strengths
In the last game of the 2016 Wimbledon singles final, Serena Williams served three unreturnable serves to win the match. She displayed a similar feat in the 2013 French Open final where she served three aces to bring home the victory. Her ability to deliver a powerful serve in critical moments is a distinctive strength. All leaders have their spikes—a set of particularly strong qualities, competencies, or traits that either comes naturally to them or has been perfected over time. While many executives might tend to focus on improving weaknesses and addressing areas where they are falling short or lacking, honing one’s strengths is also important. These secret weapons can come in handy when facing new challenges or operating in conditions of high uncertainty, which characterizes many business situations in Africa.
3. Set your own standards of excellence
At 34, Serena Williams is one of the older athletes still competing at a professional level and she is still going strong. Throughout her career, she has staged several comebacks, returning from months of absence following injuries or recovering from a run of defeats to regain top positions in the world rankings. While the tournaments and ranking tables provide an external measure of her performance, her true barometer is her own perception of how well she is performing both on and off the court. When she caught herself fixating on comparing herself to other players or getting bogged down by her rankings, she reminded herself to “keep calm, be confident, [and] just play the tennis that I’ve been playing for well over a decade.” For seasoned executives who have been at their game for a while and have a pool of experience to draw from, the more refined your self-assessment, the more objective [or ambitious?] you can be about setting your own goals. For younger professionals, allowing yourself the freedom to chart your own path and explore unconventional opportunities can accelerate your professional development and enable you to build a personally fulfilling career. The relative nascency of Africa’s private sector creates immense potential for both experienced and emerging leaders to set new rules for how things are done.
4. Understand the power of a great coach
Serena’s most recent comeback has been partially attributed to her new tennis coach, Patrick Mouratoglou who, in 2012, took over from her father who had coached her since she was 3 years old. Serena is also noted to have worked with motivational coach Tony Robbins to help her refocus. Beyond the hours of training in the gym and adherence to a carefully controlled diet, she has benefitted greatly from working with a coach to pay individual attention to observing her style, provide ongoing feedback and encouragement, and serve as a thought partner in strategizing before confronting each challenge on the court. Similarly, executives can benefit greatly from working with coaches to accelerate their growth beyond the formal training, on-the-job learning and mentorship they may typically receive. With coaching being a fairly young profession in Africa, working with a coach can often arise from being mandated rather than elected and individuals do not always have the opportunity to select their own coach. When it is possible, to do so, in selecting the right coach, individuals should consider their rapport with the coach, as well as the coach’s expertise.
5. Be a solid team player
Serena Williams has distinguished herself by achieving record success in doubles as well as being singles tennis. Her dual victory in the singles and doubles finals in the 2016 Wimbledon Championship highlights that she is an exceptional team player as well as a solo competitor. Many executives shine as individual contributors or manage to lead their specific team or business unit to achieve standout performance. Being able to effectively collaborate with peers to create value on a bigger scale is a truly remarkable feat. Particularly for executives operating in Africa, the impact of working jointly with colleagues who may be mandated to accomplish similar goals but in a different country or region; or working with other players in the industry to bring about key changes in the enabling environment is important.
Quotes from Wimbledon 2016 post-victory interview