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Helping Student Athletes Translate Sports Skills to the Workplace

Insights & Ideas Team •  June 22, 2015 | Business and Careers, Inspiring Stories

As a successful businessman and college football player, Lee Patterson knew he wanted to make a difference in the lives of student athletes after seeing a photograph of his University of Arizona Wildcats team.

“It hit me that only two of the 23 guys in my class graduated from college, including myself,” said Patterson, a managing director and financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual in Phoenix, Arizona. So he contacted leaders at nearby Arizona State University, his former rival, to see how he could help.

Since then, Patterson has been on a mission to prepare student athletes for the professional world by serving as a mentor to ASU students and guest speaker in a life skills course designed to help athletes make the transition to the workplace.

“Many of the traits that define successful student athletes are the same attributes employers seek when building a business team,” said Patterson, who credits his professional success, in part, to his experiences as an athlete.  

Now Patterson looks for those qualities when building his own team at Northwestern Mutual. He wants to create a culture of excellence at the office that fosters personal development and collaboration to achieve company goals.

“I call it a ‘high five culture’ where everybody is looking out for each other because they embrace the company vision,” he said. “A good leader can leave an organization for a day, week or month, and the vision lives on because they have the right people in place.”

Patterson cites five characteristics of student athletes that can lead to business success.

1. Coachability. Coachable individuals welcome feedback, hone their skills and eagerly pass along their knowledge to peers. “Coachability is huge to the success of an organization because it allows the culture to thrive even when the leader steps away,” said Patterson.

“It’s the guy and gal who can not only internalize what you tell and teach them, but more important, they can share that rhythm and learning with someone else,” he said. “This creates a synergy within the office where everyone is working to their full potential.”

2. Leadership. Leaders on the field and in the office keep their peers accountable and willingly help others develop their skills so the team or business can achieve its goals.

“Leaders spell out the consequences of people’s actions to the organization,” said Patterson. “But they’re also willing to work with others who are struggling, whether it’s helping an athlete with a move or staying late to assist a colleague with a presentation. They tackle a task until everyone gets it right.”

3. Sportsmanship. Sportsmanship on the field translates to professionalism in the workplace. Student athletes who display good sportsmanship are more likely to have the moral character to operate ethically and professionally in the business world.

“It’s about winning and losing with class, whether you blow a game or lose an account,” said Patterson. “We win, we lose, and we pick it up from there.”

4. Team player Mentality. Team players always step up for the benefit of the team or office, willingly taking on a task and challenge, even if it falls beyond their official scope of responsibility. 

“You’ll never hear a team player say ‘it’s not my job.’ If they see something needs to get done, they do it. They understand the importance of having an organization or a team that runs smoothly,” said Patterson.

5. Competitiveness. The desire to win that motivates competitive individuals drives success on the athletic field as well as in the business arena.

“People who are competitive constantly work to improve themselves. They’re also willing to sacrifice a little bit of themselves to reach the end goal,” he said. “It’s the athlete who gets to practice early or the employee who stays late to get a job done. They don’t need a coach or leader to push them.”

Patterson advises athletes “not to let someone else put blinders on your vision.” It’s a lesson Patterson takes to heart. “I always shoot for the moon,” he said. “If I miss, there are plenty of stars.” 

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