Lessons in Leadership
By Greg Bach
Katrina Adams’ tenure as the first Black and youngest person ever to serve as president, chairman and CEO of the United States Tennis Association was punctuated with relentless resolve and a vibrant vision for moving the sport forward.
And Adams, author of the recently released book OWN THE ARENA, encourages leaders of youth sports programs in their communities to fine tune their organization’s messaging for maximum impact.
“One of the major things is being able to communicate clearly what your direction is or what your goals are,” Adams told us in an exclusive interview. “When you’re talking about youth sports organizations and all the different sports being offered it is so key to be able to have a succinct message as to why you want youth to be a part of your organization and what your organization can bring to them.”
OVERSEEING THE U.S. OPEN
The U.S. Open is the largest annually attended sporting event in the world, with more than 700,000 fans descending on the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York each year.
And overseeing it requires the ability to connect with, and lead, a vast array of personalities while maintaining incredible attention to countless details.
“It wasn’t just me, it was a huge team,” Adams says of staging the Grand Slam event. “Everybody had their own roles and their own responsibilities, and everyone was accountable for their actions.”
Her staff was given plenty of space to fulfill their tasks, too.
“I think it’s a matter of being able to work together as a team and empowering each individual to carry out their task that made us successful,” Adams says. “So yes, you are the overseer of it, and you are communicating with everyone, but it’s allowing your team, your staff, to do their job.”
LOVE AT FIRST FOREHAND
It took one swing of the racket on a public tennis court in Chicago at age six for Adams to be hooked on the sport for a lifetime.
And crave the pursuit of developing her skills.
“I fell in love with the sport from the first moment that I hit a tennis ball,” she says. “I just loved the sheer joy of hitting the ball and being able to control it to do what I wanted it to do. And I also was a natural born competitor – I loved the competitive aspect of it.”
Adams went on to play college tennis at Northwestern, where she won an NCAA title in doubles. That launched an outstanding 12-year professional tennis career where she claimed 20 doubles titles across the globe and reached the quarterfinals or better in doubles in all four Grand Slam events.
Amid the thousands of forehands and backhands that were struck on practice courts and in matches, she scooped up many all-important life lessons that she leaned on while navigating America’s boardrooms.
“Just the confidence that I was able to obtain from the sport, as well as being disciplined and self-motivated, those are all things that we need to be successful in life and I was able to transfer those into my business acumen,” she says. “Even though tennis is an individual sport you are also working with a team – which can be your coach, your trainer or whoever else is on the other side of the net who you have to work together with to make the drills work. So you really learn how to work with others, too.”
Adams’ book has been receiving a wave of good reviews, and the leadership insights she shares can be woven into anyone’s life.
“The book is for people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It really focuses on being the only one and each person could be that only one. For me it was the only woman or the only Black person in the room, but that could be reversed for whatever your background may be, and understanding how to overcome those challenges, being comfortable with it, and using it to your advantage.”
Plus, embracing the mindset and willingness to pursue change, being a positive influence, and chasing dreams.
“One of the key takeaways is for people to understand that they need to own their courage and be able to step out on the limb and take chances,” Adams says. “The landscape is changing every day and it’s about really stepping up to the plate, being more knowledgeable and owning their destiny.”
Which is exactly what Adams has done throughout her spectacular career both on and off the court.
“Being in sports at a very early age taught me how to believe in myself and believe in my ability to achieve anything,” she says. “And I’ve been taking that mindset with me throughout my life.”
Follow Katrina Adams on Instagram and Twitter.
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