From Boat to Boardroom

The Olympic rowing champion and Chair of UK Sport discusses her transition from a life on the water to a career at the top of a national organisation – and all the challenges along the way.  

The hardest thing you have to do towards the end of your sporting career is acknowledge that [the end is] inevitable. I strung out my career for as long as I possibly could, and I would have kept going if it was the right thing to do, because I think being an athlete is a truly exceptional role to have.

But when you accept that it’s time to move on, you realise that it’s the job of other people now. Your part in the journey ends but the journey continues for many others, and it’s comforting to know that there are so many other people who will have those hopes and dreams and experiences. There will always be an element of wishing I was still doing it. I don’t feel sad about that; it just brings back lovely memories.

Dealing with “what next?”

When I finished competing there was a big question of, well, now what? I think everyone faces that moment. Even if you know exactly what you want to go and do next, and very few do, you’re still coming to terms with the idea that a major part of your life is over. There’s a change in perception of who you are. As much as it feels like a loss, it’s also very exciting. It’s a new start and it’s fresh, and you find new challenges.

There’s a pressure to feel, “I should know”, or “I need to make the right decision” – and that’s often almost paralysing. The best advice I’ve heard other people give is: it doesn’t need to be the right move, because you just need to take a step out of that world into a new world. From that vantage point, you’ll have a different view. You’ll be able to say I love this or I don’t like this, but importantly you’ll see that you can take a different step in a different direction.

Bring your inner athlete with you

It’s easy to forget, but you bring everything you were as an athlete with you – and that’s very special and is often highly respected in various areas of other jobs. There are transferable skills that you have picked up, without being that aware of it at the time. Trying to put that into words is tough, so I made sure I worked though my CV with someone else, turning those experiences into something a potential employer would recognise and value. It’s still difficult to picture yourself in another role beyond being an athlete but, when someone suggested [to me] going for the Olympic team, that felt like a huge step that was unrealistic, so it’s not that different.

I felt I maybe should move away from sport, but I’m so glad I didn’t. I think sport has a special way of finding people who are very passionate about what they do, who really want to make a difference and want to help other people to achieve great things. It’s like being an athlete again. Very driven. Very focused. Very ambitious.

A woman’s world

There are some brilliant female figureheads who work in sport and at a highly senior influence level. At UK Sport we have Liz Nicholl, the Chief Executive, who has been there a very long time; and Baroness Sue Campbell was the Chair two before me.

What I’ve seen in boardrooms, and other male-dominated environments, is that women play such an important role. They’re very good influencers, and they’re very good in a boardroom environment. They’re creating debate and discussion, facilitating decision-making. It can be disheartening if you don’t see a lot of female role models in these sorts of positions, but it’s about individual leadership, individual character. It’s not a gender thing at all.

What I’d say to any young females considering a career in business is: get involved, it’s brilliant. Everyone’s got insecurities, doubts and concerns. By trying and testing your limits you will learn so much about yourself.