It’s no secret: athletes are the demigods of college and university life.
While some athletes will be fortunate enough to turn pro, most will have to contend with a completely different playing field: the professional workplace.
Fortunately, this is a game Mark DesJardine was well-prepared to play.
A competitive football player since high school, DesJardine played for the lacrosse team at Acadia University throughout his undergrad, winning several championship games and a couple of MVP titles before settling down at his current job as an investor relations analyst.
“Achievement in athletics requires discipline, focus, sustained effort, and working towards specific goals. These character traits are ingredients for success in virtually any field, but they work especially well in finance.”
—Mark Kolakowski, independent financial services professional
Though he’s left the collegiate playing field behind, athletics – or to be precise, corporate athletics – is still very much a part of his agenda.
“Because of my background, I’m often asked by managers and co-workers to sign up for particular sports and company recreational teams. It seems to be the first thing someone says to me at work now: ‘Hey, you’re the lacrosse guy!’”
More than that, DesJardine credits his athletic background for much of his success during the job hunt and subsequently, his success in the finance industry. “My athletic involvement was clearly something that helped me get ahead of my competition in every interview I had post-graduation. Interviewers would always ask about my athletic background and how these experiences could work to my benefit in the business world.”
This comes as no surprise to Mark Kolakowski.
A hockey player both during his time at Harvard University and while pursuing his MBA at Wharton, the former Merrill Lynch VP says the reason the finance industry loves hiring former athletes is pretty simple: they work hard and they play to win.
“Achievement in athletics requires discipline, focus, sustained effort, and working towards specific goals. These character traits are ingredients for success in virtually any field, but they work especially well in finance,” says Kolakowski.
What works in an athlete’s favour is the constant pressure to perform under demanding conditions and the need to make quick and accurate decisions. Moreover, competitors in team sports are presumed to have above-average interpersonal and communication skills.
DesJardine’s experience backs up this theory. More than the championship wins, the overall character development he obtained from his involvement in sports provided all the soft skills he needed to thrive in the industry.
“That ingrained sense of ‘never giving up’ and the ability to reflect on my failures has helped me tremendously in navigating the business world. Everyday, I interact with co-workers just as I would players on the field. It’s essential that I know how to build relationships and work with people to achieve mutual success, both as a leader and as a team player,” DesJardine says.
Another golden rule he learned: treat people with respect. Always. “In business or in sports, if you treat others unfairly or rudely, only one person will be hurting in the end, and that’s you.”
Entering the (financial) playing field
While a lot of grads tend to focus on improving their technical skills, recent studies have shown that the ability to communicate well may actually hold much more value with employers. And if you’re an athlete looking to take advantage of the finance industry’s interest in your credentials, playing up your people skills may work well in your favour.
“Sales and client service positions in the finance industry, like financial advisors, stockbrokers, account executives, product wholesalers, and the like, are prime destinations for former athletes,” according to Kolakowski.
Additionally, sports-minded individuals make attractive candidates for securities trading positions because of their experience with making quick decisions under pressure.
“My managers often introduce me as a university athlete and as someone who has played a lot of sports.” —Mark DesJardine, investor relations analyst and recent Acadia University business admin grad
Kolakowski also notes that athletes who have competed at higher levels and have gained some measure of public recognition have another thing going for them, which is that a significant number of clients enjoy “rubbing elbows with celebrities.”
“The higher your degree of achievement, the more you will be noticed, and the more valuable you potentially will be in a sales or client service position in which leveraging your ‘celebrity’ can be a plus,” he says.
But even if an athlete never makes it to the big leagues, there may still be some merit to this idea. “My managers often introduce me as a university athlete and as someone who has played a lot of sports,” DesJardine admits. “I’ve never introduced myself this way, but people seem to highlight this area about me.”
Levelling the playing field
Though finance is traditionally a male-dominated field, women are now increasingly setting ever higher standards for achievement in the industry.
While common convention assumes that gender stereotypes still put women at a disadvantage over men in the recruitment process,Kolakowski says female athletes have an advantage over both other women and men without similar backgrounds.
“A female athlete who markets herself effectively should come across as a more impressive job candidate than non-athletic men, even for traditionally male-dominated positions in traditionally male-dominated organizations,” Kolakowski says. He adds that it helps if the recruiter is a sports fan or a former athlete as well, since the candidate will have the opportunity to establish personal affinities during the interview which another candidate without an athletic background might have difficulty developing.
Perception also plays a role in how well a female athlete acclimatizes to the industry. In other words, she has to learn to be one of the guys.
“Being an athlete can be helpful in dealing with male resistance in some fields. She might be expected to take some guff – and give it back in good measure – more readily and with less personal hurt than a non-athlete, as well as be less offended by the ‘locker room talk’ that you often find on trading floors,” says Kolakowski.
To this end, he believes that “playing up their ‘go-getter image’” will be beneficial to female athletes attempting to break into the more fast-paced, high-pressure finance careers such as investment banking and securities trading.
He may have been captain on both his football and lacrosse teams, but DesJardine made it a point to let interviewers know how his athletic involvement made him a good fit for their companies instead of letting the titles speak for themselves.
“Sports provided me with countless life experiences that allowed me to answer almost any interview question that someone threw my way. Even if their questions didn’t involve athletics, for instance, when asking how I resolved a conflict with someone in the past, I would look to my athletic history to provide them with an example and an answer,” he says.
Kolakowski echoes this idea.
“Sports provided me with countless life experiences that allowed me to answer almost any interview question that someone threw my way.” —Mark DesJardine
“It felt like I could complete any interview on just my sports background alone.”
“Don’t fall into the trap of just listing your achievements. Instead, demonstrate with as much specificity as possible exactly how your athletic background has groomed you to excel in the job being offered, and how you’re a better candidate than the average applicant because of your experience. Never forget to demonstrate to the hiring managers what you can do for them.”
Even athletes with modest achievements, he says, should remember to play up the desirable personal traits they enhanced through their involvement in sports, such as leadership, self-discipline and perseverance.
DesJardine recommends being as specific as possible on your resumé by listing specific awards, certain roles and the lessons you’ve learned through sports, then following this train of thought through to the interview.
“Employers want specific accomplishments and pitfalls of any experience; athletics is definitely no exception to this. Having an athletic background allows someone to round out their resumé a lot better than someone without that experience.”