Never lose sight of the importance of grit, determination and work ethic. This is required in everything you do, if you want to be the best that you can be.
As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Kavanaugh.
Jim Kavanaugh is a former St. Louis University, Major Indoor Soccer League, and U.S. Olympic and Pan-American Team player in the 1980s. After a short stint in the league, Kavanaugh turned to a career in business and co-founded World Wide Technology (WWT), a technology services provider based in St. Louis, Mo., in 1990. Kavanaugh and his management team have guided WWT from a small start-up to a world-class $14.5 billion information technology systems integrator with more than 8,500 employees. Incredibly passionate about athletics and soccer, Kavanaugh was chairman and founder of Saint Louis FC and served as chairman of Scott Gallagher Soccer Club, and is currently an investor owner in the St. Louis Blues and in St. Louis City SC, a new Major League Soccer franchise.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Iwas born and raised in a blue-collar family in north St. Louis. My dad was a bricklayer, and we were a very middle-class family. I just had a great upbringing with great parents. I was athletic, and I enjoyed hockey and soccer — soccer mostly. Going into high school, I was cut from the soccer team, and so I found a club team and continued to play and improve. That led to me eventually making the JV team in high school.
When it came to college, I was fortunate enough to get a soccer scholarship to Saint Louis University — a well-known and nationally recognized soccer program. My personal background though really starts with my parents at the foundation. My parents provided a set of values that were taught at a very young age — the importance of hard work, honesty, integrity, and being loyal and trustworthy to friends and family — all values that are still very much instilled in me today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete?
My first year with Saint Louis University, I played well, and my coach, Harry Keogh, liked how I played. Freshman year, he recommended that I try out for the Olympic team. My parents said, “Go for whatever you can go for,” as they were always very supportive, positive and encouraging any time I would talk to them about a potential career in soccer. So I went to the tryouts, and I was the only player out of St. Louis to make it to the Midwest Olympic tryouts. I then made it to the national tryouts, and then from there was asked to join the developmental Olympic team to go to Korea. Soccer-wise, the caliber of people we were playing against was incredibly impressive. And I was proud to play in the Pan American Games, while also traveling around the world to play in different tournaments. Being a part of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Soccer team was an incredible experience on and off the field. Playing and competing with some of the best players in the world while also seeing and experiencing different countries and cultures was amazing. I was later drafted as the second overall selection in the Major Indoor Soccer League where I played for Los Angeles and then later for St. Louis.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
There were different people at different times. I’m grateful for my college coach Harry for recognizing me at a time when others didn’t — I really appreciate him recommending me to try out for the Olympic team. And then of course, again, my parents. I had developed a sort of confidence that you can do whatever you put your mind to, if you were willing to put in the time and effort, and that all came from my parents. They had different ways of instilling that in me. That in life, I shouldn’t expect anything to get handed to me — and that I had to work for what I had in life — and that was a continuous motivator. It still is a motivator for me today. Hard work never bothered me. It actually can be quite rewarding and inspiring.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
Oh well, I can laugh about it now. But when I was drafted in 1986 to the Los Angeles Lazers, I negotiated my own contract, which came with a signing bonus, and after negotiating, they sent me my airplane ticket for me to travel out there and complete the process. Well, I only had $25 in my pocket, and I had my flight, and so when I arrived at the hotel, I thought maybe they would have me set up at the hotel and, well, they didn’t. “We don’t have a reservation for you.” And I was a bit embarrassed, and I had to beg the front desk to give me a room, sharing that I would be getting my bonus the following day and that I promise I would pay for my bill the next day. I’m lucky that it worked out or else that younger version of Jim would have been on the street that night, and that sure did scare me into realizing that I needed to be more prepared for the real world. Ha!
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high-stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high-pressure, high-stress situations?
I would say that I am better prepared to deal with different kinds of pressure today than when I was younger. Growing up, as an athlete, and even in business, I was more of a grinder than someone with high-level finesse. I wasn’t the smartest person in the classroom, and I wasn’t the best athlete. But I had grit and determination — and the fight was just natural to me. When you think about kids when they are younger, and a ball comes on the field, are you going to be the one who stands there and waits, or are you going to be the one to dive on the ball? I really just had the natural instinct to fight. I was always taught, “If it got harder, you worked harder.” Of course, that didn’t mean that I was always the most effective or most efficient. I never wanted to lose that grit and that fire, but I did want to be better prepared.
And so, I would say that preparation is essential for high-pressure and high-stress situations. There have been many physical and emotional situations that I’ve needed to act on in my life, and I’ve learned that the better that you can anticipate these situations and think about your decisions in advance and role play different scenarios, the better off you will be. It’s just asking: Are you going to allow that situation to completely throw you off your game? Or are you going to go in with a clear and prepared mind and react thoughtfully? Yes, working from your instincts can work out great, but the more you can anticipate and plan, the better off you will be. Also, balancing this with thoughtful consideration on what your options really are, and that sometimes the best way to respond, is to not respond. And then of course, being mentally prepared for surprises and setbacks. This is part of life. You can’t always control what comes at you, but you can control how you respond.
Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
There was a point towards the end of my soccer career where I was debating on whether to continue with professional soccer, but I knew that if I was to jump into another career that it had to be in technology. From what I was reading and learning at the time, I knew that technology was going to continue to evolve and grow and create tremendous opportunity.
I first started out with Future Electronics, a manufacturer and distributor of chips and circuit board components, which gave me insight into the hardware side of technology. This really reaffirmed my desire to be in technology, and at this point — especially just starting out — I was not afraid to take chances. I was willing to take a risk and learn quickly. And so, shortly after my time with Future Electronics, I co-founded World Wide Technology with a work colleague and David Steward.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?
Overall, the position that World Wide Technology is in today, puts us in a position of strength for the future. The size that we are, the brand, the relationships we’ve created in the market — I don’t ever want to take these things for granted. A lot of what we do and the projects we run are positively impacting our employees, our customers, our partners, and our communities. We are creating these deep relationships with companies and leaders in the tech space, which create more and more opportunities for us to grow and make a greater impact. The magnitude of all of this is truly inspiring; to take time to sit back and reflect on those relationships and the great things that we have going on and what we as an organization and our management team have accomplished is quite exciting.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
Yes, there is absolutely a connection there. The more success you have as an athlete, and the higher you go, the harder you can fall. As an athlete, you are only as good as your last day or game. If you start to perform at a lower level, you can find yourself benched or off the team, and these setbacks are being done in the public eye. It is a huge weight to have on your shoulders to know that your actions and performance may be something that is in the paper the next day. And if you perform poorly, it can be embarrassing — it can crush you, or it can make you better. It’s important that you don’t allow those setbacks to dictate who you are. You learn and improve from your setbacks. And for World Wide Technology, we could have easily gone out of business many times within our first five years. It would have been easy to throw in the towel, but that just isn’t my style — nor is it the style of the team that I have surrounded myself with. We had to make some tough decisions around the business and do the best that we could to put ourselves in a position to get through another day, another week, another month. Without that willingness to grind, without that grit and determination, and being mentally tough enough to not let the setbacks bring us down — WWT would not be here today.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. In my early life, I was cut from tryouts for soccer several times. Don’t allow the setbacks to define or destroy you. Use those setbacks to learn and improve.
2. Specifically in soccer and business, learn how to take constructive input. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires a change of mindset. Embrace constructive input, take action and improve.
3. Always act with a sense of humility. And speaking from experience, sometimes you need to get knocked down to really understand that. Getting cut or benched can help put things in perspective. Be humble and grateful in good times and tough times.
4. Never lose sight of the importance of grit, determination and work ethic. This is required in everything you do, if you want to be the best that you can be.
5. Be thankful and grateful for all you have. And understand what’s most important — your family, friends and real relationships!
What would you advise a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
My advice would be: Don’t emulate me — hah — or my career; instead, learn from me and other leaders while being yourself. Be authentic. Know your strengths and be realistic about what you do well and develop yourself to be the best version of you that you can be. Have a passion for learning and improving. Study other great leaders or people you admire, but be true to yourself. You will be happier and more successful.
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In my early days with World Wide Technology, I was building a business because I needed to make money, honestly — I needed to survive. I didn’t have a vision of solving world hunger. But we always had great people at World Wide Technology, and we’ve learned from each other and have grown to become the tremendous 8,500+ employee organization that we are today. As we developed and had some success, it was natural for us to give back — to our community, to philanthropic causes, to universities and to small athletic clubs — because we knew the importance of doing what we could to help those around us. And as we’ve grown as an organization, that part of who we are has continued to grow as well. This is not just true of myself, but of the entire executive team and all of our employees as well. We’ve made a tremendous impact over the years that I am incredibly proud of but am in no means taking credit for. It’s our people and culture that makes this work. It was an evolution that came out of our success, and has been imbedded in the values of our organization and the DNA of World Wide Technology.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I were able to drive a movement, it would be aligned with what we’re communicating at World Wide Technology, which is to create a great place to work for all, but extending that to create a great place to live for all. People have to have a greater knowledge and appreciation of those around them. People have to understand that people are dealing with many different challenges globally. And so, understanding the power that you have — that each of us have — is important to make an impact on people’s lives. It comes down to how you treat people, care for and uplift others around you, in companies and communities — and if everyone did that, then the world would be a better place to live for all. You have to think: How can I create a level of inclusiveness? How can I ensure that others are being taken care of?
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Marcus Aurelius’ quote: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way is the way.” You are going to have obstacles in your way and you are going to have to lean into them. That’s how you learn and get better. If you don’t go through obstacles and lean into them, you never learn. Leaning into tough times is not always fun, but if you take it on and don’t let it defeat you, whether you have success going through that or not, it is always going to make you better in the end.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
I’ve had the great fortune of spending a lot of time with a lot of great leaders in sports and in business, and I’ve found that it’s not always the people that have the biggest name or the highest title that are the most interesting and impactful. Sometimes you will find people with no title or fanfare strike a chord, provide deeper and more meaningful insights and inspiration than those with fluffy titles. Inspiration and wisdom can come from people and places you never expected, but you have to look for it. Good luck finding your inspiration.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
Thank you for the amazing opportunity!
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.