The former basketball professional and national player talks about his transition experiences and the different views on (former) athletes in the USA and Germany. Today, Chris has arrived in his career after sports and after working for Gartner, Florida, he is now in a new position at Workday in Munich as an Account Executive to proceed in his career in business.
Patparius: Chris, you were a professional basketball player, studied while being an athlete and graduated with a Bachelor´s degree in Electrical Engineering from Bucknell University. What are your thoughts when you remember the end of your career as an athlete and the start of your career afterwards?
Chris: At first I was full of confidence and serenity – I had an engineering degree and was a cool basketball pro. Then quite quickly disillusionment and a bit of panic. My original plan was to play until I was 37, 38 years old. But then it went by faster than I thought. However, when I started thinking about my career after sports, I felt on the safe side. I had my Bachelor’s degree and also through sports I actually had a very good network. That’s why I thought that I could get a good job with one of the sponsors or somehow get into the management of a club. But the bottom line after my career was: I had nothing! I had never actively cultivated my network and actually had no idea what topics I could discuss with my network beyond sports.
As an athlete – at least apart from sports – everything is always very passive: You have your plan, you are asked what you need, you are called to talk about new offers etc. In other words, you never really had to actively take care of anything beyond sports. My luck was then that I found a kind of mentor for myself, which really helped me enormously in the transition process. I was able to find out for myself what my path could look like, what I can and want to do, where I fit in and what topics I can discuss with people from the business world. In the end, it is extremely important to take the first step. Here, of course, external impulses help to learn how to become active. In retrospect, my learning from that time was that I should actually have sought these impulses three or four years earlier.
Patparius: You know the sports and business world in the USA: Do athletes here have a different standing when they want to end their career and start a new one? How is the attitude towards athletes basically in the USA? Do former athletes have better career opportunities here?
Chris: Definitely: Yes! In my experience, in Germany it’s all about professional competence and so-called relevant work experience. Personality and personality traits are not given such great weight in the selection process. In the USA this is a little different. Here the mindset also plays a greater role. Of course, the professional competence and qualifications must also be present in the USA. However, the attitude over there is that the overall package is decisive and that personality plays a greater role in whether a potential employee performs as hoped or not.
After my basketball career, I also started looking for a job in Germany. But I quickly realized that I would not get as far as bringing my athlete personality into the game. Of course, when I applied for positions, I had competitors who were many years younger than me and who also had relevant internships or even first concrete work experience. So I didn’t even get the chance to present my personality traits and convince decision makers that I could possibly have a special value for the company through my career. A CEO friend of mine then advised me to go to the USA first, only to come back to Germany later with relevant work experience. And that is how I did it. I spent the last three years with Gartner in the USA, moved to Workday in Munich and now work there as an Account Executive.
“For companies in the US, the overall package is decisive. The mindset and personality plays a greater role.”
Patparius: Gartner has a program to integrate former soldiers into the company as personalities with special skills? What did this look like and could it be adapted in a similar way to athletes?
Chris: It was a structured program to offer prospects to soldiers leaving the military and to give them skills and knowledge. Basically it was a very intensive program to enable the soldiers to transform/implement their learnings and experiences from their time as soldiers to/in a corporate and business context. In addition, the former soldiers received, for example, a kind of sales training or training in other areas to develop them further in these areas. In this way, they received intensive training over two weeks, were able to gain insight into Gartner as a company and were put through their paces at the same time. In the end, the best of them received an offer from Gartner to start a job in various areas. And yes, of course, something like this can also be applied to athletes.
It is very important to transfer the learnings from one discipline to another – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s from the military to business or from sports to business. You do exactly this with your ThinkingBeyondSports-Learning-Transfer. Much of what I have experienced in basketball I find in the corporate world, not exactly in the same way, but very similar. Because soldiers or athletes learn to transfer what they (will) experience in the business world into their usual life, e. g. as an athlete or soldier, they are able to come to different solutions than others do. But I also know from my own experience that this is extremely difficult to achieve on your own. One is too much stuck in one’s own world, so that it was crucial for me, for example, to be able to work with someone external in order to create this transfer step, in order to finally come together with the people and players who are decisive for the career after sports.
Patparius: You once told me that you were always criticized in job interviews for lack of work experience, or that they didn’t see the value that you could bring to a company through your professional sports experience, and that you are now told: Cool, Mr. McNaughton, you were a basketball professional, you have – in addition to your work experience – exactly the personality that we need here in the company. Is that true? Should companies act differently here – also in terms of: You can make up for what you lack in work experience. But there is no highway for the development of personality to become this special athlete personality?
Chris: Definitely. We athletes actually start our training at the age of 6 or 7. From then on we train our personality through sports in a club and later through performing in competitions at European or World Championships or even at Olympic Games. Here we experience extreme stress situations and are allowed to live through experiences already as young people, which naturally let us athletes mature differently than other adolescents. If you have learned to perform in front of thousands of spectators or even in front of millions of people, then you are a different personality than if you have gone the normal way – in quotation marks – to school, training, university and job. In my experience, you can – of course always to a certain extent – pick up the technical side of things and also acquire it in later years with the right attitude.
The personality cannot be ‘reproduced’ to the same extent. Our personal development, our experience as athletes cannot be acquired ´on the job´ through seminars and/or training courses etc. For this reason, companies should be more open and courageous to give us athletes a chance, especially here in Germany.
In the USA, sports and competition play a more important role. Many people are active as athletes from high school to college and therefore identify more with the values and demands of sports. Later they are in management positions in companies, but have internalized the athlete mindset more through their high school and college years and perhaps that is one reason why they are eager to attract athletes to their company as employees after their careers with their athletic thinking.
Patparius: What is your advice to active athletes and what do you recommend companies in terms of athletes?
Chris: Start immediately to see more in you than just the athlete. You are more and you can do much more. Even though I knew a few months before the end of my last season that I was going to hang up my shoes, I was in no way prepared for the next step. That means, prepare yourselves! Learn to be active. The business world – especially here in Germany – does not welcome athletes with open arms after their sports careers. You have to force yourself and actively approach people. You have to know how to present yourself beyond sports, with which topics and in which way. Look for inspiration from the outside that makes you want to learn more about the world outside of sports. If you can arrange it, do small internships, work on topics that go beyond sports, look over the shoulder of experienced managers. But the most important thing is certainly: Don’t wait for the call. Nobody will call again.
I can only recommend companies not to underestimate the potential of us athletes. Or to put it another way, companies should take the risk of bringing athletes into the company if they have training or studies in their CVs even if they are older than other applicants and have not been able to gain enough internships or work experience – because they have spent a large part of their time at international sports competitions. They should be willing to invest in the athlete at the beginning or have programs and partners at hand to develop athletes to the level of expertise which is needed. This is possible and athletes are willing to go all out to reach the necessary level. We are used to nothing else through our careers as athletes. This costs companies time and money, but they get special employees who can also help to develop the company, to bring thinking and acting from sports into the company, in order to raise the performance level in the company.