Stacey Allaster (the Women’s Tennis Association) in The Corner Office

Stacey Allaster (Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Stacey Allaster, the chairwoman and C.E.O. of the Women’s Tennis Association, who says, “When you persevere, ‘No’ turns to ‘Yes.’”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

Allaster: I was 18, and I was the head tennis professional of the local tennis club. So I had young pros working for me — either high school students or university students. I was the head pro every summer, and then I wanted to get some other experience. So I ran a College Pro Painters franchise in my final year of university. I went from wearing white to a different white. I had eight guys working for me.

So that took it to a different level and outside of my comfort zone, outside of the world that I knew. I felt that this experience for a year would be a good sales and entrepreneurial leadership experience for me.

Bryant: Did you have any experience painting?

Allaster: No. But I had a very hard-working mom and a hard-working grandmother. We were in a challenging economic environment, so we were very used to fixing up and doing things on our own, so I was good with a paintbrush. But my job running the painting business was really about knocking on doors, getting the jobs and then working with the team.

Bryant: What were your career goals at the time?

Allaster: Early on, I knew I wanted to be in sports marketing. That pathway was either through law school or an M.B.A. Generally everyone who was in the industry had that background.

But after undergrad, I was working in Toronto. I was the head pro of the Richmond Hill Country Club, with a thousand members, and two or three pros working for me. I started to train some athletes and got exposure to the Ontario Tennis Association. They quickly grabbed me for a role that was development but also sales. I had to get out on the road, sell the sport, give free clinics and inspire people to enjoy the sport.

I spent two years traveling around the province in my Volkswagen convertible, either getting people to play the sport and love the sport, or getting people to help fund the Ontario Tennis Association. I then began to run events, and get sponsors.

I knew then I wanted to get to Tennis Canada, the national organization. They turned me down three times, but I’m persistent and no means yes. I got my foot in the door as a special-projects coordinator. Fifteen years later, I was head of the Canadian Open, men’s and women’s.

Bryant: What then?

Allaster: Because I had just done tennis and I’d done primarily sales, I wanted to get an M.B.A. It opened my eyes up to a whole new world of management. In the sessions about management, the light bulbs began to go off about what I had been doing well, and where I hadn’t been performing very well as a manager. They helped guide me about the type of manager and leader I wanted to be.

Bryant: Talk about those light-bulb moments.

Allaster: Because I’m competitive, I was all about results and all about winning. I probably spent too much time in the beginning being focused on the endgame but not recognizing that, to win the match, you really need to take the time to nurture your team, energize your team and understand what motivates your team. Not everyone is motivated the way I am.

It doesn’t mean that I’m right and they’re wrong. You can all have the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the people who really are energized and motivated to deliver, you won’t achieve success.

I have a diversified team now, with a variety of different skills. We all don’t need to be the same, nor should we be the same. It’s about understanding what everybody needs to be motivated and successful.

Bryant: So how do you do that?

Allaster: I think it’s about time and communication and style. And during those moments when you’re under intense pressure, you dial it back.

Bryant: What do you mean?

Allaster: You have to dial back the energy of the discussion and just be more reflective and patient. I think I’m more self-aware. So if we’ve gone off track for some reason, the first place I’ll start is: Did I not set a clear direction? Did someone not clearly understand what we were trying to achieve? Was I asking too much of the team or the individual? Do we have the right skill set to achieve that goal? So I’m much more aware now of looking there first, versus immediately going to, “they didn’t deliver.” I just think that, now that I’ve matured, I’m a much better communicator and far more aware of everyone around me and their needs, versus just being focused on getting the result.

Bryant: What were some other important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

Allaster: Well, there’s probably a culmination of overcoming adversity and challenge through my whole life. To give you an example, I wasn’t the kid who had one paper route. I had three paper routes. We needed money and I wanted to play sports and my mom provided everything for me, but there was a limit, so she said I had to earn some money to be able to play sports. So there I was in the middle of a Canadian winter, schlepping around to 1,500 houses every week. In the winter months I used the sled, and in the summer months I used the wagon.

I can remember achieving a lot in sports just with the sheer tenacity that I will win and I’ll overcome it. I’m on the smaller side, so people said to me, “You can’t play tennis.” So anybody can say that to me, but I’ll just prove them wrong. I’ve always found a way, whatever the challenge is.

Bryant: Tell me more about your mother and grandmother.

Allaster: They dealt with a lot of adversity in their lives and so I had two role models, day in, day out, to show me that despite all odds, you can get anything done — and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.

My grandmother raised five kids. She had her own business. It was a shoe store — Kiddie Cobbler — in the house. She was managing her business and the five kids. My grandfather was sick.

My mom was a nurse. She injured her back, so she couldn’t work. We had to look for other ways to make money. My grandmother helped her buy a duplex, and we made it a boarding home for college students. We had eight people living with us. So that’s how she made money. And I always had a job. I didn’t lack for anything, even though it was a tough time.

We were entrepreneurial. You had to do what you had to do. And I was kind of a shy, quiet, private person. So it probably was good for me growing up to always be around people and learn how to talk with them, especially at a young age. In those teenager years, you’re usually not so comfortable.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.




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