The NFL’s Julie Haddon On The Link Between Sports And Leadership Success

With the world of sports disrupted and reimagined due to the global pandemic, I have been hosting a virtual series with Stephanie McMahon, Chief Brand Officer at WWE, delving into the industry and the women who make it run. After speaking with so many incredible athletes, executives and trailblazers, I was inspired to dive deeper into the correlation between playing sports as a youth and leadership success.

Growing up, I was a proud member of the varsity tennis team at Grant High School. I believe that athleticism fueled my persistence and confidence when I needed to speak up, step up, and launch my own business. How does playing sports translate to leadership in the business world? To explore this further, I spoke with Julie Haddon, Senior Vice President of Global Brand and Consumer Marketing at the NFL.

Shelley Zalis: An EY study found 96% of women with a C-suite position played sports as a kid. Why do you think there is such a strong correlation between childhood athletic participation and leadership roles later in life?

Julie Haddon: There’s a lifetime of skills that athletics teach us as girls, to become better leaders as women. We understand adversity—as athletes we’ve gotten our asses kicked early and often so we know how to deal with life’s ups and downs. We understand resilience – the art of the pivot when things change in a moment’s notice. Of course, 2020 is the embodiment of that skill.

The most obvious, but the most impactful, is teamwork which is key to working in any size organization. Having the ability to work as a “WE vs ME” means we care about the greater goals vs. individual goals. We think about moving the ball down the field to have impact…In fact, when I’m hiring talent, an added plus that catches my eye is someone that has been a collegiate athlete.

Zalis: In guiding young athletes and future leaders, what advice do you have for parents trying to encourage their children to stay active when many activities have been canceled?

Haddon: As a mother of three kids aged 9-12, we find simple things to do like tossing the ball around outside and running plays with mom at QB, walks in the neighborhood, or riding bikes. I combine this with watching professional sports on TV where I teach my kids about the sport—the rules, the teams, the game—and how they all work together.

Zalis: In your current role of consumer marketing at the NFL, how do you plan to keep fans engaged when they aren’t able to attend games in person?

Haddon: We understand fans are craving connection now more than ever, so we developed the Fan Mosaic which integrates them directly into the Showtime Cam. Players are able to catch glimpses of their enthusiastic fans throughout the game.

Additionally, we keep our casual and avid fans engaged through storytelling content around the game, companion content or football products. We have full fan-journey experiences across the NFL ecosystem such as NFL Fantasy, Gamepass, the 24-hour NFL Network and NFL Films – the epic production unit that continues to deliver exceptional award-winning content.”

Zalis: How has your digital and data-driven background helped you succeed at the NFL?

Haddon: It’s helped me harness fearlessness to innovate and consistently improve ideas. The work we’ve done in the Digital Product Marketing group at the NFL is some of the work I’m most proud of in my career. From creatively utilizing storytelling to showcase live games on the NFL App to going features-based, we’ve seen exceptional success in our mobile consumption by our younger fans.

The most important thing for forward-thinking, innovative marketers today is that they must:

  1. Deeply understand their audiences, and the behaviors of these audiences, via data
  2. Reach that audience via traditional/non-traditional emergent earned media channels 
  3. Create authentic and compelling storytelling to connect with that audience

Zalis: I often talk about the “power of the pack.” Have you experienced this during your career?

Haddon: The NFL’s brand campaign that weaves through everything we do is called “It Takes All of Us” and the notion of “all of us” defines my career. One of my most special “power packs” was formed through the Female Quotient via a panel with top marketing leaders from other sports leagues during this pandemic. We remain great friends and trusted advisers—I affectionately call our group “Lady Ballers.”

Zalis: How do you suggest leaders stay effective while being remote and having less face time with their team?

Haddon: My advice is to show up with empathy, humility and kindness and keep the focus on the WHO and the HOW before jumping into the WHAT of the work—that makes all the difference in the world. The business results will come with a focus on performance and people.

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