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Q&A With Cathy Engelbert

With your dad being drafted in the NBA, and you playing in college, talk about your love for the game and where it comes from?

I come from a large family, eight siblings, five brothers, was thrown in the backyard. We had a half-court basketball court in the backyard. My father played college basketball under Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsey. He played for St. Joe’s and then got drafted by the Pistons. I played for now very famous and Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw when she got her first start in coaching at LeHigh University, where I played for four years under Muffet and then obviously she went off to great things at Notre Dame. So really basketball’s been such a core to who I am and I love the game and follow it very closely.

What motivated you to take on this challenge?

This new challenge in my career, the timing was perfect… I had three criteria– I wanted to do something different, something with a broad women’s leadership platform, and something I had a passion for. This was a really good match where I thought I could bring my business leadership skills for over three decades to the WNBA and really drive a platform for these women, the owners, coaches. I’m really excited and it was just a really good match. Hopefully, we’ll be something where my business leadership skills and my women’s leadership platform that I’ve been able to build for the past couple decades will be very much of use.

Where do you want to take the WNBA as commissioner of the league?

It’s such a moment in time for women’s leadership and there’s so better place than in sports that builds confidence in women and girls. We’re so wanting for women’s leadership and these amazing, world class athletes that play for the WNBA. I’m really excited to bring a business lens and to drive and have this league flourish and to have all these women feel like they are at the top of their game, whether it’s at the WNBA or when they retire from the WNBA. There’s so much potential for this league to flourish and from a business perspective too, to make the league really at the top of it’s game.

Over your career, and now the WNBA, how important would you say is innovation to an organization?

That’s a great question. We read all the time about how quickly the environment is changing and shifting. One of the things I’ve been about to do with my career is to sense those shifts, to invest into new technologies. Obviously you see in sports a lot of analytics being used that’s innovative. You see a lot of digital platforms emerging. You see obviously Esports. You see so many different aspects of innovation evolving in sports so a basketball is no different as needing to innovate. It’s kind of an interesting skill set hopefully I’ll bring from the business world to sports and specifically to the WNBA to determine what the innovative platforms are and innovative ideas around sponsorships, bringing in a fanbase and enhancing the fan experience. I’m so used to dealing the customer experience and now kind of bringing that to the fan experience I think will be an important part of innovation for the WNBA.

What else can you bring from past experiences to this new position?

The number one thing is that you have to have passion for what you are doing, a passion for the game, so I bring that. You have to actually really be invested and committed to bringing the WNBA to the next level and I think I’m very committed to do that– bringing some business acumen, revenue generation, entrepreneurial spirit. The league has been around now for over two decades and I think there are a variety of things that I can bring to it, ideas and creativity as the new brand has been launched so really it’s about enhancing the brand, enhancing the fan experience, getting people in seats, helping the owners and players, and really have the league thrive.

Coming into the WNBA, which is a league that values inclusions and diversity, talk about how the WNBA can continue that conversation, not only to our fans but to society as a whole?

That’s a great question. We have world class athletes, most of them are college graduates. The voice they can have, the strength of their convictions and their voice. Obviously we live in a divisive society. Why not the women of the WNBA, that voice, especially at a pivotal time around women’s leadership where there’s a lot of conversation in the marketplace around how important it is to have role models, to thrive in a man’s world that everyone talks about. But I think that the WNBA, because of its maturity, we can still be creative in how we express that voice. That’s probably what I’m most excited about. These world class athletes having that voice, whether it’s on social issues, basketball or sports. Whether it’s even on business issues or whether it’s what their aspirations are as they play and then as they retire.

How would you characterize your leadership style?

My leadership style is very competitive because of growing up with lots of siblings and having to compete early in life for everything and having played. I actually played two sports in college. I played basketball and lacrosse back when you could play two. But I’d say also in my business life, collaborative… I want to listen. I want to know what people aspire to be in their careers. I also think in this world of millenials and digital natives… I’m responsible for a huge workforce of a hundred thousand people, 75% millennials, they just want to know that you are invested in their career and developing them to be the next generation of leaders. I’ve been a big proponent of investing in talent and driving a talent platform to really have the next generation of leaders emerge.

Are there any primary goals — from Day 1 — that you will focus your attention on?

Obviously, to bring the league to the next level. To drive a thriving business model so we have a model where the fan experience is right, the players’ experience is right. I think my immediate goals, whenever I transition to any role, are to listen, evaluate, and assess what we need to do. What has worked? What hasn’t worked? Really move forward with some bold ideas that we can execute on. Drive higher revenue, higher player pay, and the fan and player experience to where it needs to be.

How did playing for a legend like Muffet Mcgraw affect your basketball and professional life?

There are so many analogies between playing a college sport and playing for a leader like her. She relied upon me as a leader and captain. Little did I know, those were early leadership lessons. She would say, ‘you need to be your best in your ordinary moments. Not just in the games, but in practice.’ She talked about how important practice was. It was her first head-coaching job, but I have huge respect for what she’s gone on to do. Very much admire the platform she’s tried to build for her players and women as future lessons. I was actually out at Notre Dame’s business school and Muffet took me to a practice. I spoke to the women about how important it was. I’m such a proponent that sports give you the confidence to rise in your career. That’s why the WNBA is such an important platform. These world class athletes are so important because they’re our future leaders in business and many other platforms when they’re done playing basketball.

What are you most excited about your first year at the WNBA?

I’m most excited that the draft was highly successful. I think there are a lot of new players that are going to bring energy into the league. There’s potential for a great season and the new brand. This is around the voice of these players, their success, and being invested in it. This is about getting the fan experience right and getting them in the seats. A lot of people say we’re at an inflection point — I think we’re at an inflection point in women’s leadership. I do a lot around advancing women leaders’ brands. The brand of the WNBA is so strong that when you see other athletes of individual sports, like Serena Williams, I’m really excited about how we can enhance that brand — both individually, personally, and for the league. I’m excited to get engaged and present that brand to the outside world, so that we drive that fan base, especially the millennial and digital native population. I think they’ll be interested the voice of these players and the success of these players. I think the energy that these players bring will be important to gaining that followership and the “coolness” factor.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given that you live by?

Get some small things done, build trust, and you can get some big innovate things done.  Some of the best advice I got was from Condoleezza Rice, who I know is a big fan of the game. She said ‘you’re not going to be the leader forever, so the number one thing you need to do is build the next generation of leaders behind you. I think that’s great advice because you ultimately lead to the success of everybody. I think about that now in the context of the WNBA — not only building leaders in the W, but the players as they embark on the rest of lives in and outside the league.

What is your earliest memory of the WNBA? Any favorite moments over the league’s history?

When the WNBA started up, I wondered why wasn’t that there in 1986 when I graduated? When we play at the D-1 college level, your dream is to play professionally. But it just didn’t exist back then. I’ll never forget when the WNBA was launched, because I was excited that the players who came behind me were going to be able to use that out of college while they figured out what they were going to do, because they could use that platform to run off of. I did play in an all-male league in Philadelphia when I came out of college. I was the only woman and played for a couple of years before I thought ‘these guys are too good for me’ and I stepped out. When the W was launched, it was so exciting. Having been coached by a Hall of Fame coach and seeing my dad play in the NBA, it was such a home run. It was over twenty years ago. When weren’t at such an inflection point with everything that’s happened socially in the world around gender parity. I think it’s an inflection point. The people who started the WNBA were very visionary and progressive in even the idea. It’s been the one professional women’s sports league that has sustained momentum over two decades, so it’s pretty impressive.

Are there any successes from other leagues — whether it be the NBA or otherwise — that can be applied to the WNBA?

There are a lot of things going on with professional women’s sports leagues. Everyone looks to the men’s leagues with television deals and sponsorships. The women’s leagues, quite frankly, have struggled. There are lessons learned. As I engage and transition, I want to see what has worked and hasn’t worked.  I think there are great stories in individual sports like golf and tennis. But where’s the team sports narrative? I think that’s an important part of the W narrative and brand around team sports. I actually read a blog a couple years ago around how team sports have developed me into a leader and the analogies between leadership and team sports that you don’t get from individual sports, especially as a woman in a male-dominated business world like I’ve been in. I think it’s important that we look at success and failures. There have been failures that we need to study. I think for the W, world class athletes, college graduates, platforms on social, and sports issues, there’s so much potential upside to drive this brand to a higher level.