Career lessons from Serena Williams

As tennis legend Serena Williams bows out of the sport, we consider what we can learn from her
by Andrew Strange


Tennis legend Serena Williams has announced that she will finally be putting her racket aside and ‘evolving’ away from the sport after a career that has seen her win a record 23 Grand Slam titles.

In any career, studying the work of successful people can help you rise to their level. Serena Williams, for example, has shown resilience and dedication to her sport throughout her career – qualities that are just as important in the worlds of business and finance. So, what can we learn about the nature of success from one of sport’s brightest stars?

Be fearless

We often hear business leaders telling their staff to be brave and Williams shows just what this can achieve. In 1991, when she was nine years old, living in West Palm Beach Florida, she and her sister Venus trained with acclaimed tennis coach Rick Macci. Macci reflects on this time in a 2015 article for Complex by Maurice Peebles, saying that Serena was fearless and that her and her sister Venus would “run over broken glass to get the ball”. Serena “wasn’t afraid to miss and she hated to lose,” he recalls.  

This laser sharp focus on a goal is a common characteristic of ambitious professionals. Those who are fearless or who can face and deal with their fear can negotiate a better deal, go after a top job, or speak up when they experience or witness malpractice at work.  

Learn from the best

Williams sought out practice partners who were better than her. Early in her career she could turn to her sister Venus but as a young player she also tried to copy tennis champions like Pete Sampras and Monica Seles, according to an article for Tennis Now by Richard Pagliaro. This study of how the best players do it led directly to her first Grand Slam win when she beat Martina Hingis in straight sets in the US Open final in 1999.

We all can benefit from being mentored – even top chief executives. For example, an article for Harvard Business Review by Suzanne de Janasz and Maury Peiperl describes the experience of David Nish, the former CEO at insurance and investment giant Standard Life, who sought the advice of Niall FitzGerald, a former chair of Unilever, when he was promoted to the company’s top role in 2012. The article says that Nish knew “he would be tested by decisions and management situations he hadn’t encountered in the past” and that he knew he “could benefit from the perspective of someone who had been down similar roads before”. He told the Harvard Business Review: “The storytelling my mentor gave me was way beyond expectations. It’s about believing I’m unlimited … and I try to give my people the same – the belief that they can do anything.”

Work hard

There is no substitute for dedication and hard work if you want a successful career and Williams demonstrates these qualities in abundance. She told the Independent that she was the smaller of the Williams sisters when she was younger and had to work harder as a result. She couldn’t match her sister for power so had to practice and find other ways to win. It was a challenge that taught her mental toughness and eventually led to her domination on the court as they got older. She said: “Venus used to win her matches really fast and I would be out there grinding, hitting lobs and fighting and grinding and grinding.” She ground her way to a world number one ranking in 2002.

Be resilient

How you cope with challenges dictates how successful you can be. Williams is widely quoted as saying: “I really think a champion is not defined by their wins, but by how they can recover when they fail.” Others have noted her incredible resilience.

Andrew Rosen, president of financial planning firm Diversified, is quoted in an article for Forbes by Edward Segal as saying: “The first lesson we can learn in business from Serena Williams is resiliency.” This is perhaps most easily seen in her comeback after a knee injury in 2003 and a long period of depression following the death of her half-sister. In the most spectacular comeback of her career, she returned to the Australian Open in 2007 ranked 84th and won the tournament.

Build a great team

Serena has been able to rely on the support of her sister Venus throughout her career, which has made a huge difference. She also worked with French tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou for a decade until early in 2022. The right team of people around you can motivate you, point out where you can do better and provide the support you need when things get tough.

Plan your next move

Planning ahead is important to everyone in business and Serena is no exception. She is pursuing other interests and passions, from clothing lines to philanthropic activities. She also runs venture capital firm Serena Ventures, which invests in small businesses. In an article for BusinessNews Victoria Pelletier, managing director of global CEO transformation at Accenture, says: “You are more than your current role/job – you need to build a strong brand that is based not only on the subject matter expertise you have developed and are paid for but also on the unique elements that make you the CEO.”  
Published: 02 Sep 2022
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • Career Development
  • Serena Williams
  • resilience
  • mindfulness
  • mentoring
  • career development

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