From Soccer Player To CEO: Why The School You Went To Doesn’t Matter When Becoming a CEO

I did not take a traditional path toward becoming a CEO. Before I started my corporate career, I was a professional soccer player for twelve years.

The transition wasn’t easy.

Generally speaking, pro athletes really struggle to create meaningful lives for themselves after retirement. Our sport has been our lives, and when that is no longer our primary focus, we wrestle with issues of identity and purpose.

But the fact is, athletes retire young, and life is long.

The only thing that is sure when you become an athlete is that at some point you’re not an athlete anymore. But being an athlete is all about progressing and adapting, so even though your job may change, whatever you do next should build on the skills you’ve acquired on the field.

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Many athletes don’t understand how their skills can translate into a future career. And that’s understandable; often the transition is not obvious. It just requires a new way of looking at the skills you already have. My skills on the soccer field may not have translated directly into the boardroom, but no one becomes a pro athlete without developing skills like hard work, persistence, and self-motivation.

Attitude is a professional skill.

It’s certainly not new to say that in order to succeed in business today you must be flexible. Companies are constantly pivoting to take advantage of new opportunities and stay competitive. So when the only constant changes, what skills set a person up for success?

In my experience as an athlete and a CEO, the most important quality a top performing individual can have is their attitude.

Basic skills are important, of course, but they can be taught. What is harder to teach, and I would argue more essential for success, is having a strong character. When you’re a pro athlete, you have to face the reality that everyone is skilled.

Becoming a CEO: from soccer player to CEO

Basic skills do not differentiate a player when everyone is an expert.

What makes the great players stand out from the rest is their attitude. It’s the ability to take a hit and move forward quickly, without getting discouraged. It’s about committing to being the best. Lastly, it’s about consistency.

In the school of life, an “A” stands for attitude. That’s the only grade I look for when hiring, and that’s why I think athletes represent such an exceptional resource for companies looking to hire top performers.

Becoming a CEO? Follow these four principles

For me, attitude is all about understanding—and living by—the following principles:

1. Work hard to get what you want, otherwise, you’ll work hard to like what you get.

No one, no matter how naturally gifted, was ever randomly given a professional athletics contract. It’s impossible to become a pro athlete without extreme dedication and hard work.

Most athletes have been told from a young age that their dreams are impossible, yet they continue to pursue them.

Why? Because they know that the goal is worth the effort and they understand that the alternative — settling for less, putting in a half-hearted effort — will only lead to dissatisfaction.

2. Losing is temporaryBut so is winning.

Athletes know how to take a hit. In some sports, that’s more literal than others, but no matter the context, it’s important to know how to dust yourself off after a setback and move forward with strength. Professional athletes understand that losing is inevitable and have learned to welcome a defeat as a way to test their progress and keep improving.

At the same time, athletes understand that winning is as fleeting as losing. A win only lasts until your next match. Athletes are able to balance the concepts of winning and losing by staying focused on their long-term goals.

In other words: Losing is not an end result, it’s part of the process. So is winning.

3. Winning once takes talent; winning consistently takes character.

Most people think that the point of athletics is to win. That is, at best, a major oversimplification. All athletes understand that winning is a fluke. All it takes to win is for someone else to have a bad day.

The key to success is consistency, and that requires character.

To me, character means being humble in victory and resilient in defeat. It means understanding that we all have up days and down days, and not letting either one deter us from our goal to progress, to improve, and to become the best.  

Character comes from all the things you do when no one is looking. Character comes from the things you don’t talk about. It comes from the training and sacrifice that’s required to make you a top performer on game day. It makes you strong, keeps you consistent, and prevents you from breaking when times get tough.

Your character is what keeps you humble in good times and strong in bad times.

4. You are only as strong as your weakest point.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. And as we grow, we often focus on improving what we’re already good at. We focus on our strengths.

But athletes understand that to grow, you need to focus on your weaknesses. That’s what gets exposed when you go out to compete. Your competitor will always find your weakest spot and exploit it.

There is no faking it. You either improve, compensate, or quit. But ignoring where you are weak will never move you forward.

Attitude first, everything else second

When I first left soccer, I struggled to find my way forward. I was lucky enough to interview with someone who saw my potential and was himself a former athlete. I hope he would agree that hiring me was a good decision. I’m certainly grateful.

All that said, my point is not that companies should start attending soccer matches and handing out business cards. Rather, we need to change what we look for in new hires.

Most people, when they’re vetting a new employee, look first for skills and experience, then use attitude as a tie-breaker. I reverse that. I always start with attitude and character, then I look at everything else. Doing a job well—and contributing to a team—is about so much more than what you studied in school.   

My background is in soccer, so it’s easy for me to see how the experiences of pro athletes can translate into corporate life. But my philosophy on what makes a person a top performer does not depend on them being athletic.

My point of reference may be sports, but these are life lessons, not sports lessons.

Companies can train a person to perform a job, but no one can teach attitude or coach character. Those are qualities that must be developed from within. And any person who demonstrates these characteristics—whether on the job, in a classroom, or on the field—is a person I’d bet on to succeed.

Casper Henningsen is the Chief Executive Officer of UserTribe. Since stepping into the CEO role in 2018, he has been responsible for the overall strategic growth and international expansion of the company as well as managing day to day operations. Prior to joining UserTribe, Casper was a Managing Partner with Kunde & Co, one of the leading marketing agencies in Northern Europe. Before this, Casper was a professional soccer player in Denmark for 10 years. Today Casper serves on the Board of Directors for Nordic Knowledge Partners as well as Klausen & Partners.

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  • Originally published April 11, 2019, updated April 26, 2023