What sports stars can teach us about our next big career decision

August 20, 2016

Ieuan Williams, Director at Mane Consulting wrote an article for news.com.au

WHETHER you want a pay rise or plan to change your career path, there’s a lot we can learn from how athletes negotiate.

WITH Olympic fever gripping the nation it is interesting to compare the highly concentrated career of an Olympic athlete and other elite sports professionals to our own career decision making. Due to the short lived career of an elite athlete the onus is on them (and their agents) to create as much success (and wealth) as possible in the time their body allows them to perform at the highest level. Regardless of the profession or the sector you work in, we can all learn from the decisions made by those athletes living their careers in the fast lane.


SBW has clearly learned from the criticism he received from his mid contract move in 2008 from the Canterbury Bulldogs to pursue a lucrative rugby contract in France.
Sonny Bill was heavily criticised for the lack of clarity and slightly backhanded way he walked out on the Bulldogs, his actions even being called “treacherous” by his former employer’s CEO.
Williams now only signs short term contracts with specific goals in mind, thus allowing his employer and himself to have clearly defined time frames and expectations of his employment.
Examples of this include his two-year stint with the Sydney Roosters, his two Rugby World Cup wins with the All Blacks and his most recent contract with the NZ Olympic team.

What we can learn from Sonny Bill: If you are only planning on sticking around for a short term period with a specific career goal in mind, be upfront with your employer, the difficult conversation initially will avoid a number of more difficult and complex ones down the track, and will greatly enhance your reputation and earning potential if you achieve your set out aims.


After nearly a decade with Hawthorn, Franklin had built a reputation as one of the superstars of the game.
When Franklin, in his final year of his contract, informed Hawthorn that he wanted to explore all other options available to him this triggered interest across a number of clubs.
Complicating matters was the fact that the AFL works within a salary cap structure, meaning all clubs must work within a similar budget. This allowed ‘Buddy’ and his agents to predict which of the franchises were in a position to afford a player of his abilities and demands.

Despite offers from elsewhere, Buddy plumped for a long-term contract with the Sydney Swans. What makes this decision unusual, is that the contract he accepted was back weighted, meaning it was more lucrative in the latter part of the nine year time frame, so much so that Buddy is actually earning less in the first three years then what he was earning in his previous contract.

What we can learn from Buddy: If it is the right opportunity, with the right employer, back yourself! Play the long term game. This can apply to us looking at opportunities with small businesses where equity is on offer, or performance related bonuses are in play.


English premiership stars tend to get a bad reputation for their contract dealings, and there is a very good reason for this.
The top players call the shots when renegotiating contracts. Much like when Wayne Rooney held one of the largest sporting brands, Manchester United, to ransom in 2010. Rooney handed in a transfer request meaning he publicly asked his employer to allow him to leave to work for another in defiance of his contract obligations.

This is a well used and often unpopular way to force a move in football. If one was to be cynical about this particular instance, the employee forced the hand of his employer by understanding that at this time he held the upper hand in this negotiation, as United had just sold a number a star players, most notably Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid.
Rooney understood that he was the last remaining superstar at the club, with both he and United knew him leaving would be a PR disaster for the business which heavily relies on its off-field revenue. As a result United blew their pay structure to accommodate Rooney’s demands.

What we can learn from Rooney: In any negotiation it is important to know who holds the aces and timing is everything. Nothing is more certain in contract discussions then to always start negotiating from a position of strength, whether that is from your own personal performance or that of weakness of your employer or future employer. Never has a salesperson asked me for a pay rise after a poor month, and Rooney certainly wouldn’t be pulling the same tactic now after a run of a disappointing form.


When Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie and sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell picked up an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay, all four knew their lives had changed forever.
I am sure that the financial implication of success in Rio did not factor into the motivation of our proud Olympians but it is curious to put into perspective the impact any success will have on their employment out of the pool.
Most of the Olympians we have watched in the past few weeks will not be pursuing their chosen sport fulltime due to financial restrictions. Unwittingly Rio is a national or global shop window for sponsorship that could increase an athlete’s annual salary tenfold to a pre-Olympic year.

However success is not the only factor in play. Success certainly elevates the chances of lucrative sponsorship, but how marketable an individual is for a particular product has a larger impact. This can be anything from appearance, lifestyle choices to novelty value.
The Campbell sisters already have a lucrative sponsorship agreement in place prior to the Games, largely due to their form coming into the Games and the interest in the fact they are sisters on the same team.
Following her haul of four medals at Rio it would not hard to imagine seeing Griffith University student Emma McKeon adorning a cereal box on your kitchen table in the coming months.
But news of McKeon being banned from the closing ceremony after breaking the Rio curfew imposed by the Australian team could put any potential sponsorship deals in doubt.

What we can learn from our Olympians past and present: Do what makes you happy. If by ability, hard work and a little bit of luck you are successful, then the pay-off financially will come. And when it does, the financial aspects will be at best a secondary concern.

Ieuan Williams is a senior leader within the recruitment industry.