The Cutting Edge of Leadership

Hi! Welcome to our show! You know, many of us think that being a leader actually mean that we have to have followers. Well, I think that’s a myth. And one of the many that I want to debunk in this series, what about those who lead in our profession? If you think about the characteristics of what it takes to excel at your craft many if not most of those attributes bring truth. The ability to set and achieve outstanding goals, to be able to influence and gain the support of others, to work as an outstanding team player, to make decisions that affect the lives of others and of ourselves. You know, the list goes on and on. What if you’re a world class athlete, is that not a reflection of outstanding leadership? Well, Bloomberg business week thought so in its article that stated “Top athletes are becoming the best pull in which to find great leaders,” where once the military was perceived to be the main source for business leaders, athletes are changing the game. They bring with them a refreshing new perspective to the world of leadership with or without followers. Today, I have the privilege of talking with Asa Van Welter. She competed on the world stage as Asa Persson. She is the four-time Swedish national figure skating champion. She placed second at the Scandinavian championships. She was 14th at the world junior championships and was in the top 23 of the world figure skating championships. I’m intrigue as to what Asa can tell us in terms of what it takes to become a leader in such a competitive sport at the global level. As well as how she’s been able to transfer those skills and attributes to her life as a coach and the choreographer of some of the world’s largest stages.


Lesley:  Well, welcome Asa, sitting on the shores of the Baltic Sea up in Sweden. How are you doing?


Asa:       (speaking native language)


Lesley:  Okay, so that was really interesting. And now I’m going to say to the audience, those of us in the English speaking world how much we take for granted that everybody we speak to will speak in our native tongue. And so, I’m going to thank you Asa that you’re going to conduct this interview in English which is not your native tongue, correct?

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Asa:       Yeah of course.


Lesley:  Well, um, you know what; it’s interesting how I think about the cultural differences that we have in leadership today, and about the fact that you’re Swedish. You’re brought up in the Swedish language, how did you come to learn English as you started to work through your professional career?


Asa:       Well, first of all, here in Sweden we all take English in school. So when I’m around 9 to 10 years old we start taking about 2 to 3 hours a week of English. We also dubbed any movies, so everything is subtitled so we hear a lot of English and lovingly songs. So, English is a little bit part of our society even though of course we only speak Swedish to each other. But then I had that great opportunity of traveling so much thanks to my sport, both through competitions as well as camps. So yeah, I started internationally when I was 13. So since then I’ve been learning more and more English and that’s been the way to communicate with others. And so along that way I guess…


Lesley:  Well, and I think that also you’re in a sport where even though you start so young as to become a top figure skater. You know, starting skating at five and then moving and then moving into your real sort of training when you were ten, and as you say starting to move internationally at 13. I mean, it’s a very young age that start to shape that skill of being a top performer.


Asa:       Well absolutely, absolutely.


Lesley:  So, I want to take you to a place and time which I often found really awe-striking, and that’s when I sat and watched a skater skate on to the middle of the ice, ready to perform in front of thousands of people in the stands and millions of people around the world. And I sit and wonder, “What goes through the mind of that person as they’re ready to put it all on the ice?” What goes through your mind?


Asa:       Well, it’s really the most exhilarating yet petrifying thought and feeling in the world to stand out there and you want to do so good. Like so badly you want to do so good and yet to really try to go into yourself and not let that go away somewhere. And actually go into yourself, believe that you know what to do; you’ve trained this hundreds and hundreds of time. You know it in your body, you know it. So, just to believe in that and do one thing at a time, and yeah…


Lesley:  It’s really is about interesting in your training your body learns all of the moves and the same way that your mind learns all the moves. And I think often in business we think that it is the mind that needs to become skilled, but really it’s every part of us.


Asa:       No, really every part of us but also the mind can be against us sometimes too. So then to have that like the knowing what to do you need to trust that as well and let the mind takeover, because the mind can play with us and not be our best friend sometimes either, right?


Lesley:  You know what, that’s a really interesting thought. And that’s what brings me to part of the introduction to this show this week was that now top athletes are becoming the pull for leaders in business. They look to that. You know, to your sportsmanship as being something that really needs to be part of the leadership that they’re looking for in their organization, what do you think are the characteristics that they see in athletes that they believe are the right ones to have a leadership?


Asa:       I think as an athlete at that level, first of all you really dare to dream. You believe that you can do what no one’s done before; you believe that you can become the best. And from that big dream you set a goal. So our use as athletes of having a goal and really making a path, “Okay, how am I going to achieve this goal, how am I going to go about it?” And as an athlete, I think you’re so used to that it’s okay to fail sometimes. Like, to reach that huge goal of yours you also are going to have some failure along the way and that’s okay, it’s just part of the process and you’ll learn from them, you’ll get stronger and better from them. So I think that has a lot to do with it.


Lesley:  Well, you know, I think that in the world of business we become so frightened around failure. You know, failure seems to be the obstacle that it’s really hard to get up after that and keep going. So, what happens when you are executing a phenomenal move and something goes wrong? How do you move from that moment of instantaneous failure to moving back into top performance mode in a second?


Asa:       Well, that takes a lot of practice and that’s where you’re going back to, because when you’re doing your program you really need to be as much as in the now as possible. You can’t think of jump five seconds ago, even if good or bad you can’t think about it. If you really just need to be in air now and that’s what you’ll learn to practice, that’s what you’ve done in so many times. So, you’ve learned to move away from a fail jump or a fail spin, or something going wrong where you’re getting a bit distracted. You’ll learn to move away from that and to go back into yourself, trust that you know what to do and just keep going.


Lesley:  You mentioned just a minute ago that you set a big goal and then you’ve developed plan to get to it. But underneath that, it is uncovering your true potential like what you’re really capable of. How did you go about uncovering and discovering that?


Asa:       For me, I think I got there more and more along the way, you know. Being a kind of 10, 11, 12, 13, you love your sport and so much passion for it, it’s fun. You’d start to do well and then that’s great and all. And then when you become a little bit older you realize more and more that, “Hey, I can really do this; I can really become the best.” And I think it’s from there.


Lesley:  Yeah, that makes great deal of sense that you keep uncovering what’s really possible.


Asa:       No exactly, later after later, right? And you realized that, “Yeah, this is something I can be really, really great at.”


Lesley:  And you mentioned the word “passion.” So, you have to, I guess, the love of the sport itself is what carries through no matter what.


Asa:       Absolutely, absolutely.


Lesley:  So, you know, I think what I’m also very aware of in professional sport is that the coaching plays a very large role, and we know as leaders that we have a very important responsibility for coaching others. And so, I’m wondering based on the hundreds of experiences that you’ve had –thousands probably—and watching others in the coaching position and you now being a coach, what are the do’s and don’ts that you would give to leaders about coaching?


Asa:       I think as a great coach, first of all their knowledge of all and they believe in what they’re doing and what they’re teaching. And they always have a kind of a reason why doing something a certain way, so they can explain it well because they know this works and they have their physics, they have their research behind them and why you’re doing a certain way. I think a great coach always also very supportive of their student, like, you know, sometimes they’re not going to do so well, sometimes they’re going to be injured. And to just be there for them a 100% in good and bad times, I think that’s extremely important. Those, again, like have a clear way of…“This is how I’m teaching, this is how forward and this is why…” And of course and still be able to be flexible because everyone is not the same, you might need to change that a little bit but yet you still have this main power of how you’re coaching. And I think it’s a big doom, it is a little bit opposite of that, first of all that you might not be so sure in your coaching styles. You might try a little bit too much; you can end up being guinea pigs. And you’re trying this or that for them, and that will never really give them that trust and feeling that they know what to do because they tried so many different things they’re not really sure what to think anymore. And again not really being there for them when they need you, like, to be there for someone who’s in a great success role and support you then but you also need that support but you’re not doing so well.


Lesley:  And sometimes we say that you need it more when it’s not going as well.


Asa:       Exactly…no, absolutely.


Lesley:  You know, the thing that you’ve underlined for me is that in many ways of the last 20 years we’ve kind of said, “Well, you know, a leader just needs to inspire people and to bring them into a sense of vision and direction.” But you’re also saying is, is that there’s an enormous amount of technical skill, technical understanding of what you’re leading people into.


Asa:       Yeah, for sure.


Lesley:  And I think that we’ve forgotten that in many cases in the business world. So, one of the things that I’m curious about is, how do you go about those…now you’re coaching one of the top 3 skaters in Sweden? So you’ve got responsibility now to take somebody as far as they can possibly go in the field. How do you go about creating that coaching plan?


Asa:       Well, again, you start with setting the goal and kind of moving back from there. They might not be this year or next year, it might be five years from now or whenever, but I think it’s very important to have this great plan, “This is the end fall, this is where we want to go,” and then break it down from there. And yeah, “What are we going to do in this season? What are we going to do this week? What are we going to do in this specific session? So that when we both come in to the ring that day we both know what needs to be done that specific session.” And I think that’s really important, and I think that’s how you start. But I also like to be the person who’s trying everything together because you have so many people pulling you from so many different directions. And as a coach, you need to be the one who helps your athlete to keep focused and being able to really think of themselves, for themselves. You need to be quite egoistic as a professional, as top athlete, you know. You have to just think about yourself. And as a coach, that’s also your job to help them being able to put themselves first.


Lesley:  So, I think you brought up a really important point that what many people may not understand. Is that when you reach the pinnacle of that type of athletic performance, you have a lot of people around you. You’ve got federation…. Tell us a bit of the agendas that are coming at you at that top level.


Asa:       Well, yeah, like I said, you have so many people, you know…of course, you have a federation, you have your coach, you have your mental coach, your nutritionist, all these sponsors hoping for you to do well, and of course TV and media and all of those people following around as well. So, it’s easy to lose focus because you do have so many people pulling you from different directions. I think it’s important to remember that all of these people want what’s best for you; they all want you to succeed. But yeah, it can still be a bit much because everyone might not have the same idea of how to get there. So, as a coach, who’s willing to take the pressure off of your student to be the person who’s kind of…who’s personally deals with all of that so your student can focus on themselves. But, as an athlete, the most important thing is that they’re all there because they believe in you and they want what’s best for you. And then you sometimes give it strong, you put your foot down and like, “This works for me.” And, you know, you won’t be able to do everything what everyone expects from you, so you need to be –again—selfish and think “What do I need to do?”


Lesley:  At the end of the day with all those people around you, you’re the one that’s on the ice and you’re the one executing all of that performance. So, it really is down to you making those final decisions.


Asa:       Exactly, exactly.


Lesley:  I’m just curios, you know, have you experienced the difference between male coaching and female coaching?


Asa:       I think in different sports there’s different styles of coaching, but I think it just really come down to how you are as individual. At least for my experience that’s not really big of a difference if it’s a male coach or female coach, it’s more of being about how they are some individual, what’s their style. So for my experience, no I haven’t noticed too much of a difference. It’s more of that specific person.


Lesley:  And their qualities that you mentioned before about being able to help you focus and being able to be there for you. So, you know, what I find interesting is that as you transitioned from your amateur career to a professional career, and you continued to do unbelievable performances all around the world in Japan, in Mexico and on the world’s largest stage in Germany. But what’s the name of that stage?


Asa:       Well, I worked at the Swedish top class in Berlin.


Lesley:  In Berlin. So, I mean, it’s amazing what stages you were on. And then you decided to do some different type of work as you moved into choreography, and I’m interested that skating in your world was such an individual’s sport. And then you move into creating choreography and coaching people in a group performance. What did you have to do to transition from the individual thinking to the group thinking?


Asa:       Well, like you said, we’re every individual were so used to just focus on ourselves. Honestly it’s not easy to transition to some who would become a team player and think what’s best for the group. And yeah, now that’s my job to then get everyone on the same page. And to create a show, you need to kind of also start with the audience to make the show as interesting as possible for the audience. And then everyone can’t go out there and just do exactly what they might want to do, because that might be the same exact team tricks and that’s not a very interesting show. So, you need to get the skaters together and feel that, “­We’re going to do this as best as possible as a group.” And my job then is first to find what’s unique, and special and so great about this specific skater or her team. And so their solos they can really perform what they are so great at. But then you also need to find the similarities, what ties this altogether to make the group numbers to find its flow and the mean to pretty amazing to see a group of skaters kind of moving as one. And yeah, just to find out both and also make them understand that, “We’re doing this as a group to make this show as good as possible.” And yeah…


Lesley:  Well, you know what; I think what you brought out is that you don’t go in necessarily with such a choreography piece. Much like a leader doesn’t go in and say here is the strategy without having really appreciated and understood the unique contributions that each member can make.


Asa:       No exactly… No exactly… So I think that’s how you make it as great as possible. I’m not at some ideas, my ideas, but if I’m…you know, when I have these incredible people that I’m working with, of course I’m going to use their abilities and their talents because that’s what’s going to make the show even better.


Lesley:  Absolutely. And so, one of the things that I also know about you is that along the way as you transitioned from amateur to professional sport, you took a professional coaching degree.


Asa:       Yes.


Lesley:  How did that contribute to the style and approach that you are now taking in your coaching?


Asa:       No. I think that helps a lot for sure, you know, like you have all your experience as being coach to yourself… And see, you know, you have some what was good and what might not have been as good, but then you can also kind of learn more about it and get some new ideas, “What’s definitely really great for me?” And then, again, what is so amazing in our lives…is that we always keep learning and use every situation and ask an experience to learn more. And for me, my students are my best teachers. I’ve learned so much from them and I developed so much. Thanks for them and went there really teaching me.


Lesley:  So, what has your current skater been teaching you that serve rings in your mind?


Asa:       Well, I think a lot to do with…she’s just coming out from an injury, she’s been injured all summer, and I had a lot of issues with injuries as well when I was competing. So I really understand and how she feels about that. So, I think she really take it now one step at a time because it’s so easy to come back and wanting to do everything I want, and wanting to be back right where you were when you left a few months ago. And I think that’s something really working right now is to know that sometimes, yeah, I do the hiccup on the lane. And then you need to might start a bit through the beginning and also use that as a good thing to learn the basics again, and go through the steps to make it even better and even more secure and safe in your style, in your skating.


Lesley:  So, it reminds me of one of those sort of rules of the road for coaching is “Look at the whole person.”


Asa:       Absolutely, and that’s so important, it’s so important. You know, like it’s easy to look at that person as a robot, and okay, like, “What can we do here” but that doesn’t work, you know. We’re all some sort of human beings who needs…yeah, you need to take care of them as a whole and see them as a whole and that’s I think the key…


Lesley:  So, what I know about you is that you married a very high achieving young man.


Asa:       Sure did.


Lesley:  So, how do you manage? Because I think for a lot of us listening they sort of say, “Okay well that’s good. You’re a top athlete; you’ve got lots of stuff on the wall…” But you also had a personal life that you’ve done a lot of tradeoffs on to get to point of success that you reached. How do you balance to achieving lives in a family?


Asa:       Well, first of all, me and my husband, we really appreciate each other, and would look after each other and admire each other for each other’s successes. Like, I love how my great husband as what he does in his job, and yeah, like I said we’re really proud of each other and that’s a very mutual feeling for both of us. So, for us, it’s been quite easy to then support each other, and yeah, sometimes that means maybe being away from each other for a certain period. And we have moved across Atlantic, both of us, for each other’s jobs. What’s so great for us is that we know when it comes down to it, that we both put our family first. So yes, we’re so…we really support each other but at the end of the day we know that’s number one thing for both of us is our family.


Lesley:  And speaking of family, you’re about to add to this little duo with a little one that’s coming along in less than a month.


Asa:       Exactly, yes, getting close now.


Lesley:  And how are you preparing for that?


Asa:       Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled. We’re so excited to become parents and…well, we’re just going to love, love, love this little human being that’s inside me and just be there for her, and support her and just truly do anything and everything we can to make her life as great as possible.


Lesley:  Well, I have no doubt in my mind that she’s coming into an incredible family, but I also heard that you’re still on the ice at eight months pregnant. How do you manage that?


Asa:       Well, you know, for me, it’s like being in my skates or being in renners is pretty much the same thing. I’m kind of born on the ice, so I feel completely comfortable there still. So, I’m not doing any tricks and I’m just coaching.


Lesley:  I don’t know being on blades at eight months…but I understand they’re like running shoes.


Asa:       Pretty much, yeah.


Lesley:  So, if you had one thing that you would like to offer to women listening about what it takes for a woman to lead in her profession and help live somebody else to achieve their best, what would be your one last parting piece of advice?


Asa:       Um, I think trust in yourself is the number one thing to believe that you have something to offer, not to try to copy someone else’s style like leadership style to really find your own unique way of being your optimistic of teaching your message. So, I think it’s about uniqueness, finding what’s unique about you and how do you teach that to others, but to trust that you have something special to get.


Lesley:  And to believe in the fact that that is really unique.


Asa:       Yes, absolutely. And the people want to hear that and people want to know about you and what you have to teach.


Lesley:  Well, this has been absolutely fantastic. I’ve loved our conversation. I can’t wait to hear about the baby news and one more beautiful human to enter the earth. So, thank you, Asa for a wonderful time with you today.


Asa:       Thank you so much, Lesley, it’s been great.


Lesley:  Wow. Certainly been inspiring to experience the phenomenal dedication and commitment that it takes to not only be the leader in your field, but to support the outstanding achievement with others. You know, we say that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well now we know that it takes a huge global village to raise a top athlete. And yet, within all of the milieu, the individual performer still has to lead their decision making. They still have to be the leader amongst all those others in order for them to get on to the ice and perform at the level that only they can do. I think it’s really fascinating how Asa showed us that breaking down the job of what that performer must do into components and practicing it in the components is what places you in a top performance. I think as coaches all too often, we place a grand plan in front of the person we’re coaching that holds so many components that it overwhelms them. Breaking it down into pieces and helping them practice and practice inside of each of those components is what it takes to become a top performer. The one thing though that I’m left with the most is what Asa told us about the importance of believing in ourselves. And with that, she has created the byline for this program “Women Who Lead.” “Believe in yourself so that others can believe in you.”

So thanks for listening. Don’t forget to go to Women Who Lead website to see more of the wonderful people I am interviewing, as well as to share your thoughts on our weekly conversation. There you’ll get connections to Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media that we are doing so that we can raise the conversation on women who lead. See you next week.


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