Lisa Lazarus, Chief of Business Development and Strategy, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)

LIFECHATS SERIES WITH WOMEN LEADERS IN THE SPORT INDUSTRY

Lisa Lazarus

Lisa Lazarus was appointed as Chief of Business Development & Strategy of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) in July 2013. In this new role, she evaluates the FEI’s commercial opportunities in order to optimize the continued global growth of the equestrian sport. She also is responsible for creating new initiatives to enhance the revenue streams of the FEI in order to fund the ongoing development of the sport.

Previously, Lisa Lazarus served as the General Legal Counsel of the FEI, and oversaw all of the organization’s legal activities. She focused on reforming and improving the FEI’s medication control programs in order to support clean sport efforts.

 Read Lazarus’s full bio at the end of the LifeChat.

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Key Takeaways:

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On learning how to work in unique cultures:

  • …The number one thing I’ve learned is to be self-aware, and to understand that your worldview is not the only worldview
  • One of the things about being a leader and trying to succeed in your career is that you’re always so hard on yourself, and you never feel that you did the best you possibly could
  • I’ve lost cases, I’ve lost deals, I’ve given bad advice, and I’ve been embarrassed, but that’s how I’ve learned and gotten to where I am today
  • We’ve all experienced failure, but that’s how you get better
  • …if you don’t know the answer, if you’re not an expert on the subject, just be honest and say you don’t know the answer
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LifeChat with Lisa Lazarus:

How did you enter into the sport industry? 

My father was a sports agent who represented many of the Montreal Canadians and the Montreal Expos in the 1970s and 80s.  His work and involvement with sports was very much a part of my childhood and my ethos.  I even remember him dressing me up in hockey equipment and throwing me on the ice with a bunch of boys to see how I would fare. So sports were very much a part of the culture in my home.  But, I never actually sought out a career in sports.  I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I graduated from law school, I went to clerk for a United Stated District Court judge for one year and then I joined the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld in Washington, D.C.

In my second week of work, one of the partners there asked me to do an assignment for the National Football League (NFL).  After I did this assignment, the partner, who was a terrific mentor to me (Dan Nash), was happy with my work and continued to give me further assignments for the NFL. After about three years of working almost exclusively for the NFL as an external lawyer, I learned that the NFL Management Council, which is the collective bargaining representative of 32 member teams of the NFL, was looking for an in-house lawyer.  The Management Council is like a mini law firm to the NFL teams and advises them on labor and player contract issues. I was hired by the Management Council for this position, and I worked for them for six years, and continued my sports career from there.

What was it like being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

At the time that I joined, I was frequently the only woman in meetings; I can remember sometimes looking around the room and seeing 30 men and me.  There were women in other aspects of the NFL, like the marketing side, but very few on the labor side since we were dealing with the football side involving coaches and team officials.   It was sometimes challenging, because I couldn’t just walk into the locker room to talk to any player or coach if I needed to.  It was getting the confidence of team management and the coaches that was really my focus, and also incredibly important.  However, I just kept telling myself that if I did the best job that I could, I would get over these challenges.

I remember my second year there; I had this big arbitration with a player for the New England Patriots.  He was very emotional about the case and was very unhappy with what was going on, and I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  But I told myself I was going to do the best that I possibly could to get it right and to earn the team’s confidence, and that’s all I could do.  This was a real turning point in my career on a personal level because the outcome was successful and an important General Manager and coach ended up having a lot of confidence in me, and that really helped me internally and externally.  They really opened the door for me, because anytime someone was unsure of my abilities, they would always support me and back me up.

The NFL and the FEI are two very different sports associations.  Tell us about your transition from the NFL to the FEI, and how the two experiences differ.

I was at the NFL for about six years when my husband told me he had received a job offer with his current company to move to Singapore.  At the time, we had just had our first child and decided that it would be a good move for our family.  So I told the NFL we were moving, but I still wanted to continue working for them.  I started working part-time on drafting the NFL’s international broadcast contract, which quickly turned into full-time, where I ended up being responsible for drafting all of the NFL’s international media contracts.

After about two years, my husband was offered a transfer to Geneva and again we decided to make the move.  At the time of the move, the NFL was about to launch their (now) annual regular season game in London, so I helped them launch the game and build the commercial platform for it.  I did that for about two years, going back and forth almost weekly between Geneva and London, but the travel was becoming tiresome, especially with a young child at home.

Around this time, a headhunter called me and asked whether I would be interested in interviewing for a position as General Counsel of an international sports federation.  The job seemed suited to my capabilities and experience and I realized it was probably the right time to consider new opportunities.  Although I was quite surprised when I learned that the sport involved horses!  I was therefore a little hesitant because I had never thought of working for the equestrian industry, but I decided to accept it because I realized that it was so different than what I had been doing and would be a terrific experience.  Equestrian sports are completely global (unlike the NFL), and equestrian is a massive participation sport.  So I accepted the job in May 2009.

For women, being a mentor and finding mentors are so important.  What makes someone a good mentor, and what does good mentoring look like?

I think being a good mentor starts with taking an interest in someone.  In today’s world, it’s hard to dedicate the time, and to find someone who wants to take an interest in someone and actually spend the time to help someone out.  But if you can do that, and you can be honest with your mentee, you are succeeding.  I think that listening, being honest, and giving genuinely true feedback – which is sometimes hard – is the best thing you can do to help someone out, because they can learn so much from this.  When seeking out good mentors, I think that you should focus less on their technical skills, and more on how they engage with the outside world, how they approach different projects, and their work ethic.

At FEI, you are required to lead so many people from different cultures. What are some lessons learned that you can impart and share from your experiences?

I think the number one thing I’ve learned is to be self-aware, and to understand that your worldview is not the only worldview.  I think it’s also important to realize that there’s also going to be a perception of you as an American, which can be positive and negative in many ways.  Here, I am sometimes perceived as being too strong, which is definitely something I value, but I have to have a softer approach sometimes.  Even litigating in Europe is very different than litigating in the U.S., and I’ve had to be very cognizant of that.  Of course, I made some mistakes early on where I came on too strong or too direct, the way I believed was effective in the NFL.  I didn’t calibrate my approach or strategy enough to where I was, which is really important, especially because Americans are perceived a certain way internationally.  I quickly realized that if I was humble and honest about being an American, the people around me were much more willing to help, which was hugely beneficial.  

Tell us about a time when you faced self-doubt, or you were faced with what you thought was an insurmountable challenge.  What did you do to overcome that?

I was at my first job at Akin & Gump, and one of the partners ran a program where associates were allowed to handle arbitrations for a large chain of supermarkets.  I always wanted to litigate, so I was really thrilled about this opportunity.  When I got my case, I stayed up late heavily preparing for it, because I wanted to make sure I was as ready as I could possibly be.  When I went in to present it, the employee who was part of the case started being very emotional and crying during the arbitration which threw off my whole strategy.

Because of this, in my mind, it was somewhat of a disaster.  My client was there, and I really felt like I had lost the case.  I was so embarrassed, and I remember going back to my hotel after, and being unable to speak for hours because I was so distraught.  But after a while I became resolved to write the best post-hearing brief possible to try to make up for what had happened.  In the end, I actually won the case, which proved to me that even though the hearing didn’t go as planned, I worked as hard as I could to make up for it and it paid off.  That taught me determination and the importance of not giving up too easily.

One of the things about being a leader and trying to succeed in your career is that you’re always so hard on yourself, and you never feel that you did the best you possibly could.  I’ve lost cases, I’ve lost deals, I’ve given bad advice, and I’ve been embarrassed, but that’s how I’ve learned and gotten to where I am today.  We’ve all experienced failure, but that’s how you get better.

What advice would you give women who are just starting out in the workforce, especially those in male-dominated industries, such as sport?

One of the things I think is so incredibly important in today’s professional world is that you always need to be over-prepared.  The professional world is just so competitive today.  I think that’s even truer for women, especially in male-dominated areas, because you have to be better than they are you can’t just be the same.  You have to walk into a room and be the most prepared person there.  But ultimately, winning confidence and winning trust is, to me, the number one most important thing, because everything else will flow from there if you are good.

I also think it’s very important to be up front and honest about your strengths and weaknesses.  I remember when I first started at the FEI, I met with the director of Jumping, a former captain in the Irish army who had been in the job for twenty years.  And he asked me, “What do you know about Jumping?”  I said to him, “to be honest, absolutely nothing, but I’m a very good lawyer.”  He laughed and the tension around my lack of knowledge about Jumping was eased.  From this experience, I realized that if you don’t know the answer, if you’re not an expert on the subject, just be honest and say you don’t know the answer.  Admit that, and people will find it gracious and humble.  The worst thing you can do is to act like you know something that you don’t.  It will make it harder for people to believe in you when you do know what you are talking about.

You’re a mother of two, and you have a career that requires you to travel quite a bit.  How do you manage a healthy work-life integration?

I have kept my career going while working around my husband’s career although it’s always been a little unconventional because I’ve often lived in different places than my career.  I was not forced by my husband to move any of these times, but we always did it because it gave him great opportunities, and they were all incredible places to live for our family.

I’ve also been so blessed with very wonderful caregivers and nannies for my kids.  I’ve been really lucky and I’ve had really good people in my life to help out.  But I also do a lot of unconventional things to make the balance work.  I do a lot of stressful stuff to keep it balanced, like running out of a meeting to go to a soccer game, then running back to a meeting; and flying back and forth from London to Geneva a lot.  I realized that the only way I can do this is by not sleeping as much as I would like, and by working my butt off.  I really do feel like I have two full-time jobs, and at times, it is really hard, but I make it work.

 

[Since this interview, Lisa Lazarus became the Chief of Business Development and Strategy, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)]

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Full Biography of Lisa Lazarus:

Ms. Lazarus joined the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) as General Legal Counsel in May 2009. Her primary focus was reforming and improving the FEI’s anti-doping and medication control programme and supporting the organisation’s clean sport efforts. Ms. Lazarus also directed all of the governance issues related to the FEI and the negotiation of its commercial initiatives. In addition to professionalising the legal process within the FEI and representing the organisation in all cases before the FEI Tribunal and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, she was also instrumental in redrafting the anti-doping rules, a crucial factor in the FEI’s Clean Sport campaign.

Ms. Lazarus took on a new role within the organisation as Chief of Business Development & Strategy in July 2013. In her new position, Ms. Lazarus evaluates the FEI’s commercial opportunities in order to optimise the continued growth of equestrian sport globally. This includes reviewing the work of the FEI’s Commercial Department, and establishing how it can best serve the needs of sponsors and stakeholders at the very top level.

Prior to joining the FEI, Ms. Lazarus was Senior Director of Partner Development for NFL International, located in London, England. In that role, she was responsible for overseeing business and partner development in and around the NFL’s initiatives in the United Kingdom, focusing predominantly on the flagship NFL International Series property.

From January 2007-January 2008, Ms. Lazarus was Senior Director of Business Affairs for NFL International, serving in a dual business and legal role focusing on the NFL’s international business with legal oversight for the NFL’s planned expansion into China. From November 2005 to December 2006, Ms. Lazarus was NFL counsel, with primary legal responsibility and oversight for the NFL’s international media business.

Prior to that, from June 1999-October 2005, Ms. Lazarus was Labor Relations Counsel to the National Football League Management Council. In that role, Ms. Lazarus advised the thirty-two member clubs of the NFL on issues including the NFL’s Substance Abuse Programme, the NFL player contract negotiations and the Collective Bargaining Agreement. She also represented NFL clubs in grievance negotiations, settlements, and in binding arbitrations that arose from disputes between NFL clubs and their players.

Before joining the NFL Management Council, Ms. Lazarus was an associate in the labour and employment section of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C. where she worked primarily as outside counsel to the NFL Management Council. Prior to Akin, Gump, Ms. Lazarus clerked for the Hon. Jerome Turner of the Western District of Tennessee in Memphis.

Ms. Lazarus received her B.A. cum laude in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. She graduated from the Fordham University School of Law in 1994.

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The LifeChat Series in Sport was created in partnership with Beyond Sport. More information at www.beyondsport.org.