Connect: September 2018

Rebecca Feickert: How skilled athletes make superb leaders

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Rebecca Feickert is an EY alumna and co-founder and CEO of Trey Athletes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing high school athletes with the tools they need to become leaders. Trey’s program helps thoroughly prepare these athletes for college, helping them to succeed as student-athletes while transferring sports-based leadership skills to life and career achievement. A former University of Kansas basketball player, Rebecca credits her time in tax compliance at Ernst & Young LLP (EY) with providing her the foundation for career advancement, highlighting the professional but fun environment, high-quality colleagues and continuous opportunity for growth and learning. She was kind enough to sit down with us and share the latest chapter in her career story.

What do you remember most about your time at EY?

It really does come back to the people. I was fortunate that the client I served when I was an intern became my major client once I joined full-time. I served on that client service team throughout my entire career with the firm, so the people I worked with guided and saw me grow as a professional. For those who were my peers, we grew together. That holds a really special place in my heart, and you can’t overstate the value of having good friends who are ambitious, challenge you and help you grow in what you know and how you see the world. I definitely had that opportunity with the people with whom I worked at EY.

When you think about those people, who stands out?

I first met partner Gerry Dixon during a trip called “Xplore,” where a select group of top accounting students at the University of Kansas toured the Big Four professional services firms. I was dead-set on working in New York but was definitely intimidated and uncertain about what that would entail. Gerry was a KU alum who encouraged us to really go for it — jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. And he used his own story as an example of why that’s not only possible, it’s a good idea. Gerry has remained a great mentor to me, staying in contact and supporting me, regardless of where I went or what I did, and that is really powerful.

Another EY partner and mentor is Eric Sapperstein, who always took time to explain things. It was clear he viewed himself as an instructor, in addition to a developer of people and an excellent service provider. I felt open to asking him questions and he included me in meetings and conversations so that I could continue to learn and grow. Eric was also one of my references when I applied to Harvard and Stanford Business Schools and, I think, was one of the major reasons I was accepted by both. He not only really believed in me and was willing to say it, but was also not afraid to tell both me and others why he believes in me.

The firm formed the Women Athletes Business Network, recognizing the experience of sports and its relation to leadership. How has your experience as a college athlete helped you during your career?

I think being an athlete helps you in everything, always! First of all, you’re used to not being good at everything, so you understand the relationship between practice and excellence. I think that has enabled me to continuously have a growth mindset. I think you also are inherently competitive, which means you hold yourself to a very high standard. And for any business that relies on its people, like EY, people holding themselves to high standards is what ultimately makes the business successful.

Teamwork is very important, too: sometimes you’re the star; sometimes you’re on the bench. You learn early on that, if you’re going to be successful, it depends more on the team around you than it does on you individually. As an entrepreneur, this helps me prioritize the professional development of my team members. It also ensures that the culture is going to attract and retain the right types of people over the long term.

As a woman, I think being an athlete helps you so much by instilling in you the necessary skills to be successful. Learning to be assertive through sports and being recognized and rewarded for doing so have helped me embody the qualities of a leader in the male-dominated industries of finance and entrepreneurship. And I think it’s amazing that EY has made such a commitment to recognizing and developing female athletes for leadership positions. Those core characteristics of assertiveness and being bold and confident really helped me, and I built them through sports. They will help me to be a successful businessperson, executive, entrepreneur, and one day, a successful parent.

How do those qualities help inform your startup, Trey Athletes?

At Trey, our mission is to empower athletes to become lifelong leaders. All of those traits that make you a great athlete can make you a great executive or a great member of the community. But there are athletes who don’t have the resources to turn those ingredients into a recipe, so they don’t ever learn the skills to take everything they learn in sport and transfer all of those qualities and that excellence into the real world. At Trey, we want and need to change the cycle so that future athletes can become the leaders they’re meant to be.

How did you go about convincing others that this was something that needed to be addressed?

I like facts, I like numbers, I like logic. And that really was the genesis of Trey — it wasn’t just a feeling. I realized that the lives of some of the best potential leaders I knew had not turned out the way that they could have. Then I did lots of research and compiled a logical foundation for why reality is the way it is, and how that reality could be different. We use a data-driven approach to drive change and assess our impact.

Take us through a Trey athlete’s journey.

We seek out athletes who exhibit great leadership skills and are high achievers in both school and sports, but who may lack the resources to transform that potential into a fulfilling leadership-based career. We provide them with those tools through a three-part program (hence the name Trey):

Trey Academy: Our signature workshop series provides Trey Athletes with guidance and preparation for college, leadership development and peer-to-peer learning with other high-potential athletes.

Trey Mentorship: Via sponsored outings and ongoing one-on-one communication, Trey Athletes receive individualized mentorship from a dedicated mentor. Our mentors are former college and professional athletes who have firsthand experience with the challenges and opportunities unique to elite competition.

Trey Online: In order to guide their college research, college decision and college preparation process, Trey Athletes are granted access to our exclusive database of information on college teams.

How do students join Trey Athletes?

We’re launching our first chapter in Dallas and are 100% focused on building Trey Dallas before expanding to other cities. We work closely with community partners who help us identify Trey Athletes and build trust in the community. Our cohort this fall serves 40 boys and girls basketball players. Our goal is to really prove the concept: show why this is impactful and actually bring the data that we have, beyond just anecdotal evidence, to demonstrate our impact on athletes as leaders. Then, we will continue to scale from there with the goal of serving thousands and then tens of thousands of athletes down the road.

What do you look for in mentors?

Trey Mentors are former college athletes who have successfully transitioned into post-sport careers. Our mentors understand the unique connection between athletics and leadership, and share our passion for helping younger athletes realize their leadership potential. Collectively, Trey Mentors form a professional network of high-achieving former athletes who share the same competitive mindset and top athletic and professional experience. We feel that there is incredible benefit in bringing those people together and creating a community within which they are able to consistently interact.

How are you creating awareness around Trey’s mission and the benefits that it offers?

We have started with our personal networks. It’s clear to us that no one better understands our mission and the problems we seek to solve more than someone who’s been through it, so our personal networks of former athletes who really understand what we’re doing have been invaluable in helping us spread the word.

Getting involved in the community is important, too. We have been very active in reaching out to, and suggesting partnerships with, other nonprofit or social enterprise-based organizations, and we’re happy to report that we’ve gotten a really warm reception. We’re also always looking for opportunities to tell our story to others who would be inspired by what we’re doing and who would want to support us in some way. My measure of success is to build Trey to the point where the world can’t imagine it not existing.

More about Rebecca Feickert:

  • On the fly: In high school, she couldn’t fit an accounting class into her schedule, so she taught herself the material by reading the book and completing homework assigned by the teacher on her own time.
  • Small-town roots: One of only two students in her North Dakota high school’s graduating class, Rebecca went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School.
  • For fun: Rebecca loves traveling to new places and immersing herself in the local culture.