Being a leader in sports is not just about winning games or trophies. It's about inspiring others, creating a shared vision, and building a culture of excellence. Being a leader is being an inclusive leader who can drive change and innovation for a better future. And Korn Ferry research reveals that organizations need inclusive leaders who champion diversity, drive change, and empower collective success. One leader who exemplifies these qualities is Shari Ballard, the CEO of Major League Soccer's Minnesota United FC.

In her role as CEO of one of the most successful and innovative sports franchises in North America, Ballard has been leading MNUFC since 2021, following a long and distinguished career in retail where she held various senior executive roles. The authenticity, adaptability, empathy, strategy, vision, and trustworthiness she has exemplified throughout her career have inspired many and align with what Korn Ferry says are five traits of an effective leader. After learning more, it’s clear that Ballard is a model of excellence, diversity, and community engagement, both on and off the pitch.

Cheryl D’Cruz-Young, Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner and founding member of the Sustainability & ESG Center of Expertise, spoke with Ballard to learn more about her insights on leading with courage, curiosity, and collaboration to foster a culture of inclusion and innovation. Read on to learn more about one of the most inspiring and influential leaders in sports today.

Q: When you think about the future of sports, what do you hope for?

Shari Ballard: Well, first of all, I'm a raving sports fan. While I grew up playing sports, I did not play professionally. I have an appreciation for people who are professionals, and I'm a real believer in what sports has enabled more broadly for me. I learned to be more confident in myself. I’ve also learned that other people will be able to do things I can’t. And instead of being intimidated by that, I try to think about it as a comfort to have people around me who know things I don't.

When you're on a sports team, you're sort of inherently looking for what your teammates are great at and asking yourself, "What am I great at?" you have to work together to accomplish something you all care about. I see sports as a great platform for exposing and highlighting the uniqueness of people. And when those things come together in a context where there's an appreciation for unique individuals working toward a common goal, really amazing things happen.

Q: A Korn Ferry survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of executives believe D&I programs contribute to employee retention. Are there any recruitment or retention programs that you’ve put in place or are supporting??

Ballard: There can be a sort of mentality in sports that you had to have grown up in sports to be in a position of leadership in sports. I think there are mental models that exist in organizations that are more about assumptions than they are about the reality of what it truly takes to be successful. I'm certainly not discounting the need for technical and industry experience, because you do need that. However, I do think in sports there tends to be an overemphasis on the need to have grown up in sports—the need to have been a player to be able to be a coach, the need to have spent your whole life in sports to be a sports CEO. I just don't believe that, because I think at the core, it's really all about people. All leadership jobs are people jobs.

So, what's our club trying to do on diversity and inclusion? Well, the first thing is to challenge that assumption. We try to really think through a few things when we bring people into roles. What experiences are critical? What is the requisite skill set? What are we really hiring for? And then making sure that in the broader environment we're in, we're progressing on helping people do that. Silos can be driven by a lot of things.

For example, someone may feel like I'm in sales and the fact that marketing won't promote something is making me crazy. Or I'm in marketing and the fact that the salespeople are always selling stuff that we can't fulfill is making me crazy.

Those are things that can make us have a limited view of other people, and it's a skill set to learn—to understand what your filters are and to engage with people differently to try to really get at the collective goal and to increase performance.

Q: Have there been any outreach programs that you've found successful at encouraging participation in sports?

Ballard: Soccer is, inherently, more community-oriented in its identity than what you might get in some other professional sports, even though they all have a community aspect to them. Soccer, I think just given the global nature of it, has a little bit more of that DNA in it. Our club efforts, as an extension of that, are also really ingrained in the community and in a lot of different aspects of the community.

That includes everything from us giving our time and resources to a whole range of different community groups and people that are trying to do cool stuff. But it’s also about connecting our corporate partners. They have a mission to make a difference in the community and look to us to help connect them to the right groups. And we're good at it because we have an individual, Cori, who runs that for us and is a genius in this space.

I think the context in which we try to help our corporate partners is one way that we extend our community outreach. We're in it with them, and we learn a lot. At every home game, we give out our community award called the L’Etoile award, and we present it to a person or organization doing great things in our community. We always learn from those honored and, inevitably, it creates more engagement around what they're doing.

We also put on soccer camps and clinics for kids that may come from communities that don't have quite as much access to the sport or may not have the resources for club soccer. Great coaches and our own players try to help give access and add interest in the game. They help introduce sports to them or, in a lot of cases, fuel what is already a passion for sports. They just reinforce that sports are ultimately about belonging.

With most of our big partners, there's a community component to what we work on together. For example, Toro is one of our partners, so we work together to do pitch rebuilds within the community. Last summer, Saint Paul Park lacked access to great soccer fields, so we built a soccer field for the kids in that community. On the morning of, they didn't have a soccer field in the community, and by the end of the day, they had the same type of quality field that we have at Allianz Field.

It’s our club's mission to promote soccer and to use it as a platform for inspiring and uniting the community, and we certainly feel passionate about that on matchday. But to be honest, we probably do more of it on non-match days. And I'm telling the story, but I am a little bit sheepish about it because I didn't do any of this. This club was doing this when I got here. It's one of the things that really attracted me to the club, and I'm getting the benefit of being a part of it, but it's certainly not my genius that caused it to happen.

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Q: Korn Ferry research has found that, globally, women hold less than one-quarter of senior leadership roles. What advice would you give to aspiring women in this industry ?

Ballard: Whatever industry you happen to be in, you feel a little bit like an outlier. Whether I'm female and I feel like, “Oh, there's a lot of dudes around here,” or I'm a dude and I feel like, “Oh, there's a lot of women around here,” or I didn't grow up in sports and, “Oh, there's a lot of sports people around here.” I guess the first thing I would say is everybody feels like an outlier in certain contexts. Some of us just hide it better than others.

The second thing I would say is to embrace what it is about you that makes you feel like an outlier. I'm quite happy to be a female, and I'm quite happy to be a female in sports, so I don't try to act like I'm not a female. If you're in an environment where you truly don't feel valued, and if you care a lot about the people and the mission of that organization, try to change that environment. And, if you work hard to change the environment and it doesn't work, then ultimately go someplace where you are valued. People are afraid to leave because they look at it as quitting. It's not quitting, it’s a victory for yourself.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For more information, learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.