How do you find your role on a team, and adapt your strengths to what the team needs for success? Melissa talks teamwork with Lindsay Henson, Director at Eagle Hill and former professional soccer player.
Melissa Jezior: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast, we have conversations with top culture makers in the world today from varied industries and backgrounds to unpack the visible and not-so-visible forces that make up culture, an often-overlooked superpower of organizations. I’m intrigued to learn from elite athletes and top coaches about their philosophy on organizational culture, as well as learn some strategies and tactics for building and sustaining winning cultures.
I am here today with one of my esteemed colleagues, Lindsay Henson. She grew up playing soccer, was ranked as the top player in the state of North Carolina, and went on to play with some of the most successful teams in college sports, the University of North Carolina, and then after that she went into professional soccer and played along some really well-known players like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.
So, I’m really excited to sit down with Lindsay – Lindsay’s been with Eagle Hill for three years – and understand a little bit more about her journey in terms of how she got into soccer and some of the lessons that she has learned playing soccer into her day-to-day work life as being a working mom and kind of learn a little bit more about your journey. So, with that, I’m going to jump right in and maybe just let’s start with how did you get into soccer?
Lindsay Henson: So, like many things in life, I got into soccer by following my brother. So, my brother and I are two years apart, and so as – well, of course, I was really young. I was four when we started – when I started playing soccer.
Melissa: Oh, my goodness.
Lindsay: Yeah, tiny, right? One of those kids where the shin guards go up to the knee, and then like the shorts go over the knees, so you actually don’t see any leg?
Lindsay: That was me when I started playing soccer. So, I of course started when I was four. And as my mom tells me, the rest was kind of history. I loved it, really–
Melissa: So, you loved it right from the beginning.
Lindsay: Right from the beginning I loved it, because it was something – I got to run around and chase a ball and hang out with friends. And so, I was kind of hooked apparently from early on.
Melissa: Early on. And so, did you immediately go into, like, the travel teams and you–
Lindsay: So, I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. And this is – I don’t want to say how long, but let’s just say pretty–
Melissa: Not very long ago at all.
Lindsay: I know. When I was a youth soccer player, right? And so, soccer was still kind of up and coming in the country, and while there were kind of grassroots youth programs, I would say the infrastructure we have today around youth soccer did not exist back in that day. But we did in Raleigh have what they used to call select club teams. And so, it’s kind of like travel soccer now in kind of the local D.C. world. And so, I tried out for – and I don’t know that – I don’t even think at the time they had a girls’ team, and so I of course tried out for the boys’ team. I was like, why not, I’ve been playing with boys since I was, you know, four, so let’s give it a go.
So, I remember in second grade I tried out for the Raleigh Caps. Funny story on making that team. Again, so my mom kind of reminds me, so I was the, I think I was one of the only girls who tried out for the team. And flash forward to like a week later after the tryouts.
My mom gets a call from the coach, and the coach calls and says, hey, super excited, we just wanted to let you know that we thought Lindsay was a great player, he’s going to add a lot to the team, we think he’s terrific. And my mom’s like, wait, what? What? And she’s like, that’s fantastic, but just to let you know, Lindsay’s a girl.
Melissa: That’s funny.
Lindsay: Yeah, so.
Melissa: And so, when did you start to realize then that you had this kind of amazing potential inside of you?
Lindsay: I don’t know. I might currently deny that I have that, right?
Melissa: I don’t believe it for a second.
Lindsay: I mean, I think I knew pretty early on. I think from – I feel really fortunate I played with the boys, right, growing up because playing with the boys, especially as I got into middle school, it was a very fast-paced game, they were very physical. You think about, you know, sixth-, seventh-, eighth-grade boys. I mean, they’re getting muscles and getting really fast and really strong. The game is very physical. And so, it really changed.
And so, I think at that point, like as I was kind of getting into that age range and realizing, I can still keep up, it’s gotten a lot harder, but I’m still able to keep up, and I think a lot of that experience shaped the way I played, because I knew I couldn’t compete from like a speed and physical kind of nature. But I could compete with how I played, and I was always very good about positioning, and I knew where to be, and I was able to make the passes and that kind of thing. So, I think it was around kind of that time frame that I realized, like, oh, this is fun, this is great, but really I would say even though it was really not until high school that I realized, like, oh, I might actually have some skills and then like do some skills in this.
Melissa: So, how did soccer then shape your decisions in terms of college and where you wanted to go to school and how you wound up at UNC?
Lindsay: That was an interesting process. So, transitioning into high school, I went from – I finally was like, OK, enough is enough. I need to move into playing with women and with girls.
And so, I switched clubs, and in doing that I was fortunate enough to get on a team called the Raleigh Spartans. And that was a great, great experience. So, then a coach of that team, his name is Izzy Hernandez, and he was our club coach, but he was also my high school team coach. So, I got really fortunate to kind of get to know him, and he got to know me very well as a player. And through that experience, we got a lot of exposure at different tournaments. So, it was about at that time we went as a team to the UNC women’s soccer camp. So, UNC has a long kind of a very well-known and kind of well-thought-of summer camp program. They do camp – I mean, it is run like a machine now, but they do a camp every week, multiple times in the summer. And so, our team went as a team one time. And it was coming out of that experience that I thought, OK, maybe I’ll play – maybe I’ll be lucky enough to play in college, right?
So, I got home from camp, and a couple weeks later, I get a handwritten note from Anson Dorrance, which is like, hey – and Anson Dorrance, for those of you who don’t know, he’s the head coach of the UNC women’s soccer team, which is, you know, UNC’s been this dynasty since I don’t even know when, like late ’70s or early ’80s, right. And so, I, me, little Lindsay from, like, Raleigh, was not that far from Chapel Hill, but still, I get this handwritten note from Anson just basically saying, hey, saw you play at camp, was really impressed, looking forward to, like, continuing to watch you play and grow as you kind of progress in your high school years. And so, it was that moment I was like, wow, maybe I can be good enough to play soccer somewhere, you know.
Melissa: And then when did you kind of like narrow the field and decide UNC was for you?
Lindsay: Let’s see. It was probably not that long after I got that [00:06:52].
Melissa: How did the transition go when you actually got into college, like clearly playing at a whole different level? Like, how did you seek help when you needed it? How did that go?
Lindsay: Yeah, it was rough at first. So, I went from my high school career, leading up to my high school career, I would say I was kind of one of the better people if not one of the best people on the team. And I was kind of used to that. When I got to Carolina, I mean, Carolina was full of people that were the most high-caliber players in each of their age groups. And I came in with a very strong class. There’s this thing called Parade All-American, which is the top kind of 20 kids in the country, and they’re given that award. And so, I think my class had multiple Parade All-Americans. And so, I come in, and I never forget, the first week at Carolina, one of the things, it’s called preseason, right. You come in before the season starts, and you start to get acclimated. And so, the first thing that you do is called fitness testing. And I failed I think probably three out of the five fitness tests, which I was mortified. You know, mortified.
I’d always been taught, you know, my coach in high school had always taught me, if nothing else, just be fit. So, I was mortified. And I had to go to a thing called Breakfast Club. And Breakfast Club is if you failed any of the fitness tests – yeah, this is not like the movie, right? This is not like the movie. So, you had to go to Breakfast Club, which is for that week, I think you had to go for a week, but until you kind of basically passed the test again, until you had the opportunity to pass it, you had to go and run extra in the morning. It was a rough start.
Melissa: So, tell me what – after playing at this amazing level in college, what did you really find to be the difference between – in terms of mindset, of the players that were really great and the players that were truly premier players?
Lindsay: So, we used to always talk about this mindset of, like, “refuse to lose.” I mean, we talked a lot about it at Carolina, too. It’s just like, you – Anson’s thing was building character.
He wasn’t just about building a great soccer team or building great individual soccer players. I mean, he basically was focused on building the character of the players and the team. And so, we had this – I mean, he used to say this thing called, you know, you’re just tough as shit. That was like his thing. You’ve just got to be tough as shit. And that was what he expected. And so, that mindset of “refuse to lose” permeated everything we did.
Melissa: So, have you found then that type of mentality has translated for you in terms of how you manage with your own teams and how you interact with your – I was even thinking about this when you were talking about how you managed your life with–
Melissa: Like, I imagine some of that comes back into play again now being a working mother, right?
Melissa: You’re doing many things at once.
Melissa: So, I’m curious to hear how some of those have kind of like shaped you into who you are today and how you operate not only in your own life but creating teams as well.
Lindsay: Yeah. So, I think one of the first things that I think of when I think about that and how it’s kind of carried me forward to where I am now in terms of a working mom and all that is just kind of no whining. We had this thing at Carolina that was just, you don’t whine. [00:10:08]
Melissa: Can you tell my kids that?
Lindsay: Yeah, exactly. I’m like, just don’t whine. Like, if you need to whine, you just need to walk away and do it because it’s not acceptable here. Like, you may not like it, and you’re welcome to tell that to me. Please don’t do it in a whiny voice. Please don’t whine. Because nothing to be done about that, right?
Lindsay: So, I think that notion of, like, toughness and – but I think how that translates, it’s like the mental toughness of adversity, adversity of when something bad happens at work and it’s like, OK, don’t sit and wallow around it, right, just what can you do to fix it or, like, how do you quickly get into solutions, like problem solving or – there’s nothing good to happen by just sitting and whining about things. My kids probably hate that that’s something that I really value. I heard this morning, so hot off the presses, bus comes at 8:30 to pick up my kids, right, and so we’re usually outside kicking the soccer ball around at 8:10.
This morning, I overhear my 11-year-old son tell my seven-year-old son, well, you know, if you just want to have fun playing soccer and not really get any better, you just keep doing what you’re doing and kick the ball against the wall with no purpose. But if you want to get better, like, I’ll play with you and I’ll help you practice. And I just thought, oh, my God, what have I done? I’ve got to tell you, I was so torn. I was like, part of me’s really proud of you right now, but some part of me’s feeling sad for my seven-year-old. But I just think that notion of, like, toughness and the will to want to get better and that kind of – I think that’s something that clearly I’m translating to my kids, for better or worse. But I think from a working perspective, like in the working world, I think the one thing that all of my soccer experiences have taught me is, as much as you can figure out how do you be adaptable to any new environment – I mean, I played on a ton of teams growing up.
I played on teams where I was the only girl with a team full of boys. I played on a team where I was 10 and everyone else was 14. I played on just a ton of different teams. And through that, one thing I was always able to do was fit in. And I think that’s really important. It’s not fit in to lose yourself, but it’s like saying, I’m confident and know what I can contribute to this team, and I need to figure out how to fit in fast. You know what I mean? So, I think that is a very applicable thing in the working world because we’re all in different teams. Like, you could be on three different teams in a day, but you could be on a leadership team. You could be on your project team. You could be on your peer team. There’s a lot of different teams that you play in every day. And it’s like, how do you fit in, and how do you be confident in what you’re contributing to that team, but yet also kind of enhance the team dynamic. So, growing up in my career, I was always the assist person. I was the person who liked to pass the other person who was going to score the ball. That was just what I liked, it was what I was good at, all that kind of thing.
Melissa: Knowing you today, that’s still – I would still – yes.
Melissa: That still very much describes you, I think.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And, like, I want to set you up to score. I don’t want to be the person who scores, but I’m super happy to support you in that. It is very much how I am still today. Well, it’s a classic midfielder, right? I’m a midfielder. I played some defense, too, but, you know, the midfielder, like the persona of the midfielder is the one who, like, runs tirelessly, selflessly all over the field, chasing everything and then passing the other person the ball versus, you know, scoring the goal. But this woman, Ry Johnson, I was a sophomore in high school. Ry was a senior. And Ry was our scorer. She was the scorer. I mean, other people scored, too, but when you think about who really carried that load for the team, it was Ry. So, we did very well last season. We were getting into the conference tournament. And next thing you know, Ry broke her leg, was out for the rest of the season.
And I’ll never forget my high school coach coming up to me almost quite literally at the same time, after we got Ry taken care of, of course, and was like, well, so, your role needs to change now. And you’ve got to switch the mindset. I know you like being the person who gives the other people the ball and they score, but we need you to score. Like, we have a conference tournament to get through, we’ve got a state tournament to get through, we need you to change your role and think about that differently, and I need you to score goals now. And I’ll just never forget, like I appreciated his directness in that, because it wasn’t my natural – you know, it just wasn’t naturally kind of what I thought of for myself. But I think that is something, too, when you think about translating it, kind of in all parts of your life, I think being clear on roles, I mean, I think one of the things is really in good teams, people are clear on their roles. You know, there is a clarity around what is it that I’m going to contribute, and there’s also a willingness to say, that may not be what I need to contribute tomorrow, but today this is what I’m–
Melissa: I know what I’m contributing.
Lindsay: Exactly. And so, I also thought it was such an interesting thing. I was like, but I’m the team player, and I was like having this internal wrestling, like I can’t be the team player and be the, like, you know, the propped-up goal scorer. Was clearly not right, right? Like, I was off base in my thinking around that. But I just remember struggling with that. I was like, oh, but I don’t want to be the scorer. I don’t want to be [00:15:19]. Like, I’m the team player. I’m the assist person.
Melissa: So, how did that work then? I assume you transitioned roles.
Lindsay: I transitioned roles. I mean, I think, you know, it’s not a black and white, right? Like, I still kind of played my style, but instead of having a short and then passing it to Ry, who might be a little bit more open, I took the shot. So, again, it’s that mindset. It’s not a radical shift, but for me, mentally it was a radical shift. But practically on the field, it was not that radical of a shift. You know what I mean?
Lindsay: So, I think that’s something that is a clear, like – I’ve noticed about my soccer career and my professional career, something that–
Melissa: That makes sense.
Lindsay: –I think I’ve been able to pull forward, yeah.
Melissa: So, after you’ve been on so many teams, have you been on any teams where there wasn’t really a good strong team culture? And can you think of another place where there was really a good strong team culture, and what do you think contributed to both?
Lindsay: I would say in terms of teams where maybe the culture – and I would say it wasn’t that it wasn’t a good culture. It just wasn’t a good culture yet. You know what I mean?
Lindsay: And I would say that was probably my first year in the professional league. So, I played with the Washington Freedom. And that was an environment where you had the best players from all over the country and the world coming together to play with these eight – this new women’s professional league, and there were eight teams in the league. And the process to form the teams was that they basically split up the national team players and divvied them up against the eight different teams, and then they pulled in some of the top elite international players and gave those to the teams. And then they did a draft with primarily the rest of the U.S. field of the top talent.
And I think the challenge there is that that first season, we were just – a lot of us didn’t know each other. I’m fortunate enough to know Mia Hamm. She was on the Freedom. And so, I knew her, and I knew some other players, but you’re basically bringing this team together for the first time. People hadn’t played together. You had lots of people from different gen – you know, you had the Mias of the world and kind of all the age ranges in between up into 20-year-olds. And so, it’s just a – it took a while for our team to really find its groove and to figure out what type of team do we want to be. And then coming back the second year, it was night and day difference. We’d had the offseason to bond and to get to know each other, and I think coming back we had a stronger sense of, like, what are the roles we each needed to play, what is the culture we wanted from the team, that kind of thing. We wanted to, you know, have the kind of hallmark of work hard. We always wanted to – again, going back to that notion of, like, we wanted to outrun other teams and that kind of thing.
So, I think would be one where it just took a while. The best cultures – yeah. It’s funny, I’ve talked a lot about my UNC days, but to talk a little bit about a different team, which is this club team that I played for in high school. And that team, we ended up winning the national championship, which was a huge coup for a Raleigh, North Carolina, team to win a national championship, because at the time, again, there were certain – like certain states you expected to have those high calibers. Like Florida, Texas, California, right? Or, you know, maybe up in St. Louis. You’d have teams come from there and they’d win. But our team, we basically pulled players from all over the state, and we stayed together as a team for multiple years. And what I think was interesting about that culture and what made us so effective is we were definitely a team with no egos. You know, we were all kind of, you know, had very – just coming from different parts of the state and just coming together, we didn’t have a lot of egos.
We didn’t have – other than having them for ourselves, I don’t feel like people, especially when we went to that national championship, had a lot of expectations for us. In the semifinals, we played the team who had won it I think the year before and beat them. And then in the finals, we ended up playing this team from California who I think had won maybe the year before. So, each team had won it previously. And we’re like, oh, well, we’re the new man on the scene, I guess, right? And I think just again, that “refuse to lose” mentality we talked about, we were losing I want to say 80 minutes in, and soccer games are 90 minutes long. So, we had 10 minutes left, and we’re losing 2-nothing. And we’re like, OK, you know – it could have gone two ways. We could have said, all right, we’re going to lose this game, and, wow, good for us for making it to the championship. Instead, we scored two goals in 10 minutes and ended up winning in penalty kicks and won the national championship. So, I think that culture of – we were very selfless because, again, it was like, we were all kind of just, I don’t know, people didn’t have expectations for us. We kind of created them for ourselves. But we just refused to lose.
Melissa: I love that. That’s awesome. What’s your biggest takeaway, I guess, after playing in all these different teams and different levels of teams and different types of cultures that you really apply in your own teams today in a work setting?
Lindsay: I think the thing I would always want for our teams, and hopefully we’re creating that here with our teams, is this notion of play for others. Play for the others first, at least. Play for your teammates. Do it for your teammates. So, whether that means do your best on a project or facilitate – whatever it means, do it for your teammates. And this notion of, it’s so much more satisfying, you know, quote-unquote “win something” or to have an excellent client be wowed, to do it for your team versus doing it for yourself. And so, I don’t know, I personally get a lot more satisfaction out of that. And so, that notion of selflessness. I think the other thing, and if you know me and it probably comes out is, just don’t take yourself too seriously.
Be confident in what you bring to the team, but don’t ever take yourself too seriously, and don’t ever, like, I think don’t ever think that you’re above anything or above doing anything.
Melissa: Yeah. I know what you mean.
Lindsay: The other day, we had this project at one of our client sites, and we had – it was like all hands on deck in terms of delivering it. And I was going there to check in on the team. And so, the head of the project, I could see she was, like, struggling with something, and she was kind of looking at me, and clearly holding back, didn’t want to say something. And I was like, hey, what’s going on? You look like you’re working through something. She’s like, well, we need another note taker for the session. We don’t have enough, and we’re down one man. And I was like, well, so what do you want to do about it? And she’s like, well, do you think you could take notes? And I’m like, well, absolutely I can take notes. But it was just, you know, I think that notion of, we should all be willing, able, and want to jump in to help our teams in any scenario.
But it was funny for me, I was like, please don’t ever hesitate to ask me. We should all be 100 percent OK and willing and excited to help our team in any way, shape, or form.
Melissa: And so, what did you learn most about working alongside people like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach?
Lindsay: I learned so much. But I think this notion of, you can be a fierce, fierce, fierce competitor and also be a great teammate, I think that was a – and they also, I mean, Mia Hamm, I mean, she was just an incredible athlete, incredible soccer player. I mean, she lifted everybody’s performance because of the expectations she had for her own performance. And so, I think that notion of that, it really rubbed off on me, too. I mean, and she wasn’t – I mean, she was definitely the leader of our team. But she wasn’t the one who was like, always in your face or always screaming at you or always, like, the most vocal on the field.
But, like, her performance was clearly setting the tone for the team. And so, I think that, too, of, like, you know, leaders can take many shapes, right. And so, you don’t always have to be the – a leader doesn’t have to be – look like the next and look like the next one. They can be very different.
Melissa: That’s cool. That’s very cool. Well, Lindsay, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your background. It’s been great. I’m so lucky that I get to learn more about this, because we work together on a day-to-day basis, but I think that kind of gives us all the time we have today. So, thank you so much for joining us.
Lindsay: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Thanks for listening to our cultur(ED) podcast. If you like the show and want to learn more, check out our cultur(ED) website: culturedcast.com. And please follow us on iTunes. If you’d like to know more about our research, visit eaglehillconsulting.com/culture.
00:23:46 [End of recording.]