Fit to Lead: taking leadership strength to the next level

Imagine the possibilities. What if the HBA could offer you a program that taught valuable business skills, expanded and strengthened your professional network, helped you feel and look better and was fun? We have it and it is called Fit to Lead.

“We need to be able to work as a team, communicate under stressful conditions, be goal oriented and challenge ourselves to reach for business success, ” says Bonnie Wingate, partner at Insigniam, vice president for the HBA Greater Philadelphia chapter, and one of the founders of the Fit To Lead affinity group. “We wanted to create an innovative offering for members that would help them thrive in today’s business environment and elevate their leadership skills. Instead of a workshop, we wanted to give them an experience that was exciting and challenging and a forum for exponential growth.” A six-month fitness pursuit with a heavy emphasis on leadership development became that unique program that appealed to new and prospective members as well as new partnerships for the chapter.

Fitness and leadership: What’s the connection?

Most corporate leaders have participated in sports. HBA Corporate Partner EY conducted a global survey of 821 senior managers and executives from a wide range of sectors. Almost all senior managers and executives participated in sports or fitness. Among women currently holding a c-suite position, 96% had played sports in school.

This participation in sports paid off. Annual wages of former athletes, both men and women, are on average about 7% higher than those of non-athletes according to a 2014 report from the Peterson Institute for National Economics.  

We can't go backward and join a team in school. But we can participate in athletic activities now. “Women tend to put others first. We may drive our kids to sports but neglect our own participation,” said Denise Sena, marketing operations project leader of US customer centricity at Merck and the Fit To Lead chair for the HBA Metro chapter. “People come to the HBA to build a professional network while polishing their business skills and Fit To Lead is a fun way to accomplish those goals.

The case continues to grow for a connection between fitness and business leadership. Mass Mutual conducted a survey of over 400 senior businesswomen and found that over half of them believe that sports assisted in the development of their leadership, gave them a competitive edge, and helped them deal with failure. “Failure is an essential part of business,” says Bonnie. “In sales, for example, you hear ‘no’ far more often than ‘yes’.”

Seeing new possibilities

Ashley Tappan, consultant at Insigniam and co-founder of Fit To Lead shares: “Becoming an athlete helped me consider new possibilities about myself around who I was at work. Experiencing focus, determination, strength, and my own power in the realm of fitness allowed me to think of myself in these ways at work. I think the women in our Fit To Lead program have gotten to see themselves in new ways that surprised and delighted them.”

Jessica Pfennig, global commercial content director at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, is an outstanding demonstration of taking a new risk. She learned to swim in order to participate as part of the Greater Philadelphia chapter’s Fit To Lead triathalon team. “I had taken swimming lessons before but just could not put my head in the water.” The coaches offered her practical suggestions to overcome past obstacles for success. “Then Lisa Morris, another Fit to Lead participant suggested I ‘just do it’, so I took her coaching, and I am doing it. I’m proud.” Jessica says the Fit To Lead experience has helped her be more confident at work, knowing that she can overcome her internal resistance to change and that she has even more skills to overcome barriers.

“Don’t be intimidated,” Jessica says. “Enjoy the challenge and allow yourself to blossom.” Jessica still participates in swimming as her fitness activity of choice. “I take that time for myself. I unplug—there is no email while swimming, and I reap the benefits of greater confidence, stamina and fitness.”

Jessica’s experience is an example of what research has shown, that physical fitness of leaders is linked to productivity and overall achievement “The research is clear about the benefits of being physically fit, ” says Ashley. It gives you more stamina, lowers stress and offers you new ways to learn.

Satisfying an unmet need

Fit To Lead was created to deliver the best the HBA can offer: a network of professionals that support your efforts and the opportunity to strengthen your leadership. You become more confident as you gain mastery in an area you had not attempted previously. It is a safe place to push your boundaries and break through to self-discovery.

2015 is the third year for the Greater Philadelphia chapter’s team to compete in the Tri Rock Sprint Triathlon. “Results from our past triathalon are inspiring,” said Ashley. “The idea is to learn to stretch your concept of yourself, reach a new height by demonstrating that you can do more than you ever thought you could. You’ll see how developing physical fitness, no matter what sport you choose, gives you sustainable energy for your work, your family and your life.”

Liz Coyle, general manager of commercial research at IMS Health and the chair of the Council of Chapter Presidents for the HBA, joined the program and participated in her first triathlon in 2013. “I learned resilience after falling off a bike during a race and then finishing the race. That experience helped me stay resilient during reorganizations at work.”

Fit To Lead events offer an alternative to happy hour or networking where you can sample fitness activities such as yoga and spinning. “When you join Fit to Lead you are joining a group of diverse women, both physically and professionally, who share a common interest of better health, fitness and leadership,” said Ashley. “The events provide support to accomplish your goals in a setting that’s different than your typical networking event.

“I don’t call myself an athlete,” says Bonnie. “But I know that being fit and healthy is important. Pursuing a discipline that stretches me and my ideas helps me to be a better leader. It is as important as reading business books.”

Fueling leadership with fitness

As we take strides to improve our performance we often have annual goals, attend conferences, read books, engage mentors and build our professional network. The HBA Leadership Competency Framework offers 12 competencies we can strive to achieve.

  • Add fitness to your professional development. Bring attention to your fitness. Put it in your schedule. Mark out the time first, not last.
  • Try a new activity. Your favorite may be waiting for you. If you dislike one activity try another. Trying new things expands your creativity and adaptability.
  • Enjoy small bursts of physical activity. The research shows that sitting all day is detrimental to health. Work hard for 60 to 90 minutes on your desk job, then take a 2-3 minute walking or desk stretching break.
  • Create a challenge in the future and engage a group to support and learn together on the way to that challenge.


Ashley Tappan Bonnie Wingate Denise Senna Jessica Pfennig