Define, Believe, Trust: Hayley Wickenheiser on challenge and success


Dealing with challenge is both an art and a science. While everyone has a desire to overcome barriers and find success, Hayley Wickenheiser’s level of understanding with herself has led her to accomplish some incredible feats. So, how does the Olympic hockey champion, mother and former farm girl deal with the pressure of it all? To start, she defines and organizes her challenges into bite-sized pieces— breaking them down to conquer one by one. And surprisingly, she makes it OK to fail:

“Failure is wisdom in disguise. I think the best thing about life is you have the opportunity to re-invest yourself every day.”

At the heart of it, Hayley’s belief in her own instincts and trust in her team (both on and off the ice) are at the root of her success. That team support goes both ways: “Sometimes you lead from the front and sometimes you lead from behind. Depending on the situation, the best leadership can be to empower someone to step up.”

At her keynote presentation at the IABC World Conference, Hayley will reveal her secrets to dealing with high-pressure situations. In this Q&A with CW magazine Executive Editor  Natasha Nicholson, Hayley offers a preview of what she’ll be sharing.

Natasha Nicholson: So many people see you as successful. How do you personally define success?        

Hayley Wickenheiser: That really depends on what we are talking about. Obviously success as a mother means something very different to me than success on the ice or in the boardroom. I think it is wise to know in each situation you go into what you will define as success in that moment. On tough days, maybe success is getting out of bed on time and getting to work on time, but if you define that as success, you will feel momentum and motivation in it. Some days, success means being ready to do what it takes to win a gold medal. Give yourself permission to be successful—in context.

NN:  Much of your life has been about winning. When, if ever, is it OK to fail?

HW: It is always OK to fail. Failure is wisdom disguised. I think the best thing about life is you have the opportunity to re-invest yourself every day. If you tried something and it didn’t work, well, you don’t have to be that person again the next day. As long as what you want is always to be better, then failure is an ally, not an enemy. Step up on it and allow it to raise you above the crowd.

NN: You grew up on a farm before becoming a hockey champion. How did those experiences shape how you approach challenges?

HW: I love the farm and go back as often as I can. I think it goes without saying that living on a farm teaches you a work ethic. Hard work isn’t a choice on a farm; it is a matter of survival. You’ll never meet a lazy farmer—this I know! I also think that it taught me that breadth of experience is as important sometimes as depth. Farmers are entrepreneurs, veterinarians, carpenters, animal husbandry experts, plumbers, electricians, nutritionists, accountants, etc. You need a lot of different skills to run a farm and watching my family do that through the years has given me a broad perspective, and, I think, another opportunity to see a strong work ethic at play.

NN: How do you take on a challenge from beginning to end? Can you take us through your thought process—like your decision to play in the Olympics with a broken foot?

  1. Define the challenge. Giving it definition releases its power.
  2. Determine what the success factors are to overcome the challenge, and define what success would mean to me.
  3. Define the required resources. Do I need people with expertise, do I need time, do I need my family, do I need financial resources? What is it exactly that will contribute to success?
  4. Put the pieces in place.
  5. Trust my instinct.
  6. Trust my team (whether that be on the ice or off).

NN: With the expectation of success comes pressure. How do you cope with pressure—not just in hockey, but in all of your life pursuits?  

I play hockey for a national hockey team in Canada, so pressure is something that I am more than used to by now! Losing is not really an option. From a sports perspective, we use several techniques to control pressure. Sometimes they are as simple as defining what it is that is making us feel that way.

As far as pressure off the ice, I am no different than anyone else. I need to work with my son, do my homework, run my businesses, answer emails, do charitable work, deal with financial issues, do my laundry, etc. I think time management is the biggest key to managing the pressures of day-to-day life. I am a maker of lists. You will see lists all around me and it gives me the ability to focus. Plus, who doesn’t love crossing something off a list? I doubt I am the only person who will sometimes put something on a list that I have already done just for the satisfaction of immediately crossing it off. 

NN: I’ve heard you say that leadership is about empowering people. Can you explain what you mean by that and share an example of how this approach helped you become a better leader?

HW: Sometimes you lead from the front and sometimes you lead from behind. Depending on the situation, the best leadership can be to empower someone to step up. I think this also applies to motherhood, in the most concrete way. I have a teenager and learning how to lead him is perhaps the biggest pressure of all sometimes, but I find so often now that with him, I lead from behind. I give him the opportunity to make his own decisions about most things in his life. I might help him to understand the consequences of decisions or advise him about my experience or the options available to him, but I give him that responsibility. In responsibility comes empowerment.

I think he is turning out to be a really responsible, positive, community-minded, kind and wonderful young man, so his father and I must be doing something right. 

NN: Being a working mom and trying to strike a work-life balance is something that many professional women wrestle with. As a mom, how did you strike that balance and what advice can you offer to others?

HW: I don’t know that I am in a position to be offering advice to other working moms, but I know what I do works for me and my family most days. Again, I make lists. I carve out time for me and my son. I schedule it into my Day-Timer (yes, I still carry around a Day-Timer!). When I am with him, I really try to be with him and not distracted as much as I can. Though, I have to say these days that sometimes, actually most of the time, the biggest challenge is making him want to spend time with me and not with his computer or his friends.

I also have a great support network that ranges from good friends to my parents (who live next door) and sister and they step in to help me keep balance when it isn’t always possible for me to do it myself. Those people are the first to step in when I need them and thankfully, also the first to remind me when my balance is a little off. My reality-checkers. I love them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

NN: You’ll be speaking to an audience full of communication professionals from all over the world. What do you hope they will learn by attending your session at the IABC World Conference?

That is a really good question. I hope they learn that whether you are going for a gold medal, going for a media hit or going for the laundry and dinner, we are all in this together!