What is the No. 1 trait that has led to your success?
Warren Buffett's is focus—according to Alice Schroeder, author of the Buffett bio Snowball, who spoke, as I did, at a corporate event at the U.S. Open last week.
Getting ready to go on stage, I thought, what's my key trait? Curiosity, I guess. It keeps a journalist alive and open to ideas.
So I was innately curious to interview Billie Jean King that afternoon at the Open. As soon as we took the stage, to the blare of Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" and a standing ovation for the tennis champ, I asked her what is her No. 1 trait. "I love people," she replied.
It wasn't the answer I expected, and I didn't understand it at the time. Though it is an appropriate one for this audience, which was convened by Adecco (AHEXY), the global staffing giant. ("Did you customize your answer?" I asked. King swore she did not.)
For the next hour, King rushed the net, interview-wise—volleying answers every which way as I tried, to no avail, to control the game. "I want to talk tennis," I said at one point, "and you want to talk business." It's like that with King: You never know what you're going to get.
"Relationships are everything, " she said when I asked who has impacted her career. There was the moment when she was 11 years old, in Long Beach, California, when Susan Williams, her childhood pal, suggested they play tennis—to which Billie Jean replied, "What's tennis?" In no time she decided she would be the world's No. 1 player. It was her parents—her firefighter dad and her mom who sold Avon (AVP) to help pay for her to enter tournaments—who showed her that success is about more than winning every match. More than caring what the score was, they always asked, "Did you do your best?...What did you learn?"
When she reached the top, King's higher calling came off the court. She led the fight for equal prize money—threatening in 1972, when she won the U.S. Open, to bow out the next year if the women's prize money didn't match the men's. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to award equal prize money. She beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes—a star turn, in 1973, for women's equality. But the bigger deal was that she led the creation of women's professional tennis by rallying a bunch of other renegades, lining up Philip Morris (MO) as a sponsor (remember the Virginia Slims tour?), and organizing the WTA players union.
She led "because people asked me to," King says, noting, "Followers choose leaders." She was well-paid for her leadership—the first woman athlete to earn six figures. But she also knew what to do with the money: In 1974, after Bob Hope and Tony Randall handed her a $5,000 check to give to her favorite charity, she figured, Why not start our own? So she did: the Women's Sports Foundation, to help women and girls through sports.
Today, at 67, King and her partner, Ilana Kloss, own World Team Tennis, a co-ed tour that is all about gender equality. Even though she's shy, she's built friendships with an eclectic array of powerful people, from Elton John (helping him raise money for AIDS research) to Warren Buffett (BRKBA). She cold-called Buffett five years ago, told him she wasn't interested in his money, and flew to Omaha to meet him.
And now the tennis establishment she once battled calls the venue of the U.S. Open the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
On Saturday, I was back there and swung by King's suite. What a kick to see Rosie Casals there—she and King were the U.S. Open doubles champs 34 years ago. Into the suite walked a tall fellow with a strong build, a baby face and an obvious respect for our hostess. It was Brett Connors, Jimmy's son, now 32. As I watched King work the room, I saw that "loving people" has indeed equipped her to expand her power. "Physical athletic ability is a dime a dozen," she said to me, adding, "I'm happier in my career now than ever."
One of the regulars at Fortune's annual Most Powerful Women Summit is Billie Jean King. Going strong at 66, she and Ilana Kloss, who heads World TeamTennis (Billie Jean's baby), put on a tennis clinic at the Summit each year. Let's just say, it's amusing to see type-A super-competitors of the business world sweating and struggling to ace it on the court.
I thought of King this weekend when I read MOREPatricia Sellers - Mar 29, 2010 3:19 PM ET
I'm just back from a funeral in Pennsylvania -- where I traveled late last night after the Time 100 gala at Manhattan's Time Warner Center. Strange to say, but two wonderful celebrations back to back. The funeral was for my closest childhood friend Meg's father, Jack Denuel, who died after a three-decade battle with MS. He was a great man who never whined and never said a bad word about anyone. Never.
As MOREPatricia Sellers - May 6, 2009 11:53 PM ET
"When you go out there and compete, absolutely bring all of yourself. Pay the price."
-- Ilana Kloss, CEO and commissioner of World TeamTennis. Over breakfast this morning with Kloss and Karen Durkin, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, we chatted about the topic of today's post on Postcards: how to stretch your talent. Kloss, who once ranked No. 1 in doubles tennis worldwide, and Durkin, a former standout swimmer MOREPatricia Sellers - Oct 21, 2008 5:51 PM ET
"Who do I prefer? I prefer the trophy, that's what I prefer."
-- Roger Federer, when asked whom he wanted to play in the U.S. Open final. He's facing British upstart Andy Murray today at 5 p.m.
Billie Jean King, our host last Thursday when we watched Federer beat Gilles Muller in the quarterfinal, told us she believes that Federer is the best tennis player ever--even though he recently slipped to No. MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Sep 8, 2008 3:31 PM ET
On Thursday, Pattie and I had one of those "pinch yourself" moments. We were invited to the World TeamTennis suite at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. World TeamTennis is a professional and amateur co-ed tennis league created by Billie Jean King. Translation: We we were guests of King at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
While these circumstances alone are awe-inspiring, what made the experience truly special was MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Sep 5, 2008 1:19 PM ET
Keeping it brief today. Jessica and I are heading to the U.S. Open. Ilana Kloss, the CEO of World TeamTennis, invited us. We're hoping Billie Jean King, who co-founded and helps run WTT, is with us too. Btw, check out BJK's Guest Post -- and a piece I wrote about her odd connections to some of Fortune's Most Powerful Women.
Speaking of MPWomen, did you see the Republican convention last night? Sarah MOREPatricia Sellers - Sep 4, 2008 12:35 PM ET
The U.S. Open begins today at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. So what could be more fitting than a Guest Post on Postcards from Billie Jean King herself? It's fitting too because King, ranked No. 1 in the world five times during her legendary career, has odd and interesting connections to some of the CEOs on Fortune Most Powerful Women in Business list.
This May, at a Most MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 25, 2008 2:31 PM ET
Times are tough these days, and from where I sit this is not a moment to do anything halfway. As my good friend Holly Hunter once said to me, we are now faced with situations where we have to "bring all of ourselves to everything we do."
Regardless of the instability of the economy, the flatness of the housing market, the rising price of gas, and the current value of the dollar, MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 25, 2008 12:50 PM ET
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