When Serena Williams took center stage in Orlando to share her views on tennis and business at SAP Sapphire 2023, she brought the same attitude that propelled her through 23 Grand Slam Championships on courts worldwide. The key to winning, she said, is a growth mindset, and not being afraid of failure.

A Winning Philosophy: Strive for Success with a Championship Mindset

It’s a philosophy that remained constant even as Williams' mindset evolved throughout a tennis career that started in 1995, when she was 14, and wrapped up in 2022, by which time she was both a mother and the Managing Partner of Serena Ventures, a venture capital (VC) firm she founded.

In a fireside chat with Julia White, SAP’s Chief Marketing and Solutions Officer and member of the SAP Executive Board, Williams described how several core principles were central to her success, first on the court and then in the boardroom. She also explained the imperative to evolve in response to changing situations.

"The day you stop growing is the day your journey ends,” Williams said. “I'm always looking to figure out what I can learn, what I can do better, how I can be a better leader.” This has required Williams to “take a big step back and look at the 'whole,' almost as if I'm looking at it from the top.”

Her career trajectory reflects an uncanny ability to adapt by developing novel game plans that embrace new practices and leaving behind ones that don't work. She’s applied this tenet in the context of each match, and throughout her 27-year reign in professional tennis.

Seeing Williams in Orlando was the second time I saw her in action. The first was in 2018 when she returned to Center Court at Wimbledon less than one year after giving birth to her first child. She won the match in straight sets, but they were grueling 7-5, 7-6 affairs.

She made it to the finals that year, only to succumb to Germany's Angelique Kerber. It was a remarkable performance on many levels. While Williams remained—as always—fiercely competitive, she was not the teenager who had won her first Grand Slam singles title during the U.S. Open in 1999 then defeated the great Martina Hingis, of Switzerland. Williams played a very different game in the third decade of her career.

She transformed.

Williams shared with the SAP Sapphire audience her current mission to transform the field of entrepreneurship by creating new opportunities for company founders from underrepresented backgrounds. Williams said she was moved to action when she heard Caryn Seidman-Becker, CEO of Clear—the biometric platform used by airports and other venues to accelerate identity authentication—speak at a conference.

"She was on stage talking about how less than 2% of all VC money went to women," Williams said. "I thought she misspoke. Because I'm thinking—that just can't be right. That’s how I feel everyone’s reaction should be.”

Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Business

In advancing the interests of Serena Ventures, she explained, the same growth mindset in business that worked so well for her athletically is at play again.

Williams said she’s always looking for ways she and her team can do better in business, just as she did in tennis. “I want to see how I can improve my numbers," she said. "What investments do we make? How can we do better?” She believes in the power of learning from other people's mistakes and is a big proponent of running ideas by mentors.

That said, Williams also pointed out the importance of learning from one's own mistakes. "I hated [mistakes] in tennis, and I really hate them in business," she said. "Nothing has changed." Such moments are, however, important to growth, Williams added, noting that hopefully when mistakes are made, they’re on a small scale—and not at a Grand Slam tournament or in a large investment.

Applying the Serena Mindset to Digital Transformation

Williams’ experience offers more than a metaphor for executives leading their organizations through technology modernization. Her story provides a guide. For instance here are a few ways anybody can strive for success the way that Serena Williams has:

  • In the critical battle for talent, look for skill development and potential, don’t just profile templates and credentials.
  • As the industry absorbs new tools and technologies—like artificial intelligence and big data analytics—it’s essential to change how the game is played by being open to new processes, relationships, and organizational structures. Have a growth mindset in business and in life!
  • Innovation requires experimentation, which will yield mistakes. Learn from those who’ve pioneered aspects of the modernization and migration voyage and leave space for unintended (and unwanted) consequences. Just try, as they say, to fail small, fail fast—and learn.
  • Above all, nurture your team. Meaningful transformation is taxing, exhausting, and endless. Pick people who sign up for the entire journey—and celebrate every win.

Patty Brown is ASUG's Editorial Director.

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