USA Track & Field's COO Renee Washington on navigating the sports world
Career Lifestyle Sports

USA Track & Field’s COO Renee Washington on Navigating the Sports World

(Image: Renee Washington)

Since Renee Washington became chief operating officer of USA Track and Field, the national governing body has realized operational cost savings of more than $1M while adopting a new business and financial plan. Under her operational oversight, USATF has awarded two Olympic Trials, launched the U.S. National 12K road race and revamped its annual meeting, which attracts more than 1,000 stakeholders in the sport each year. We sat down with Renee to get more insight into her secret sauce and how she navigates the sports world. Can you provide a little insight into your role?

Washington: USATF is one of the 57 national governing bodies in the Olympic movement, and I’m the chief operating officer that reports directly to the CEO. I oversee the daily operations and staff, and I focus on the organization’s business affairs, constituent outreach and strategic plans. We are responsible for the sport of track and field and running in the U.S., which not only covers the elite athletes, but all the way down to our grassroots efforts with the youth. We sanction over 8000 running events in the country–from the New York marathon to the Twin Cities marathon to community sanctions through local associations.

So how did you get to USATF?

I went to Spelman College and then Georgetown Law School. I lived in Washington, D.C., for 9 years, both during and after law school. I worked for the Department of Labor, and then moved to Indianapolis which is my husband’s hometown. As a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, I soon found myself being invited to a few [community] boards and took the public service route. I decided when my daughter was in high school that I should look for jobs. Within 3 months, I started working at Northrop Grumman in their IT sector. I knew Max Siegel, and when he was fortunate enough to become the CEO of USATF, he asked me to become the COO. Not to speak for Max, but he probably recognized my skill set and business experience, particularly with contracts. You have to be able to trust the person to be in such a role, and it has proved to be a good working relationship.

How do you find yourself navigating specific challenges in the industry as a woman?

Let me cut to the chase. Yes, this is sports. This is the kind of job in which business is sometimes conducted in bars. People are not always appropriate. As a woman it’s going to be…it’s just different. It may not be as professional as we want it to be at all times. For the most part I think I’ve attempted to maintain a posture of no nonsense. Generally people understand that about me.

There is also lack of women. While the sport of track and field is diverse and USATF has a diverse a workforce, in the NGB (national governing bodies) world, I don’t think there’s another female COO. There’s one female CEO out of 7 NGBs, and trust me none of them look like Max or me.

We do a lot of international travel with our sport and you don’t necessarily find a lot of women in leadership positions. So we’ve tried to assist our friends in other countries, in terms of supporting women. USATF hosted a few events for women officials, coaches, and I would like to say administrators, but there are not many of us. We’ve added a new budget line item and a formal committee focused on diversifying the workforce to help make that happen.We realize this is a domestic issue and also a global challenge.

How do you feel about mentoring?

In regards to my current workforce, I’m a very big proponent of furthering education, training, etc. I constantly encourage the staff to ask me questions, and go out and learn xyz. I need you to make yourself a better person. Because when you do that you increase your skill level, it increases your confidence, and you’re a better employee. Even if you don’t stay at USATF, you can say this is how you benefited from that experience.

What’s the secret sauce that keeps you motivated?

I enjoy the work. I enjoy the people I work with. It’s not a job that I work from 9-5. I do it 24/7 days a week. People say to me I can tell you love your job. I do. I’ve accepted it’s a lifestyle. It’s fascinating. I touch a lot of different people. I get to travel. It’s been almost 4 years now and I no longer pinch myself. I am very grateful. It’s always challenging, but I like challenges.

I think we’re making a difference in our sport and in the global community, and that’s worthwhile and rewarding.

Any advice to your younger self or those looking to enter the field?

1. Maintain good relationships with people. Everyone’s not the same, and you can’t trust people the same. Figure out the value that you place on certain people and certain situations.

2. Trust your instincts. History repeats itself. Essentially a person wants to have a certain kind of lifestyle, will be anxious about certain situations, new experiences, etc. You have to just have to recognize that it’s part of life, just trust your instincts and take a chance.

3. Don’t forget to look at the moon. Don’t forget to appreciate life.