What does it take to be a top female executive?

Growing up in South Australia in the early 1970s, my after-school schedule involved Gidget, Mister Ed, Green Acres, the Beverly Hillbillies and the Partridge Family. So when an American classmate introduced me to Seventeen magazine, I studied every advertisement, photo and story like a stars and stripes struck teenager.  I was besotted with all things USA.

About that time I discovered a list of penfriends in the Sunday Mail’s ‘Possum Pages’. Donna Goldsmith from Franklin Square, New York 11010, USA sounded perfect. Thanks to Donna’s enthusiasm, we exchanged letters regularly. Seventeen came to life, and I learned a lot more about David Cassidy and Donny Osmond!

We continued writing throughout high-school and university, and finally in June 1982 I met Donna on my visit to a hot and humid New York. As she’d just graduated, Donna was job-hunting, and I was impressed by her focus, drive and tenacity.

It wasn’t long before Donna was working at Revlon. She went on to build a stellar career at Swatch, the National Basketball Association, and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc, where she became Chief Operating Officer. Then in 2009, Donna Goldsmith was named by Forbes as the second most powerful Woman in Sport.

So how did she get there, and what does it take to be a top female executive?

I asked Donna the following questions:

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A TV star or a Broadway performer.

What was your career goal when you left college (university)?

To get a job! Back then having the ability to type was a real bonus. I knew I’d have to start in an entry level position and my speed-demon typing skills helped me secure my first position as an assistant at the cosmetic giant – Revlon.

What’s one thing you’d recommend to professionals starting their career?

Be willing to do anything! Especially if like me you are coming out of college/university with a liberal arts degree. Take unpaid internships, network like crazy (don’t be afraid to ask mom and dad who they may know that can be helpful). Use interpersonal skills (this does not include TEXTING). Even if your first job isn’t in your chosen field, it’s a start – – the job market is very tough so be open to all opportunities!

What was the biggest turning point in your career?

Biggest turning point, without a doubt, was getting my job at the National Basketball Association. Although not a sports’ fan at the time, this was my start in what would become my career in the sports’ field. I was at the NBA during the “Dream Team” years – – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson were all at the top of their game. I couldn’t have picked a more exciting time to be part of the most dynamic league in sports!

What do you consider your greatest career achievement?

In 2009 I was named number 2 in a list of the Most Powerful Women in Sports by Forbes.com. This was actually a surprise to me as I didn’t even know I was being considered. For a girl from Long Island, New York, who didn’t attend an Ivy League University, this was a major achievement for which I was incredibly proud.

What is the hardest thing you’ve done in your career to date?

The most difficult thing to date is realizing that it’s time to leave a job (either on your own or being let go). This is probably not how you would have expected me to respond to this question but after ten years at World Wrestling Entertainment, and the last 2½ as COO for Chairman Vince McMahon, it was obvious to me that it was time to move on. My job was being marginalized and although my relationship with the board was excellent (WWE is a public company), Vince was ready to move in a different direction without a COO. Initially I was distraught, but ultimately (and a contractual solid severance package helped) I realized this was the best move for all. And to this day, I have maintained positive relationships with all the management at WWE.

Is there anything you would have done differently along the way?

I don’t think I would have done anything all that differently. Perhaps I would be a bit less emotional in how I reacted to certain situations. But when I am very dedicated to any project, position, staff, I tend to react strongly to the situation at hand. It’s just my personality.

Which qualities have been your greatest career allies?

I’m a ham, an actress! This has been so helpful when it comes time to making presentations in front of 100 or 1000 people. I’m also a great leader/manager. It’s what has been the most important and useful skill as I’ve moved through the ranks of organizations. I will always have the back(s) of my team members.

What has given you the greatest satisfaction about your career to date?

Because I’ve done well financially over the years, I’ve been able to be generous with family and friends. Be it to treat many to theatre tickets, sporting events, trips (to the Bahamas to celebrate my birthday with 3 of my closest friends). It’s been my pleasure to give back to those that have supported me over the years. However, as a consultant now (and not knowing when the next project will start), I’ve had to curtail this behavior. I’m learning to be a bit more restrained when spending on myself and others! Definitely not easy! Least satisfaction – working 24/7 and not having enough time for myself.

Are there any people that made a difference to your career along the way?

I’ve had some terrific managers/mentors during my career and so not-so-great managers. I’ve developed positive skills and learned from both. My first boss at Revlon was a true mentor and leader. He recently passed away and I sent a note to his wife to let him know how much he meant to me.

What did it take to become one of the top 10 female executives in sports?

Hard work, no ego, dedication, drive. A great personal brand and the benefit of working on a brand like WWE or NBA that is the best in its category!

What advice do you offer women who are pursuing executive level roles?

Do not be timid. Be focused on the prize (whatever that is). Find a mentor, take action, realize that your personal life may suffer, and find a way to best manage your time (I definitely didn’t do this well).

What 3 things do you recommend to all aspiring executives?

  1. As mentioned before, be willing to do whatever is needed of you. Pack boxes, work weekends, order coffee. Ultimately, it will show your willingness to dive in and you will be rewarded.
  2. Develop interpersonal communication skills. Young people now are so new-media focused. It is vitally important that any aspiring career person know how to look people in the eyes and carry on an intelligent conversation. Sounds so simple but it’s not a given anymore.
  3. Develop and maintain relationships – this has been hugely helpful to me as I’ve moved from job to job. The majority of new positions are obtained through networking so it’s of the utmost importance relationships are cultivated and maintained.

Any regrets about not pursuing a career in TV or Broadway?

I do have my Actor’s Union Card (AFTRA-SAG) and have been an extra on three soap operas (Guiding Light, All My Children and General Hospital) so that helped fill the need to do something in the “arts”.


Footnote: In 2014 Donna was named #2 in the Top 10 Women Executives in Sports. As one of the USA’s most prominent business people with experience in three different sports, she was considered to be a contender for a senior executive position with any of the major leagues. Since this interview, Donna has been appointed as SVP Consumer Products/Partnership Marketing and International Event Licensing at Tough Mudder Inc.

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Photos courtesy of Donna Goldsmith

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  • I worked as Donna’s Executive Assistant at WWE. I also worked with her at the 2014 Super Bowl Host Company. I have the utmost respect and admiration for her. Rarely, do you find someone at her level that treats her EA as a true partner. Her energy and personality are contagious…thank you for writing such a nice article. Congrats Donna!

  • Thanks to Rose and others on my team(s) over the years I was able to accomplish great things. However, it really is important to note that none of the achievements were mine alone. I wouldn’t have been half as successful without a strong supporting cast!

  • As someone who you knew back in the days of Gladys Knight and the Pips, I can attest to your many skills and talents!! Congratulations Donna, and let’s plan a reunion soon! I’d love to see you!