By Van Adams, Player Engagement Insider
Transition is defined as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. For Ian Allen, a former NFL offensive lineman, transitioning from the NFL to Corporate America has involved a series of steps, each one serving as building blocks preparing him for the next opportunity.
Allen, an undrafted rookie free agent who joined the league in 2001 and who eventually became a starter with the New York Giants, always had an eye on what his life would look like outside of football. While he wasn’t certain what path he’d take, he was receptive in welcoming a wide range of business introductions his financial advisor made during the course of his six year playing career to people who could potentially help him along the way when the time came.
Allen acknowledges he made a wise move early in his transition process when he sought the advice of Giants owner, Steve Tisch; a meeting that served as the tipping point for the next phase of Allen’s journey.
“I met with Mr. Tisch and told him what I was interested in and from there I had the opportunity to meet with one of his general managers of the Loews Hotels,” Allen said. “It became clear that one other piece of education would give me a seat at the table.”
But the decision to return to the classroom didn’t happen immediately after the meeting. It was a process. Allen at the time was doing work in broadcasting for the Big Ten Network and others while pursuing his entrepreneurial passions with his music business, Nova 53.
“Knowing how hard it was to get to the NFL, if I take the same approach (in business) I’ll be successful,” Allen said. “The (broadcast) experience taught me how to craft a message and be more succinct, especially on-air. It was a good compliment to my entrepreneurial ventures.”
Allen spent countless hours emailing and cold-calling general managers of major hotel chains in the U.S. and Canada to land a distribution deal for his music. While he was able to strike a few deals with individual hotel properties, Allen realized fairly quickly that the business model and approach would not sustain a longtime profitability. He needed a better distribution plan and a deeper understanding of the dynamics in play in terms of the corporate sales cycle.
“I probably sent 200 emails and made phone calls and out of all of that, about 20 got back to me over a six month period. You start to lose your courage,” said Allen who was pitching his European-style, easy listening CD. “In the league if you loose your courage, you turn the page and go on to the next play. How do you do that in the corporate world? Give yourself a mental break to (regroup) and then you continue on.”
Taking a page from the many lessons he learned as an NFL player on perseverance, Allen took a break to reevaluate his game plan. As he began to consider jobs that would put his communications degree from Purdue to good use, he took a closer look at what companies where looking for in executive hires and from the suppliers/vendors they do business with.
“Looking at job descriptions there was one consistent theme, number of years and experience; 15 years or seven years experience and MBA preferred,” Allen said. “Running a business takes a significant investment upfront and other things have to go on the back burner as you reinvest in the business. I ultimately decided to go back to school.”
“My approach was to take care of my family with the resources I have,” said Allen who has three children with wife Joelle. “Score high on the GMAT to get the education taken care of (via scholarships) so that wouldn't be an additional expense.”
Allen returned to his alma mater and immersed himself in the MBA program. He landed an internship with General Motors where his assignment was to develop the “Best Lease Program for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.” The internship led to a full time offer in GM’s Engines and Transmissions group where he oversaw the new Corvette launch.
“I didn't know anything about Corporate America. The first couple of weeks were an adjustment,” said Allen reminiscing about the office set up. “The culture was different. Not knowing what to say or what to do, but after the first couple of weeks you settle in.”
Continuing to strengthen his executive portfolio, Allen moved on to work in corporate strategy and development at Xerox. There, he was responsible for developing strategy for a dozen business groups including mergers and acquisitions, commercial health care division, transportation division and the technology division. A corporate restructuring afforded Allen the opportunity to take some time to evaluate the experiences he gained since earning an MBA and work on identifying the next opportunity that would align with his skill set. During this time, Allen participated in the NFL Bridge to Success Program, a four-day program that features sessions on career development, financial success, fitness and nutrition, family and relationships, and much more.
“For me, the Bridge to Success program was a way to reconnect with other players,” Allen said. “I wanted to share my story (on transitioning) and plant the seed with other guys on what transitioning looks like. The career fair experience at the end of the program afforded me the opportunity to meet a lot of executives from top companies, including the CEO of Intuit. That was really cool.”
After rounds of interviews, and job offers, Allen ultimately accepted a position with the Target Corporation, a position that was more closely aligned with his skill set. Allen is responsible for the kitchen division (small appliances, tabletop, bakeware, etc.) making sure the merchandising organization has the right assortment of items on the shelves. He’s tasked with forecasting and budgeting, and the reorganization of contracts and investments to ensure the division is on pace from a profitability perspective on a quarterly and a year-to-year basis. Allen also considers the inorganic opportunities, and external partners to help strengthen differentiation strategy for the company.
Allen applies some of the lessons learned in the NFL to his new day-to-day corporate realities and often shares insights with other players who reach out to him directly or through LinkedIn as it relates to the transition process.
“Always invest in your craft. In sports you invest in your physical body. You hire personal trainers or chefs because they can help you. Translate that to the corporate world and it’s about constantly learning where you’re feeding your intellectual muscle by continuing to educate yourself,” Allen said. “Be authentic. Once you learn to be yourself, that’s when the magic happens.
“Being strategic and creative asking yourself, ‘What is the thing that can give me an extra advantage?’ In football, we get stats weekly and analyze data. The same rules apply in the corporate world,” said Allen who is thriving in an environment where analytics are part of his daily duties. “The difference being you have to take a more thoughtful approach before you present a recommendation. How you make people feel is more important from a strategic perspective than being right.”
Allen follows his own advice when it comes to investing in his craft and continuing to educate himself. When Joelle was preparing to launch the Joelle Allen Collection, a clothing line focused on designs to help women reimagine, reinvent, and transform their personal style, he enrolled in photography classes to learn about technique and artist composition. Outfitted with professional grade camera equipment and several photo shoots under his belt, Allen adds fashion photographer to his list of credentials.
Recently, Allen obtained two Executive Education certificates from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one in Mergers and Acquisitions and the other in Corporate Strategy, and has plans to pursue a second Master’s degree in the future to enhance his knowledge of the marketing aspects of business.
Van Adams is an award-winning entrepreneur and small business owner with expertise in sports business and business development. Over the last decade, she has represented a number of iconic sports celebrities and executed marketing campaigns for their personal celebrity and/or business ventures. An advocate for women in business, Van is the creator and producer of Gathering on the Greens, a women’s golf initiative, and serves as President of the Board of Directors for the NYC Metro Chapter of Women in Sports and Events where she oversees programming and strategy. Van is an adjunct professor and often conducts workshops for the small business & sports business communities. She spends her spare time in a test kitchen baking or on a golf course working on her short game.