Duke - B.A. Economics
Duke - B.A. Psychology
Many women dream of a job in sports. Helping to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for fans, creating marketing materials that grab fans and pull them into the venue, or even working with reporters to ensure their needs are met and that their team, venue or experience stays top-of-mind. And for the past several years those dreamers have had a very powerful female force to look up to. She's so dynamic in her job, in fact, that she's been named "The Most Powerful Woman in Sports" by Forbes.
Lesa France Kennedy is the Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for International Speedway Corporation, a motorsports entertainment property that owns the majority of NASCAR-sanctioned race tracks. In addition, she also serves as the Vice Chair of NASCAR, an organization that her grandfather, Bill France Sr., founded.
With International Speedway Corporation since 1983, Lesa has been a tremendous visionary force. Her leadership has received many accolades from the nod by Forbes to being named the Most Influential Woman in Sports Business, as well as Female Sports Executive of the Year by Street and Smith's SportsBusiness Journal. But as you'll see in her interview below, Lesa is quick to credit her success to the hard work and dedication of the team surrounding her.
As much as you can frontload the things that you need to do, the more time you have for curveballs.
What is your typical day like? What types of things do you do on a daily basis?
I try to schedule most of my meetings in the morning. That works better for me. I try to do more one-on-one's or phone calls or reading in the afternoon. It doesn’t always work out that way, obviously, because the day is so fluid. That usually helps me schedule my time the best.
What types of sources do you go to for inspiration?
I go to everything. I go to all kinds of newspapers. I go to a number of magazines to keep up with what’s going on there. It’s just a variety and it really depends on what the current topic is that we’re really working on at the company.
What qualities do you look for when building and structuring a leadership team?
As the business has grown, I feel like people have become more specialized. We had more generalists, I would say, 15 or 20 years ago. But now you have so many professionals that have a specific talent, and so to me it really, really requires being able to work with a team. For whatever projects you’re working on you may have five or six people who are specialized in their area, but it’s critical that they are able to share information and work with others on the team.
You have a lot of responsibilities day-to-day, but what are the challenges that keep you up at night?
Usually it will be whatever major project, or projects, that we have going on that go through my mind. The other thing is I’ll usually be thinking about the rest of the week and how to schedule or reschedule it to get a little bit more in the day. So, for example, if I leave a little later to get somewhere, then I can I get something else in later in the day. It’s that type of thing.
How are you able to manage a work-life balance in the position you have?
Well, once again, it’s obviously about the people around you. I also think that if you keep some things in your life very organized, to where it’s a no-brainer, it’s helpful. I travel a lot. The things I travel with are always in the same place, and it’s always ready to go. Then you can check off your list in the event that something comes your way. It frees you up to deal with more curve balls that might come your way. As much as you can frontload the things that you need to do, the more time you have for curveballs.
I may pack on a Monday for a Friday trip, just because I might have an extra few minutes there, and then it’s ready to go. I try to frontload things like that. So if I end up with a Thursday night crisis, I’m not scrambling. People tease me about that sometimes.
What is one of the sacrifices you have to make because of your job?
My son is older now, but it was family time. I was very lucky I had a family -- because we are a family business -- that really understood that you couldn’t be in two places at once. I think personal time with my family – and, you know, personal time with myself -- sometimes had to be put on hold.
Can you tell me a lesson you learned in your job, or when you were younger, that has shaped you in some way as a leader?
I learned a lot from my mother and from my grandmother in different ways. They both were really concerned with other people, and people around them, and their perceptions of the business – and also, personally, what they were like. If you get to know the people around you, then you can really start to make some wise decisions about who you’re going to have on your team or who would be involved in taking your company – and yourself -- to the next level.
What are some of those things that you look for when you’re filling out your team?
It’s all about your ability to communicate. There are a lot of smart people out there, but if they can’t communicate it in somewhat of a concise or articulate matter, they’re not going to be able to get their vision and their story across. I think that’s really important.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women today who are trying to make a name for themselves in ISC, NASCAR or the sports industry?
One thing that I see is sometimes I think self-esteem can get in the way, or a woman’s self-perspective and self-worth. The reason I say that is I find that usually the women who struggle the most for some reason are always looking over their shoulder because they are a woman. They really need to find their own personal value, and if they do that I think it really serves them well. I would sum it up to self-esteem, which sometimes can be your biggest challenge and can be your own worst enemy.
NASCAR is working hard to attract different markets to the sport. Can you talk a bit more about that, as well as how a female audience plays into that equation?
Currently, 40 percent of our fans are women. We are focused on expanding our fan base, and not just with women, but to have a much more diverse fan base overall. At the NASCAR level, as well as at the track level, we want to try to reach a broader group of people.
Do you have a specific rule you live by in your career?
Just be well ahead of a deadline. If we have a board meeting it needs to be wrapped up a month before if it can so you have time to react or make changes if necessary. Organization and being ahead of a deadline will get you a long way.
You have all these amazing accolades in the sport and obviously within the industry. What kind of qualities do you feel you have that set you apart and aide you in your leadership position?
The best thing that anybody can do is hire the best people. I feel like we have a phenomenal team who have been here for a number of years. They’re very seasoned. They know the business, and they are great contributors.
What advice do you have for women who one day hope to become a CEO like yourself?
Number one is work hard. It’s basic, but you have to work hard. Number two is to pick a mentor. Who do you believe in? Who would you like to be like? Try to become invaluable to that mentor. That way they are open to sharing their ideas and the ways that they got to where they are.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I LOVE my job. I absolutely love it. I would like to be in a place where I’m looking at a company that has grown by improving its guest experiences. So, it’s not necessarily a new job, but it’s my focus. I’d like to look back five years from now and see a company that has excelled in that area.
-Interview by Brianne Burrowes
Image | Lesa with her son, Ben Kennedy, at last year's Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway
Photo courtesy of ISC Images and Archives