In a keynote address to more than 600 future leaders attending the Dynamic Women in Business conference at Harvard Business School on Saturday, Feb. 25, Mary Wittenberg boiled the secret of success in both business and life down to a few basic ingredients: trust your instincts, believe in yourself, and be willing to abandon your comfort zone.
"When you get outside your comfort zone, you can achieve things you never thought possible," said Wittenberg, president and CEO of New York Road Runners, from the stage of Burden Auditorium in the closing address of the day. "That can be thrilling, and it's incredibly rewarding. The best in the world only achieve their success by putting themselves on the line over and over and over again. The same is really true for all of us mere mortals.
"Get comfortable with being uncomfortable every day," she said. "I say to my team all the time, if you don't walk in the door and feel slightly uncomfortable about something, you're not pushing yourself."
The 21st annual conference was produced by the Women's Student Association, and served as the kickoff to a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of women at Harvard Business School.
Wittenberg described her career arc, from law school at Notre Dame to partner in a Virginia law firm to leader of New York Road Runners, and the many times she was forced to venture out of her own comfort zone as she sought to check the boxes on the "personal and professional scorecard" that she urged all of her listeners to devise as a guide to making their life decisions.
"For every opportunity you pursue," she said, "evaluate it like an Olympic judge would evaluate a gymnast or figure skater. What is your purpose, what makes you tick, where you want to go, who you want to be, who you want to serve. And most importantly, what matters to you most. The mix of all of those will determine how you define success."
Given the chance after graduating from law school to stay at Notre Dame, study for an MBA, and train in familiar surroundings to qualify for the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials, Wittenberg chose instead to accept a position as an associate with Hunton & Williams in Richmond, VA, with a promise that she would be given time to train while also studying to pass the bar exam "even though everyone warned me that would never work." She succeeded at all three.
By the time she made partner, Wittenberg already knew that her heart was in the sports world. When the No. 2 job at New York Road Runners came up—a job she heard about through connections in the NHL, where a few years earlier she had been rejected for a position—she again had to overcome objections and doubts from friends and colleagues, this time about leaving the security of partnership.
"I had to believe in myself and believe that what I was doing was going to be all right," she said. "And the greatest thing? I never, ever looked back. I saw what it could all be. I could see that running is the people's sport, the most accessible of all sports. I could see its power to transform. And I really believed that New York Road Runners could help drive the global movement in running. In 15 years, we have transformed the organization, we have helped transform our sport, and we've given a lot of people the chance to live better lives as a result of running."
Two years ago, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Wittenberg led NYRR far from its comfort zone when she vowed to conduct a four-mile road race for 10,000 runners in the middle of winter—in 21 days. Vendors donated their services, the race sold out, and $400,000 was raised for earthquake relief.
"The sense of accomplishment for everybody that was involved went well beyond the important money that was raised," she said. "The knowledge, whether staff member or vendor or volunteer or city employee, that we really had made an impact on the world, that was unbelievably powerful.
"Just because something is hard, just because someone else doesn't see your vision in doing it, doesn't mean it's not worth doing."