Specialist Career Transitions: From Tennis Court to Consultant (Sabrina Xu, MiM2017)

MiM alumna Sabrina Xu swapped a pro tennis career for consulting, all through engaging her LBS network. She tells us how she leveraged not only the transferrable skills of a professional sports career but the connections she made through playing too.

What were you doing, and indeed where, before you came to LBS?

So I was an undergraduate right beforehand, and during my undergrad, my high school and even my primary school, I was doing professional tennis. I did professional tennis as well as doing professional music until the age of 15. Then I had to choose one or the other. So I played tennis on the Australian national circuit for about 15 years and on the international circuit for about 5 or 6 years. That was really fun. Then I was recruited to the University of New South Wales, that was also under scholarship for tennis. So I’ve competed quite a lot with them, seen a lot of sporting events.

While I was there, I came across quite a lot of mentors who transitioned from sports to corporate life. Then it just happened by chance when I was looking for masters programme abroad. LBS I knew had a very good programme and they were very supportive, and they love sports.

I actually had no plans to go to university at all originally, I took a year out thinking I would actually not go. It was more that there was just so many universities supportive of sports athletes, and so I figured maybe its not a bad idea to also study because I had quite good academics from my high school.

Funnily enough, the eventual reason why I went back to school was actually because of the sun – I did not want to be burning in the sun anymore! But I always thought myself as a professional tennis player. I never thought I would actually be where I am now, and I’m very surprised.

In terms of the MiM specifically, what was your thinking when you were looking for a masters programme? Why did you want to do it?

I think my end goal was to basically move abroad. I wanted to first apply to a programme in a city and country I wanted to be in. So at the time, I was actually looking at Denmark, Germany, and the UK.

I was speaking to different schools, got in touch with a lot of admissions departments to speak about the transition, and I think the most responsive was honestly LBS. The student ambassadors were so amazing, explaining everything to me, explaining the visas, explaining very small things that you just can’t find online. The feeling was very different, it was very warm.

By the time I’d applied to LBS, I had done four internships. I did one in a start-up in New York, one at Citibank, at JP Morgan, and then I did Bank of America, in equity research. So by then, I was really not into finance anymore! But someone had told me that the easiest way to get your visa is through finance, rather than in consulting. So I thought what a good idea was to actually do a summer internship in finance and then try to get full time consultant role, which is exactly what I did.

I managed to get in touch with LBS people who were Australian as well, an alumnus called Dominic who was hiring for internships, so I applied and got it. After that, because I interned at Deloitte Hong Kong, they referred me to Deloitte UK where I got my consulting internship. What’s very important is the people that helped me along the way or people from the past. I would have not been able to got to where I am now without them, even coming into EY Parthenon. A MiM of 2012 actually referred me into the firm, also by chance. I was trying to encourage a friend of mine in the MBA and he said, “Oh, we’re also hiring for associate level. Are you interested?” So yeah, my network really worked hard for me!

That leads us to where you are now. Could you describe your role as it is currently?

I’m a strategy consultant at EY Parthenon, and what we do is we do basically either commercial diligence projects or strategy projects, for private clients or for private equity clients.

It’s quite amazing for some of us with just three years of work experience to be able to meet CEOs, COOs, chiefs of staff, and advise them. I’m not sure what other career I could be in to be able to do this at such a young age. I would not have gotten here without LBS, without all these people.

Coming from a sports background, it’s very different, there are lot of transferable skills that people don’t see. But there’s also a lot of untransferable skills to make sense of!

The skills from your previous life as a tennis player, how did you make that something that employers understood? How did you leverage that background to prove that you had the capability to do the job?

I think the main thing I would say to them was that I’m able to handle pressure. Whatever you’re doing – banking, consulting – the pressure is very high, the hours are very long, you have to travel a lot, and you’re mentally exhausted. I’m used to dealing with that. I think about being on court with 20,000 people looking at you. I can be quite calm when things are slightly blowing up because there’s no panicking, just breathe and keep going. So for me, I actually find this style of work a lot easier than I thought.

The main challenge I got at interview was that in tennis, you work individually. When you’re on the circuit, you are an individual player. But I would always I’ve performed in teams many times, our university team, my high school team, my country.

You mentioned that your network, various people that you knew, the Australian alumni community, and people from different programmes at LBS have really come through for you. But what are the specific activities, events and services that were beneficial in getting you where you are now?

At LBS I committed myself to two clubs; I ran Board Games Club and Tennis Club at LBS. Those were the babies that I had! Even now, I still help both clubs run, and I think its a great way to get to know people because people are there for a common interest. No one’s there to network and try to get that next job, so I think you can form real connections and real relationships.

For example, in Tennis Club I would provide coaching for people and then they might say, “Oh, you’re interviewing for such-and-such company, let me give you a case.” I have mentors that came from my tennis background, even potential clients for the future as well.

I think it’s the best way to make real connections because if people are there genuinely for a hobby, they might return a favour in the far, far future. I just have a different approach to the idea of networking – I never had a reputation of being a networker. I have never, ever reached out to someone over LinkedIn, called them straight up or asked for coffee, for example, because I don’t believe that that’s how I make the best connections.

Was there a moment you had to bounce back from anything you thought that you were going to get, or anything that you really had to overcome in your time at LBS?

I think when you think your whole life is going to be tennis or a sports career in general, you never think that you could operate Excel or PowerPoint for a living, right? I think the fear of the unknown for a lot of sports people is very high. I’ve certainly had that as well.

My first ever internship was, luckily, a sports start-up, and they hired a lot of expert athletes. But then for me, I was still very nervous. What are trade e-mails? How do I do this? What am I used to? I think the biggest challenge is that fear of the unknown. It’s just such a different world from tennis, or sports in general.

But you do need to be open to seizing opportunities that come rather than sending out any grand plan. You need to be comfortable with what arrives in front of you, and then react to it well. I think it’s a lot of luck, but I also think it’s taking the opportunity. When someone asked me, “Oh, do you want to work in consulting, and in Hong Kong?” At the time, initially I was like, “What? I do not understand. What is consulting? What is a financial advisor? What is consulting, what is advisory?”

But I took a leap of faith. You’ll probably only get maybe one or two percent of jobs, but that one or two percent leads you to more opportunities.

In terms of a piece of advice for students who are perhaps coming from a sports background or another specialist profession, what would you say to them?

Definitely just get involved – try pick out the two main hobbies you like, whether it’s continuing with the sport you like or otherwise, and see how you can add value. So for me, coaching tennis was a huge value-add for everyone at LBS, and that really helped me build connections and make friends.

Even at Deloitte, I started the Tennis Club there, and I made so many good connections. There’s also a lot of corporate tennis activities as well, where you can just play against other companies. That’s also a great way to get to know different companies, get to know people who could be working for you or you’ll be working for in the future. It’s not only about leveraging the transferable skills of your sports career, it’s about leveraging the network and connections it gives you as well.

Where I am now would not have happened without LBS, for sure; who referred me to the company, who manages me, even the senior directors are alumni of LBS. You bump into everyone all the time from LBS, it’s actually super cool, and I’ve really benefitted from that.

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