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One of the most successful coaches in sports, Jill Ellis remains committed to teaching improvement both on and off the field – through constant adaptation, lessons in leadership, and the fight for equality.
Jill Ellis has acquired both grit and wisdom during her years working at the highest level of sport. But the lesson that continues to resonate is the one that applies on a universal scale.
“I don’t care if you’re a CEO leading a Fortune 500 company, an English professor teaching a class, or you’re a coach, you must connect with people,” Ellis says.
Ellis’s skill in finding common ground with those around her has been paramount in her role as head coach of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team and former development director of the United States Soccer Federation.
A native of England, Ellis was a decorated soccer player at the College of William & Mary before embarking on a coaching career, with successful stops as the head coach at the University of Illinois and UCLA. She was assistant coach for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Team at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games, and was named Director of Youth National Teams, United States Soccer Federation, in 2011.
After joining the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2014 as head coach, she led the team just 13 months later to the Women’s World Cup Final, and the Championship. In 2019, she became only the second coach ever to win consecutive World Cup Championships when under her leadership, the team claimed the title again.
Winning, however, is not the sole focus of Ellis’ leadership strategy. Instead, it is about building and maintaining relationships that will make people want to do their best – whether it’s on the field, at the office, or in the classroom.
“Leadership now is about connecting – about that human touch,” she says. “It’s the human element of leadership that matters most.”
“Be Bold” is a statement at the core of Ellis’ philosophy. She encourages confidence, courageousness, and risk-taking – traits that she believes work no matter your playing field. As a woman in a male-dominated arena, boldness has paid dividends for Ellis, and it’s a message that she wants to spread to other women in leadership positions.
Ellis has, at times, taken a step back to move forward in her career. And those challenges, along with constant adaptation and self-reflection, have been instrumental in shaping her coaching strategy and leadership qualities of confidence and perseverance.
“I do have very real expectations, and I won’t lower those in terms of where I want to go. But I’m also patient in getting people through a process to try and achieve something,” Ellis says. “When you’re building something, you have to recognize where you’re headed and understand that there are steps that you need to take in order to get there.”
Ellis also is a fierce advocate for gender equity, particularly when it comes to the pay disparity between male and female athletes.
With audiences, Ellis projects a humble confidence, never content to rest on her many laurels. She warmly and proudly presents a message of strength and stability, drawing on her background to tell the story of how she became a renowned leader in the sports world.
Humbly stressing her need to continually learn and adapt, Ellis details the motivational tools necessary to push people beyond their expectations. “You don’t dwell long on what you’ve accomplished,” she says. “It’s which mountain is next to climb.”
Ellis knows there’s no fixed map, no blueprint to follow when it comes to success. It’s ours to build and chart, she says. Her suggestion in calibrating your compass: be bold. “At every major juncture in my life, I realized that I chose the route that appeared to be less comfortable, with higher risk,” says Ellis.
It doesn’t matter how talented your roster is or how experienced you are as a manager, if you can’t find a way to connect with the people you lead, says Ellis. “Sometimes it’s about pushing, and sometimes it’s pulling, but it’s a question of finding a strategy – and how you communicate that is critical,” she adds.
The gender gap is a serious issue in the sports world – despite some women having a much longer track record of success. As coach of the women’s team, Ellis is in a unique position to advance the discussion. “I recognize moments where we have to continue to push the envelope,”she says. “It’s not hard to navigate because I’m in that world and my players know I support them.”
Jill Ellis Blazes Trail for Female Coaches
Commencement 2016: Keynote by Jill Ellis ’88
Jill Ellis, W&M Class of 1988
Be Bold to Make Leadership Work
As one of the most successful soccer coaches in history, Jill Ellis has plenty of experience in molding rosters of talented individuals into successful teams.
Her strategy? Be bold. In this discussion, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team coach will share her leadership expertise garnered from her work with a groundbreaking team. Concentrating on confidence, courageousness, and the ability to take risks, she shares sage advice for how you can apply these traits at work and in life.
Your team may not be playing for the World Cup, but Ellis’ message is universal, as she explains the three cornerstones to becoming a leader that people will follow: a successful connection with people, a clear and attainable direction, and personal humility.
Find the Next Mountain
Motivation is an important aspect of success, but once you’ve achieved something, where do find the drive to continue? U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team coach Jill Ellis knows all too well that challenge after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Her solution is to step back, look around, and find the next mountain to climb. In this discussion, Ellis shares with audiences both her keys to finding motivation all around you and why it is important to be open to adaptation to realize and reach new goals.
Ellis touches on why it is important to handle criticism with class and treat it as a learning tool. She shares how taking a step back in her own career allowed her to clearly reset her own goals and find new motivation on the international sports stage.