By Maria Guardado
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The number of women holding top management positions in the sports and media world remains disconcertingly small, but three women who are beating the odds shared their experiences and offered advice on how to emerge as leaders during a Friday afternoon breakout session at AWSM’s convention.
The panel, moderated by AWSM co-founder Kristin Huckshorn, featured Nona Lee, senior vice president and general counsel of the Arizona Diamondbacks; Amber Cox, president and chief operating officer of the Phoenix Mercury; and Stacey Roberts, executive producer of KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
All three women emphasized that finding their passion proved to be one of the most important elements that helped propel them to the top of their fields.
“I strongly believe that leaders are tied to a passion,” Lee said. “People find something that they’re passionate about, [and] then they work very, very hard at it. Then they become good at it, so they are able to help other people grow in that area, and because of that they are viewed as leaders.”
Though Lee and Cox each played college basketball and share a love for sports, neither found her journey to the top involved a direct path to a front office job with professional sports teams.
Cox originally aspired to be a journalist, but she wound up switching career paths and began working in college athletics, including serving as the assistant athletic director at Columbia (Mo.) College. In 2005, she took a risk by leaving the Midwest to join the WNBA’s Mercury as the director of marketing and promotions, which she called “the best decision I ever made.”
Lee said she lost track of her passion for a while. Upon graduating from Pepperdine University, she worked in the entertainment industry before deciding to attend law school in Oklahoma City. After earning her law degree, she secured a job as a litigator but discovered she was not excited by her work. With the launch of the WNBA, however, Lee saw an opportunity to combine her work and her passion. She interviewed for a position with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and joined the franchise as an associate general counsel. In 2005, Lee moved down the street to become a member of the front office for Major League Baseball’s Diamondbacks.
Roberts initially envisioned herself pursuing a career as a marketing executive, but after one of her sister’s friends lost her life to a drunk driver, Roberts became involved with MADD. She began making documentaries and appearing on Sunday morning talk shows to raise awareness on the issue. Her experience showed her that journalism could make a difference, sparking a passion for the field.
However, Roberts encountered an unexpected challenge just as she was about to enter college. When she was 17, she became pregnant. But Roberts continued with her plans to attend college and remarkably juggled motherhood, schoolwork, a job at McDonald’s and broadcast internships in Chicago for four years. She would regularly go 72 hours without sleeping and said she lived on coffee during those stretches.
“It’s those types of hurdles that hit you and you got to somehow overcome it,” Roberts said. “Those big ones are the ones that can make you a heck of a stronger person and can be life-changing when all is said and done.”
After finishing college, Roberts left Illinois and moved to Phoenix for an entry-level job with an NBC affiliate. She has been with KPNX for 13 years and continues to rise through the ranks.
All three women stressed that a strong work ethic is also essential to successfully advancing in any profession.
“Make no mistake about it, you still have to outwork everyone,” Cox said. “You have to prove that you know what you’re talking about. I’m the head of a basketball team, and I still get looks like I don’t know what I’m talking about. You do have to prove yourself, and you do have to work a little bit harder than the guys. It’s not fair, but you can’t get hung up on that.”