Christine Magnuson competes at the 2008 Olympic Games. [Getty Images/Adam Pretty]
Long before she had to work from home, Christine Magnuson learned all about how to adapt to different work environments. As an elite swimmer, she would train in one place but compete in pools all over the world, trying to keep her routines while navigating delayed flights, foreign diets and foods, changing time zones, or just unusual surroundings. She calls it 'environmental adversity,' and it's part of what prepared her for a world in which people's offices, kitchens, and classrooms suddenly became one and the same place during the pandemic.
'Sometimes it's a crowded warmup pool that doesn't allow you to do the warmup you wanted. Other times it's not having the breakfast you are used to pre-race,' she said. 'Those are the things that get thrown at you and you have to adapt. Now it's changing our morning routines, our communication styles, and how we stay connected remotely.'
Thirteen years after she won two silver medals for Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Games, Magnuson isn't just adapting to that new way of working. She's part of a team that is making it easier for customers, as a senior manager, solutions engineering for Salesforce Anywhere. Her job is the latest step in a long transition that started with a question many Olympians face when their athletic careers are over: What do I do now?
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A career in business isn't something Magnuson thought much about as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. Like most elite athletes, she was primarily focused on succeeding in her sport. The results speak for themselves.
In Beijing, Magnuson won silver in the 100-meter butterfly, after setting an American record with her time in the semifinals of that event. She earned her other silver medal in the 4×100-meter medley relay. Back in the U.S., she landed endorsements from major companies and spent hours signing autographs.
'I remember coming back after the Games and it's just such an emotional and physical high,' Magnuson said. 'I mean, you are just on the top of the world.'
Moving into the corporate world
The question was never whether her Olympic Games success could translate into the corporate world. For Magnuson, the challenge was figuring out where and how - and learning how to articulate it so prospective employers would understand it.
In 2010, she enrolled at the University of Arizona to pursue a master's degree in public administration. But it was only after she failed to qualify for Team USA for the 2012 Olympic Games - she fell short by five-hundredths of a second in a qualifying race in the 50-meter freestyle - that she started to seriously consider what she would do with it.
Surely, the determination, resilience, attention to detail, and discipline required of an Olympian would translate - but where?
'Retirement from athletics is actually similar to veterans coming out of service,' she said. 'I've spoken with a number of vets on the challenges of reframing their identities beyond their past work and how to translate skills that made them successful in the military to a more traditional workforce - it's similar for elite athletes.'
I remember coming back after the Games and it's just such an emotional and physical high.
Christine magnuson, U.S. olympian
Magnuson started talking to other Olympians and found that many went on to success in sales. One of them had started a company placing elite athletes into sales positions, and helped her land a job at a life sciences consulting firm in Chicago. In 2017, she became an account executive at Quip, the word-processing app that Salesforce acquired in 2016.
Many of her athletic traits carried over - emotional intelligence, for instance, and the ability to work cross-functionally as part of a team. 'Those are just the business words for what we did as athletes,' she said.
But corporate life also required some adjustments. For one thing, Magnuson joked, it was harder for her to take a midday nap, as she could do between twice-daily practices. She also found that not all colleagues responded to her blunt feedback the same way people in the sports world often do.
'Sometimes they really do see it as harsh criticism, which might not be the intent,' she said. 'It's about trying to meet them where they're comfortable, to be successful as a team.'
Career growth at Salesforce
At Salesforce, she learned that while sales may have been a good field to transition into, her bigger passion was working on the solutions side of a product. After about a year, she became a solutions engineer, and has since taken on progressively larger roles.
For that kind of cross-functional move to be both available and encouraged is part of what makes Salesforce unique, Magnuson said. Another part of that is the company's focus on employee wellbeing. She said just the fact that the company was asking employees in surveys how they were doing at home made a big difference to her through the pandemic.
But then, as a U.S. Olympian, she knows all about what it is to be unique. Since many people know her primarily as a solutions engineer, she will occasionally mention her athletic background while introducing herself in meetings. But it can spark such interest and curiosity from people that she has to make sure it doesn't overtake the meeting itself.
'There's actually an art to bringing it up,' she said.
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