Through the Gates: From the Mat to the Boardroom: Wrestling Lessons for Business Success

Bill Graham '62, Trustee Emeritus

When I look back at the experiences that have greatly shaped my life and my career, nothing has influenced the person and businessman I have become more than the sport of wrestling. My tenure on the Bison wrestling team at Bucknell University instilled in me a confidence I had never known before, a tenacity for success and an appreciation for hard work – traits I developed through the lessons I learned in my successes and occasional failures on the mat. I have no doubt that these lessons empowered me to grow Graham Company to where it is today.

Always aim higher.

When I enrolled at Bucknell and joined the Bison wrestling team as a walk-on, my coach told me I was going to wrestle at 177 lbs. I wanted to challenge myself more, so I volunteered to try out against the incumbent heavyweight starter – a former state champion – for his position. My coach didn’t understand why I wanted to wrestle against someone who, in his eyes, was clearly superior. . . until I beat him. This passion for always striving to do better and dream big, even when it’s outside my comfort zone, enabled me to grow Graham from a firm of six people to nearly 200 with offices in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC.

If at first you don’t succeed. . .

Wrestling is not a sport for the faint of heart, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is “stick-to-itiveness” – showing dogged perseverance despite injury, circumstance or any other obstacle standing in the way of reaching my goal. As an insurance broker, persistence is key when it comes to securing new accounts. In fact, I once landed an account after nearly 12 years of working to establish a relationship. Twelve years to land the account, and within one day of jumping in as their partner, we identified deficiencies in their previous coverage. If I had given up after a year, two years, five years or even 10 years, we wouldn’t have had this success.

Believe in yourself and what you set out to do.

Growing up, I struggled with self-confidence, but through wrestling, I gained a new sense of empowerment and blossomed. It instilled in me confidence in myself and my abilities, on and off the wrestling mat. Competing against athletes who were ranked top 10 nationally – and winning – likely played a role in that, but it was also about realizing the value of preparation and hard work, and trusting in that to get me where I wanted to be. In business, there are always going to be challenges, but I give credit to wrestling for driving me to trust my instincts, believe in the work I am doing, and face those obstacles with vigor.

All for one, one for all.

Although wrestling is a team sport, the competition itself is entirely individual. In my experience wrestling as a heavyweight, I normally competed in the last bout of the match, where victory or defeat often hung in the balance. I was forced to channel my inner strength in order to not let down my team, which was watching and cheering from the sidelines. In my senior year, this resulted in an undefeated season for only the second time in program history.

In the business world, executives must balance individual goals with the shared goals of the team or company. More than 50 years have passed since starting at Graham, but I continue to involve myself in the day-to-day responsibilities of servicing our clients alongside ensuring the growth of the business and its strategy for the future. It’s a balancing act.

Knowing the impact that athletics can have on an individual and their work ethic, we have attracted many former athletes as part of our unique hiring process at Graham, identifying the best and brightest in their respective fields regardless of industry background.

Together, we strive every day to do it “The Graham Way” – taking a sense of pride in not shrinking in the face of challenges and working tirelessly to ensure that our clients’ bottom lines and their employees are protected.

More than 50 years after wrestling at Bucknell, I’m still part of a world-class team.

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