Cecilie Olsen always wanted to work in sports. An athlete growing up in Stavanger, Norway’s third-largest city, she moved to Oslo four years ago to get a bachelor’s degree in public relations. A friend told her that the Manglerud Star club of GET-ligaen, the nation’s top hockey league, was looking for someone to assist with social media outreach. Olsen volunteered her services, and for three seasons, she worked in a variety of capacities.
She’s their general manager now. At 24 years old. After starting out as what amounts to a marketing intern.
Cecilie Olsen isn’t just working in sports. She’s running a men’s professional hockey team.
Manglerud manager Bjørn Danielsen, in his 70s, decided to step down this year. The team thought it needed someone younger in the position to help it grow and was also looking for someone who would fit the budget, as the Stars are one of the league’s smaller clubs. They were familiar with Olsen. They trusted that she knew the team. They decided to think way outside the box and hired her to replace Danielsen on Nov. 1.
Her impact was felt even before she officially took over: Working with head coach David Livingston, Olsen jettisoned four players from the team who had been distractions on and off the ice, according to Norwegian sports site Nitten.no.
“I’m very thankful that they thought of me for this job, and I admire the club for this decision,” she told ESPN this week. “It shows that they are willing to change, and they believe in me because of what I’ve done here the past three years, not because I’m a young woman.”
That said, she is a woman, running a professional men’s team. And she is young, two years younger than John Chayka was when he was hired to take over the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes and become the youngest general manager in U.S. pro sports history.
We asked Olsen about her trailblazing hiring and the impact she hopes it has across the ocean.
ESPN: In North America, women are almost never considered for player personnel roles on men’s teams. How were you able to overcome the gender biases and earn this job? Is it just easier, culturally, to achieve something such as this in Norway?
OLSEN: I think it’s easier in Norway because we have a different culture. Plus, there has been a lot of focus in Norway the last couple of years that women are capable of doing the same job as men, and it’s time we give them a chance. Women have been getting jobs as coaches with men’s soccer teams, and that’s a huge step for equality. There is no reason why a woman can’t get a job on men’s teams. They just have to be good at their job.
Imagine growing up and knowing exactly what you want to do. You work hard for it and get really good at it. There’s just one problem: You won’t even be considered for the job because you’re a woman. That’s not fair. Also, the hockey community in Norway, if I can call it that, is really small compared to North America. This gives us in Norway a bigger advantage, I would say, as it’s easier to get to know people in the clubs and let them see the good job you are willing to put in.
ESPN: What has been the players’ reaction to having a woman as their general manager? Were there any conversations you needed to have to calm fears or deal with preconceptions?
OLSEN: All the players have been positive. They’ve come up to me and said they think it’s really cool and that they believe I will do a really good job. I’ve been with the team for three years already, so they know me really well. I’ve been “one of the guys” the last years, so there weren’t any fears or preconceptions I needed to calm. That said, I think it would be more difficult coming in as a general manager for a new team, and they didn’t already know and trust me. But that’s just preconceptions, and as long as you are good at your job, I’m sure no player would feel uncomfortable with having a woman on their team.
At the same time, I’m sure the players treat me differently than they would with someone else. They might choose their words more carefully and hesitate to confront me about certain things. These things will probably get better with time, as I will always commit to doing my job, no matter if it’s tough conversations.
ESPN: I’ve always thought that women in government bring something unique and different than men: more empathy, more consideration of others, etc. Is it the same for a woman in a general manager’s position? Are there things you offer, based on your world view, that a man might not?
OLSEN: Absolutely. At least, I would say that’s true for me. Both women and men will have different styles in leadership. It just depends on the type of person you are. For me, it has been important to focus on the person, not just the player. This season has, until now, not been going like we hoped. Especially in those circumstances, I believe it’s important to sit down and talk to the players, let them know they can trust you and tell you about things they are not happy about or if some things are difficult. I might care more about players’ feelings than many men would. We are a small club, overachieving every year based on our resources, and are known for the culture in the locker room. The players refer to themselves as “brothers.” It’s important to focus on this in a small club because it has to be fun to go to practice every day. I also believe that players will perform better if they have confidence, are happy and feel like it’s OK to try and fail. I’m convinced focusing on the well-being of players will help the team achieve better results.
ESPN: Gender aside, there’s also your age. Have there been obstacles because you’re 24 in earning the respect of players, people in the front office or peers?
OLSEN: No, not really. People who don’t know Norwegian hockey as well might think it’s weird having a 24-year-old general manager. But everyone in the club, and people in other clubs who know me, will hopefully see it as something positive. I’ve been with the club for several years and know a lot about what’s going on, and I’m definitely not afraid to speak up and let everyone know my opinion. I’ve never heard anyone say something negative about my job because of my age, but I’m sure I’ll have a lot to prove. I’m determined to show everyone that age doesn’t matter — what matters is the job I do.
ESPN: At 24, do you feel you have the experience to run a team?
OLSEN: I don’t have a lot of experience in how to run a team, but over my years in sports, both in Manglerud Star and other internships, I’ve learned a lot from people who have been doing it for several years. I’ll do things my way, but I’ll also have the opportunity to ask people for help if it’s needed. I’m grateful that so many people let me know it’s OK to ask questions and that I’m not supposed to know everything from the start. The things I don’t know, I’ll learn as I go, and I’m sure I’ll do a lot of things different than the players are used to. I’ll be able to do things my way and make changes where I want them.
ESPN: Are there advantages to being a young executive and communicating with today’s players?
OLSEN: Absolutely. I communicate in a totally different way than the past general manager, and as I’m young, I’m more used to the way the players communicate. Most of the players are around my age, some of them older, and we understand each other better in the ways we communicate. I think it’s important to communicate with them a lot and let them know they can talk to you about whatever they feel like. Young executives might understand better what the players need in the ways of communication.
ESPN: Has the history of this moment sunk in, knowing what this job — and your success or failure — could mean to other women in hockey?
OLSEN: I guess it’s starting to. At first I didn’t think about it at all. I didn’t even tell my friends about it. I just thought about it as getting more responsibility at the club. I’ve been here for a couple of years now, so I feel like a part of the team. I think that’s why I didn’t feel that special to me. But now, seeing how others react, I feel like I have a lot to prove. A man came up to me with his daughters and said, “See, girls? It’s possible.” That’s the first time I thought, “Wow, young girls can be inspired by Manglerud Star giving me this job and be motivated to do the same.”
With this responsibility, there will of course be a lot of eyes on me. But I think it will be unfair of other clubs to base a decision of bringing women in to their team by how I do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman or man in this position; what matters is how they fit in and the job they do. You can do a terrible job as a man. It doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t get the chance to try.
But of course, some might use this as an excuse to keep girls out of these positions. I hope that won’t happen, and I’ll definitely be really motivated and work hard to make sure I’ll do the best job I can do.
ESPN: There’s been talk in North America about when we’ll get women in the coaching ranks. I’ve always thought it won’t happen unless there are women in management positions to hire them. Would you agree?
OLSEN: Unfortunately, yes. I don’t know why it’s like that, but I think men have tendencies to think about everything that could go wrong and not all the positives that could come from having women in coaching ranks. Women understand that they’ll be able to do the same job as men. It’s just about giving them a chance to prove it. I think women in management won’t have a barrier to overcome as men will in hiring women in coaching positions. I’m sure there are so many great coaches out there who are women and could do a better job than many men in coaching positions do, but they’re never given the chance.
I hope clubs will focus on this going forward, how important it is to have both men and women in these positions. I’m sure it will give them advantages, and it will add new dimensions to the teams that they haven’t had before. Teams need to realize we’re in 2018, not 1918, and hire whoever they think is best for the job, leaving the gender question out of it.
ESPN: Obviously, whenever anyone breaks through a barrier such as this, there’s pressure to succeed. Success means other teams might follow in hiring women or younger executives. Failure could mean someone doesn’t get this chance until years later. Do you feel this pressure?
OLSEN: Yes, I do. But I hope my career won’t define other clubs’ willingness to hire women or young executives. We should be past these questions a long time ago, but sadly, we’re not. Clubs would take a chance, like Manglerud Star is doing with me, and if they need help, you’ll be there to support them. If it succeeds, you’ll have great resources for many years forward, and you’ll probably get new and important ways of doing things. I strongly encourage clubs to commit to hiring women or young executives. I’m sure they’ll have great, new ways of thinking. Hockey is not a “boys club.”
ESPN: Finally, do you have any message to women in the U.S. or Canada who want to get into managerial roles?
OLSEN: First of all, go for it! If you’re like me, a true sport fanatic, getting into a managerial role would be perfect. It’s a lot of hard work, but I enjoy every single day. There will always be times where you get negative comments just because of your gender, not the job you do, and it’s not fair that you’ll have to prove yourself more than men do. Unfortunately, that’s how society still is, but I really hope this never causes you to give up. If this is something you want to do, go at it with all your heart, and never let anyone tell you that a job like this isn’t for you. Ask teams if you can come and learn from them, ask questions, and pay attention to how they can do things better.
It won’t be an easy task, but if you want a managerial role, I believe it’s important that the teams get to know you and understand how much you have to offer. Also, I hope you always follow your dream and never let anyone tell you that this isn’t for you!