Up Close with JoAnn Neale: Be Intentional

By WISE National

WISE Women of the Year honoree JoAnn Neale has built her career at Major League Soccer over the last three decades. Here, the MLS president and chief administrative officer talks about advocating for women in the industry, building trust with colleagues and never being complacent.

Describe a moment in your career that you would say was pivotal to your professional journey.

There were a few moments, but the first was when I decided to join Major League Soccer. It was a risky move at the time, and many people advised me not to leave a secure job at a successful law firm for what was destined to be another failed soccer league in the U.S. Of course, 24 years later, that risk paid off. Upon reflection, that was the first of many risks I took over the years that got me outside my comfort zone and afforded me the opportunity to challenge myself and learn new skills.

What does success look like for you, and what do you do to work toward that vision?

Success is about finding joy and purpose in your life and work. Personally, it's about showing up and being present for the people you love, and professionally, being a good colleague to those with whom you work. At the end of the day, my goal is to deliver the best version of myself in all that I do.

Who has been your greatest role model, and what did they teach you?

My parents. They always believed I could achieve anything I set my mind to. They taught me about work ethic, independence, self-reliance and integrity.

Was there a moment when you considered leaving the sports industry, and what made you stay?

Yes. Early in my career, MLS was going through some turbulent times, and I considered taking another job outside the industry. A colleague simply said, "It will be OK." I took a deep breath, and eventually the storm passed. I'm grateful I didn't rush into a decision to leave for an opportunity that I wasn't passionate about.

How do you keep your ideas and contributions fresh and relevant? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I try not to be complacent. I challenge myself and my teams to think about ways we can do things bigger, better, more efficiently and more effectively. Oftentimes, this means reading trade articles, leaning on working groups with the other sports leagues and being generally curious. I'm excited that our staff is together again, in-person, as so much innovation comes from collaborating with my colleagues.

In your career, what has been a "Pinch me, I'm dreaming" or "This is too good to be true" moment?

Meeting and spending time with David Beckham was surely one of those moments! Kidding aside, I am fortunate to have moments of gratitude frequently — mostly at our big events or when new stadiums open. The passion of our fans and the energy during our games can be intoxicating. I feel very fortunate to be a part of something that brings joy to so many people.

How have you helped break down barriers and create opportunities for other women in the industry, and what advice would you give to others — men and women — looking to do the same?

I have always tried to be intentional and strategic about advocating for women in our organization. Oftentimes, when new projects or career development opportunities arise, men's names are at the top of the list. I try to use my voice to make sure everyone is considered, and decisions are not made without going through a thorough, thoughtful and inclusive process.

What still challenges you most in your personal or professional life?

I'm often multitasking when I would prefer not to. With technological advances, work and personal life have completely merged. I strive to be present, in the moment and focused on the task at hand, but it can be super challenging from both a personal and professional perspective when everyone expects instant "real-time" responses.

Fill in the blank …

  • I wish I had known … that I should have continued with Spanish language classes!
  • Growing up, I wanted to be … an attorney.
  • When I have downtime, you can find me … at the beach with family and friends.
  • My greatest fear is … heights. I get seriously anxious.
  • I can't live without my … contact lenses and eyeglasses. I'm as blind as a bat!

Neale will receive her WISE Women of the Year Award at the 26th Annual Awards Luncheon on March 9, 2022, in New York City.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.