This prominent female league executive isn’t the only woman in the room—not anymore.
That Kimberly Fields is a problem solver isn’t entirely shocking: After all, her bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in systems engineering. While tutoring football players at the University of Virginia, she realized she wanted to switch gears and work in athletics.
After completing an internship with the Women’s Sports Foundation, Fields networked her way into the NFL. Now a 16-year league veteran, this season she moved from being Chief Strategy Officer of Football Operations to a new role as Special Assistant to the Commissioner and the Chief Operating Officer. Fields works with them to help run operations for an organization that brought in $13 billion in revenue last year. She and I sat down at the NFL’s Manhattan headquarters to discuss her new job and her vision for the league’s future.
What made you want to work in the NFL?
In pursuing a dream of assisting people, I realized in graduate school that my sweet spot was assisting athletes. Progressing through my career, it wasn’t at the top of my mind to work in the NFL. Sports was my focus, and as I networked and interned, it just so happened that one of the people I met turned out to be my first boss at the NFL. [My first job] was working in player development, working with athletes and assisting them off the field. It was such a blessing to fall into something that combined my love of sports and my love of assisting people.
You switched paths along the way. What did it feel like when everything clicked for you professionally?
Stopping to smell the roses is not one of my strengths. It didn’t click initially, but as the years started to go by and after working multiple Super Bowls, and it’s a big deal to people…things start to sink in a little bit about what you actually do for a living, the people you work with and network with. It took me a few years to get comfortable in my role, but then it also took me a few years to recognize the magnitude of this work. As the years go on, I’ve become more appreciative every year about having the ability to work in football for a full-time job.
You’ve worked in the league for a number of years and in a variety of departments. How have you seen the league grow while you’ve been a part of it?
One of the things I’m most proud of here at the league office is diversity, whether it’s gender, [or] ethnicity. In the beginning of my career, I was one of the younger employees. I’m the older person in the cafeteria now [laughing]. Now I [look at] the makeup of the league, especially women in high roles that make decisions, and it is gratifying to me that we have so many women in those positions. Seriously, the growth has been tremendous.
In what areas do you hope to see continued growth?
The diversity and inclusion areas—we can always get better. [Coaching and player management are] so male-dominated. It would be great to see more women on the football side of things. Troy Vincent has done a wonderful job, especially in his department [Football Operations], of hiring diverse people. As we look at individual teams, we can even push the envelope a little more. So I’m very excited about that.
How does having women in more prominent roles affect the league?
They’re decision-makers. It feels great to be in a meeting and you’re not the only woman there. It’s also nice to have a conversation with another woman who may have experienced similar challenges as you have, or can provide an objective and critical eye on a situation—and that’s easier when they’re in the room. Diversity of thought, of life experience, of background, provides the league with the opportunity to really get it right and come up with better, more creative solutions and alternatives.
How hard was it early on when you were the only woman in meetings?
Sometimes it could be a little nerve-wracking. Sometimes it’s like, “You know what? If I am the only woman here, I am going to make sure I am representing every woman to the best of my abilities.” Initially it could be a little scary, but then you realize the magnitude of what you’re doing: That one interaction in that room could set the stage for numerous women coming behind you, and you have to make sure that you are prepared and ready to deliver when called upon
Forbes included you on their list of Most Influential Minorities in Sports. What does that mean to you?
[laughing] It was so humbling, but, again, its difficult for me to appreciate the magnitude of some of the things I’ve been able to do and accomplish. When you receive an honor like that and people are congratulating you, it does make you stop and pause and say, “Wow, this clearly means something to a lot of people, and I should just pause and appreciate the moment.” This is such a fast-paced environment that sometimes you finish one thing and then you’re right on to something else, and you don’t appreciate the little victories. I’ve been trying to be more mindful of appreciating those moments and the successes, while also using the platform to educate and support other women as they grow in their careers.
How have you navigated this season and made sure all perspectives are being heard about various issues?
It’s not as hard as you’d think, because people love to volunteer their perspectives. And they usually come to me. Like most big businesses, you’re going to have challenges. When you’re at the top of the mountain, people are coming for you, so there will always be challenges, issues, things we have to address. For me in my role, I have to make sure that the Office of the Commissioner has all the information it needs to make the best decisions possible. I try not to get too high or too low, or let the emotions or the issues of the day change my demeanor or approach—and some days it’s easier to do than others, quite frankly. But people look toward me as kind of a calming, even-keeled person, so if they ever saw me too high or too low, it may have a ripple effect. Part of my role is to be a support [for others in the league office], and I take that part of my role very, very seriously. So to me, challenges will come and go, but you have to maintain balance through it all.
In your opinion, what is the best way to make the NFL a better-functioning workplace?
We’ve grown quite a bit in the last decade. We continue to be confronted with societal issues, things that people want us to take a stand on, and even though it’s a position that we did not necessarily know we were going to be in, now that we’re here, we should embrace it. So with that comes a different set of skills and relationships that we need to continue to develop. We do football well, we do broadcasting well, but there are other things that, as we are put in the forefront of some of these societal issues, we know we’ll need assistance with. We just want to make sure we have the right people involved, getting the right perspectives and feedback, and coming up with the right steps as an organization, not only for our fans, but for our players as well.
Game On is a collaboration between Secret and the NFL featuring powerful women at the top of their professions in the male-dominated football industry. About her involvement, Fields says, "Ultimately what Secret stands for is showing strong, confident women. That’s what I believe in as well, so I am very grateful for the partnership."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Illustrations by Alexandra Citrin