Her company helps leaders use lessons from the poker table to improve their game

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Ellen Leikind learned to play poker growing up. While she and her mother were cooking after school, they played Texas Hold ‘Em and Backgammon. “My mom was a terrible cook, and so was I,” the New York City resident recalls.

Years later, as a senior marketing executive working at Pfizer and L’Oreal, Leikind perked up when she noticed that poker rivaled golf as a corporate network of sorts. While playing recreational poker, she noticed many similarities between the strategies used in poker and business negotiations. “I started to see how some of the things that happened to me at the poker table happened in business,” she says.

In 2006, after taking a one-year hiatus from business, she leveraged what she had learned in her youth and set up PokerDivas, where she uses the principles of poker to teach leadership and negotiation skills. The two-person company, which generates revenue in the mid-six digits, trains team members at companies like Allure, BMO, Chevron, Elizabeth Arden, KPMG, O, Marie Claire, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pfizer, and many financial services firms on how to become more fearless in their careers

To bring the lessons to life, Leikind holds mock tournaments, which often help participants identify areas for professional growth. “The more often and more aggressively you gamble, the more comfortable you are with taking risks,” she says.

Leikind teaches that to achieve business goals, you must have “the patience to wait for the right hands, read other people, and not be afraid of losing your money,” she says.

The programs were initially aimed at women, but are now mixed, in response to demand. She’s noticed that women tend to be more patient and better at reading people, and men are more aggressive with their chips and more comfortable with risk, though there are many exceptions. “You need all four of these things to be as good at business as you are at poker,” she says.

Leikind is also the author of PokerWoman: How to Win at Love, Life, and Business using the Principles of Poker. She also runs an online network poker club, a course called ‘How to Negotiate for Yourself’ and an ongoing legal education program called ‘How to Become a Better Negotiator Using Poker Strategy’. As a speaker, she covers topics such as taking control of your image at the conference table, bringing the inclusiveness of the poker table into the corporate culture and dealing with a bully in the boardroom.

She holds an MBA in marketing from Fordham University and a certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University.

Although Leikind coaches corporate employees, she finds the lessons of poker just as relevant for the self-employed. “They’re all about trusting risk,” she says. “Do you play to win or to avoid losing?”