Being a great salesperson doesn’t always equate to being a great manager or a great leader. You need to have grit, you need to be selfless, and you need to bring value to everything you do. Your host, Lance Tyson, teams up with Mike Ondrejko, the President of Legends Global Sales. The two have a spirited discussion about what it takes to be successful in sales, the importance of authenticity, and making the transition from an individual contributor to a leadership role. Stay sharp! This episode is packed with information.
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Sales Leadership And Bringing Value To The Table With Mike Ondrejko
I’m here with Mike Ondrejko, a dear friend of mine. We’ve been on a long journey in multiple different properties. He’s here to share his story. Michael, give me your title. Tell us who you are.
I’m the President of Legends Global Sales.
Tell everybody about Legends and a little bit about your leadership journey.
We can go in a lot of different directions. We’ll start with Legends. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the growth of Legends for the last several years. First and foremost, we’ve been partnering with some iconic brands that are taking out world-class projects. We think about the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. We partnered with Notre Dame with their stadium renovation and Manchester City back to the day.
We’ve earned the responsibility and the trust to be stewards of some of the most iconic brands across the world of sport. To help them elevate what they are going to do in terms of generating revenue and making sure that any projects and partnerships they take on, they’re going to be delivered at the highest level. We’ve had that responsibility for several years.
It has grown into a number of different verticals and I would say somewhat organically, we have a team that’s incredibly talented. Part of what they do is they identify new opportunities as they’re on the ground with each one of these partnerships. They will say, “This is what we’re hearing.” It’s probably sprouted off a number of different verticals for us.
Particularly in times like this, we’re super fortunate enough to have significant revenue streams coming in across several different areas of the business and not just relying on one thing from a revenue standpoint. The journey of Legends has been an absolute blast from an overall career standpoint. I still feel challenged and learning every single day. We have the opportunity to go and work on fifteen of these projects that are happening across the globe. It’s an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to do it.
I’ve talked about this where when you advance up into senior leadership, you either come from high finance or you come from sales because you bring something to the table. Backward from Legends, tell everybody where you were from there because the journey is long. Tell people about the journey and how you got to Legends.
I’m sure we’ll break this up into a couple of different parts, but from a starting standpoint for my career, I started working for the Detroit Pistons. The Bad Boys were my favorite team of all time growing up. As a hoop junkie, I might’ve had taken a little style off from Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer. I like the physical style.
Find a team that has the right infrastructure but is awful from a performance standpoint. That’s when you learn.
Were you there when they were there?
No, I wasn’t. The Bad Boys were the early ’90s. Never in my wildest dream as some little kid growing up and been to New York and having Isiah Thomas posters hanging on my wall am I thinking I’m going to go work for this particular NBA organization coming out of college. Coincidentally, through connections of my college basketball coach. I happened to know, he was an assistant at Cleveland State University with a guy named Hal Estis, who is the father of Chad Estis, who at the time was working with the Pistons.
I did not know that connection at all. I’m blown away.
I started working for Chad with the Pistons. I feel extremely fortunate. At the time, I would say Palace Sports & Entertainment was the most forward-thinking, sales-driven organization in all professional sports. What they did and the constant reinvention of The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is now deceased. They tore it down in 2020. Every year, there was a new invention in that building and they were trying something new. They were buying amphitheaters.
As a salesperson there, ‘98 also happened to be the lockout year in the NBA. I’m making $10,000 a year. I have no health benefits, starting in June, leading into an NBA season that didn’t exist. You’re talking about some challenges and adversity. I walked in a confident person. I was like, “I’m going to figure out how to have success in life.” I had no idea about sales, no formal training.
Did you do anything before that? Any kind of sales at all?
No, I get to Detroit. I’ll never forget this. I’m probably three months in now, June, July, the middle of August. It’s about 105 degrees out. This is an absolutely true story. I couldn’t even make this up. I had made zero sales. I’m last on the board. I’m a little nervous. I’m like, “This is fricking hard.” There wasn’t a ton of success being had, but I was zero.
I go and set up this appointment. I go out with a guy named JT Ryan, who was a great salesperson. I asked JT to join me because I wanted to see him in action. I want a little bit of help. I want to learn and pick up some ideas. JT and I are driving to this appointment. We get there. They were already a suite holder. It was the ultimate deflating. I was beyond embarrassed.
You had no clue they were a suite holder at all. You just blew it through there.
There wasn’t a database, a CRM and all that level of sophistication. You were spraying and praying. JT and I were driving back. I already had my head between my tails. I was driving an ’88 Bonneville. We’re going across Telegraph Road and is probably like six lanes, both ways, 105 degrees in our suit. My transmission goes on my car. I had JT in the back of my car pushing my Bonneville across Telegraph Road. We pull into this gas station.
There are payphones at the time. I get on the payphone. I called my dad. I was like, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to get fired here.” I told him the story. This is how I made my first sell though. I called every transmission place in Detroit. As you can imagine, the auto capital of the world, it’s the longest line on the phone, but I called every single transmission place until I found one and I said, “If I bring my car into you, you will buy season tickets for the Pistons.” I finally found a transmission place that would do it. That’s legitimately how I made my first sale in the industry.
I’m coming in and I’m going to give you my transmission business, but I need you to buy tickets.
Yes. What I realized through that process is I was grinding. Todd Lambert was my day-to-day manager.
Todd is still in Detroit right now with the Lions.
I’m like, “I’m going to listen to everything that they are teaching me and I’m going to do it by the script.” If I’m going to fail, if I’m not going to be successful at this, I know I’m going to put everything into it, do it by the book and I can rest easy doing that. I’m like, “If that’s not for me, I’ll go.” I didn’t realize it. I was building up a significant pipeline. I got better. I have more confidence. There was a little momentum of the season’s going to come back.
I had this super robust pipeline built up because I was hustling still. Other people were like, “It’s a lockout. It’s hard.” In my head, it’s a little bit early success. I’m glad that I didn’t because I kept grinding. Once the season came back, I went from last to first on the board. I didn’t know it, but I was ready. I had done the homework and my research. I had some understanding.
It wasn’t a skill thing. It was a hustle thing.
That first job in sports, you don’t have to be smart. You got to be willing to hustle.
A salesperson, what were you bad at? You climbed the hill. What were you bad at and good at? If you had to pick a competency, what would it be?
I go back to I was a Piston fan and I don’t recommend necessarily working for teams that you’re a fan of. I got to talk to fans. I could talk the history. It’s important to be authentic and know the organization inside and out. That was completely comfortable to me from the get-go. This was, again, my own preconceived notion was I can have that same level of conversation with a CEO as I can have with the fan.
At the end of the day, it’s the same type of dynamic. Once I got more comfortable and realized that I could have the same level of comfort going into those meetings, that’s where I became better from a B2C salesperson to be able to understand at least how to have a conversation at that level early on in my career from a corporate standpoint.
I’ve been in a lot of business conversations with you. You and I have negotiated our deals together. If anybody’s reading, I’m not much of a smoke blower. Take it as you will. I never sense you change who you are. If I’m having a beer with you, right before this COVID-19 when we were still skeptical about what it was or what it wasn’t, I don’t feel that conversation changes. I don’t feel you’re any different here. Expand on that a little bit, because you know who you are. You talk about authenticity.
That’s an important thing of every salesperson is different. You’ve got to find your own voice and what you’re comfortable with and a style that fits you. I’ve referenced this all the time within our group internally. Eric Sudol has led the Cowboys sponsorship group into unbelievable heights. There’s first in the NFL and then there’s second. He’s pioneered that. He is the best salesperson that I have ever been around. He’ll say things and he earned the right to say them, but he’ll say the same things where I wouldn’t say it that way or frame it that way. That’s his skillset. That’s his talent.
During a financial meltdown, when it’s hard to have any success, all you can do is prepare to come out of it and be as strong as possible.
If I tried to do what Eric was doing, it wouldn’t feel the right way. I used the example of JT Ryan taking the car. JT was a very different seller than I was, but I wanted to learn from all these people and see how they operated so I could develop who I was going to be. The comfort in your own skin as a salesperson, that’s an important aspect of it too. You’ve got to be able to stop thinking about like, “What am I going to say next? How is this going to happen?” To be able to listen, get the inner voices quiet and listen to who’s on the other side of the table from you. Once you get to that point, then you can have a real conversation.
A lot of times, I’m like everybody has a signature, but everybody has a different signature. We talked about Eric Sudol many times. He’s probably 1 or 2 on my list. There are a lot of things where I see younger salespeople and even people’s coaches like, “You don’t want to be a second-class Eric Sudol,” because sometimes you don’t even know where that radar comes from or why he’s going to say it. Get into a sequence, get into how hard he works too, because there is nobody who outworks Eric Sudol. It’s one of the reasons.
I would say, “Some of you won’t be willing to work that hard either.” You got to find your gear. It’s important and sales leaders who get script boring and things like that, you may be trying to one size fits most and doesn’t work. You’ve got to find out what that strength is. As I said, I never sense that your demeanor changes whether we’re having a drink or whether you’re talking to your team or whether you’re talking to a customer. You’re never acting. You’re being you. You’re in the moment. Everybody reading has to understand that. It’s a hard journey to find. You need to find that. That’s a journey.
It is not a light switch. There’s a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of mistakes. Being willing to make mistakes too, you’ve got to go through that life cycle. At first, you’re going to be afraid to make mistakes. When you have the right managers and you have the right leadership, you can look over the edge and you can try some things and you can fail knowing that they’re there to help pick you up, clean you off and point you in the right direction again. That’s an important thing to have from a greater standpoint. I’ve had several people play that role for me, which I’m forever grateful for.
Your journey from there, you go to the Cavs or you’re going to Tampa?
The Pistons bought the Tampa Bay Lightning. Living in Detroit in the late ’90s wasn’t great. The moment they bought the franchise, Chris Hibbs, who is part of our licensed family as well. Chris and I were roommates, cubes next to each other. We walked into Chad’s office. We’re like, “We’re moving to Tampa.” The week before we got to Lightning, they were on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the worst team of all professional sports. We’re selling bad hockey to a bunch of Floridians.
Were you still in sales there?
When did management start to hit, and after how long? I don’t think sales necessarily prepare you to be a good leader or a good manager. Sometimes it’s horrible because you got to go from being focused on customers to focus on salespeople. It’s not you getting the recognition as you’re giving the recognition. When did you make the change or switch?
I was in Tampa for probably about two years. You and I met in Cleveland. This is the early 2000s. When I got to Cleveland, I was last in attendance, last in revenue in the NBA and you see a common theme there. In every one of those situations, there was good ownership and there was great day-to-day leadership that I was able to be around. If I’m giving advice to my son, I would say, “Don’t go work for a good team.” That’s easy. Anybody can sell in that environment. “Go find a team that has the right infrastructure and is awful from a performance standpoint. That’s when you learn. That’s when you go and involve.”
I was on the phone with an exec from the Ravens and my son sitting here, all this COVID-19 and he said, “Dad, can I listen to some of these calls?” I was like, “Get in.” You’ve talked to my sons before. Kevin said, “You might want to go to Minor League sports and figure it out. Go get your ass kicked a little bit.” Anybody can sell a Stanley Cup winner and NBA championship.
It’s easy to sell in those environments. Even if you’re outside of pro sports and a name brand, sometimes you’ve got to make some room for yourself. On the earlier day with a tech firm and they don’t have a great name in Europe and it’s different than it is in the US. You got to change your tactics a little bit. You got to be more engaged.
You know I like to read. Angela Duckworth wrote a book called Grit. She was a super smart, super talented person and Harvard-educated. She was like, “There’s something missing from all these successful people that should be on this path, but don’t ever make it.” Her ingredient was grit. That’s what I learned through those first couple of jobs and that will stick with me forever.
She talks about the book. She talks too about prodigies and what you don’t realize about a prodigy, somebody who’s a math prodigy or a pianist. You don’t see all the amount of time and that grit that they put into that, the hours to develop that. You just see this eight-year-old prodigy, but you don’t see all the other stuff. You don’t see their grit. You were an Inside Sales Manager at Cleveland. Your team performed well and you started developing people. What’s the next piece of your journey?
I was in Cleveland for seven years. It was a great long run. I almost look at Atlanta as three jobs. The first job with the worst team in the NBA, the second job was when in ’03 LeBron was drafted and our business dynamic changed. The third job was in ‘05, when the ownership changed. Dan Gilbert came in to buy the franchise. I was fortunate enough to have three different jobs and I didn’t have to move around, which that doesn’t happen all the time within the industry.
We were given different opportunities within each of those regimes and the last one with Dan, he was like, “I’ll invest. I’ll go build things in the building. Tell me what’s going to go to make more money.” Through that process, we went from dead last in the League in revenue, when we got LeBron, we got to about the middle of tier and as Dan invested more capital to the building, we got the fourth in the NBA from a revenue standpoint. It was this great journey. At that time, I went to work for Madison Square Garden.
You got to VP Ticket Sales and Service at Cleveland. You got the opportunity and you’re affiliated with a good leader like Chad Estis, who in turn moves down to Dallas, which opens up some opportunities for you. Scott O’Neil, who’s another icon executive, decides to give you a look, recruit you and get you to Madison Square Garden. I’m thinking about that time that the bottom falls out, that’s right around the financial crises.
Being a great salesperson doesn’t always equate to being a great manager and a great leader.
I started my career with a lockout, make the move to New York, and we’re going to sell the highest price sponsorship suites that’s ever been introduced to the industry in the midst of a meltdown of the entire financial industry. You go through and you figure out how to have success in times like that. We’re clear. For a 4 or 5 months stretch, we didn’t have any success. What we did was prepare. We’re prepared to come out of it and be as strong as possible.
I want you to talk about that for a second. Give everybody context. Madison Square Garden decides to upgrade the arena and they make a lot of investment and products, high-end suites, clubs and things like that. Your task is to run a sales team to sell things that have never been priced at that before we hit the financial crisis. The big target lists are Wall Streets and banks. Banks all of a sudden become nontargets because Sarbanes-Oxley and all that stuff there, they’re not spending money. They’re collapsing. You’re forced to do what a salesperson or your sales team that you’re managing. What did you have to find there?
The banks all federal requirements at that time had to take TARP funds from the government to make sure that they were healthy, so there wasn’t a complete collapse of the financial industry. Our job is to turn over every single stone and possibility in the marketplace. One of the amazing things about Madison Square Garden and still to this day my favorite venue to watch a game or a musical act. It’s the low roof. It’s a special place. The number of events that they have there, in many circumstances a benefit, but you can’t be a small company and think about the utilization of 250 events a year.
We found success in other different little pockets, but in terms of the big-ticket items, while TARP funds were out there. It was hard. We started to have conversations in different ways. One of the things we invented was like, “Understanding whoever it was.” Chase couldn’t sign these agreements. Let’s talk about once you’re on the other side, exactly what your intentions are and what you want to do. We walked through the entire sales process. We even, in some circumstances, had some letters signed, but again, an important point was the team that we had hired had the right DNA and they were the ones that going out and did all the groundwork from a day-to-day standpoint.
It was Lisa Banbury, Matt Goodman, Sean Downs, Michael Parker, people that are still making a tremendous impact in the industry. I’ve been fortunate enough to recruit great talent. We kept working, you came in, training development and we were in preparation mode of, “We’re going to go win a championship.” The day the TARP funds got paid back, we signed probably about $50 million in agreements that day the TARP funds came back from having everything lined up the right way.
You almost in sales had to be the master verbal and a handshake. “This is what we’re agreeing to. Let’s take this off the table. ” When the time’s right, we’re going to get it done.
How’s that done, Lance? There’s trust and relationship. I’ll give that team I mentioned a lot of credit. They went in and they asked all the right questions. They understood at a granular level what these organizations were going through and how the buying decisions got to change. In the old day, one person CEO could say, “We’re going to have to buy it.” With all the TARP funds and regulations and all those things, there were 47 heads that you had to get bobbing in the same direction in order to get approval. It takes time to understand how that path is going to work. We did all that recon work, so when we were in a position to win, we’re winning.
For anybody reading and this is important, number one, you have to be credible. You have to have rapport. You got to line up your pieces. You’ve got to know where all those decisions are going to be made. You’ve got to continually follow up and stay engaged with them and then close. What people have to realize now, the landscape’s going to change. Companies that are going to purge, merge and submerge. You’re going to have to understand multiple buyers, going to spend like that. It’s going to be harder to sell. It’s like hunting in winter. You’re not hunting in late spring. You’re hunting in the winter.
I’ll give you a good example. This is probably fast-forwarding a little bit to Legends, but it’s timely to what you said. We’ve got a couple of new partnerships that we’re chasing down. I was talking to our team that leads that from a day-to-day standpoint. I was like, “Were you calling them right now and asking, where’s the contract?” They’ve got a million other things that they’re worried about like if it’s a college of getting their student-athletes home and being safe. They’re not worried about our contract, to be clear.
If we pick up the phone and set up a meeting and we’re having a conversation about something that we’re bringing value to the table with, we’re engaging in a different way. If we said, “We went across the industry and looked at these ten different things that are happening within the development space. Here’s what our thoughts are and how they might apply to you.” Yes, that takes time and a lot of work. We’re probably going to have to do that anyway, but we’re now having an engaging conversation versus, “Where’s my contract?” It’s a completely different dynamic and relationship. That’s how you go out and do it. Bring value.
What defines a win now is much different than yesterday. You may have to realize as the salesperson, what took you five steps, might take you twelve. You can’t be tone-deaf. It goes to that jagged edge. Every scenario is going to be different. Some scenarios are going to be good. I’m on a board for a construction equipment company. They’re a lagger. They’re doing great because it’s essential business. A few months from now, they might not. You just don’t know.
Let’s change course for a second. You’ve managed hundreds of salespeople over the years. What’s one thing about a salesperson that will piss you off or grind against your values? That’s where the value starts. When something irks you, that means somebody crossed a line. Think about that for a second. What grinds you that you had to coach over time?
This one’s easy for me. You’ve seen it consistently over the years. Maybe some tough decisions in terms of moving on from the leader on the revenue board. We’re big into being a good teammate, helping other people out. You said, “Being a great salesperson, doesn’t always equate to being a great manager and a great leader.”
Part of the reason why at Legends and all the staff before that, that we’ve had much success in growing people from a career standpoint. You can point a million different directions in terms of the individual that they’re responsible for their success. What we do is try to provide a culture and an environment that helps foster that growth as quickly as possible.
If a salesperson is acting selfishly and not thinking about how they work within the dynamic of that entire group, it drives me crazy when someone puts their individual talent above or in replacement of what is best for the team. It’s not an overnight decision. We try to coach on that, but at some point, they don’t get it. That’s okay. They’ve all gone on to have success in their revenue generators. They’ll always have great jobs and make money. It just doesn’t necessarily work for us.
It has to be a fit for you. I get it. That act of selfishness, the challenge as a leader is to describe and show what that means because that word means many different things. Give me an example of an act of selfishness like a person’s doing what? I want people to see this because, culture-wise, you don’t want your culture to be a cult. There’s a difference there. You got to define this stuff. You have to communicate it well.
I’ll go back to like boiler room ticketing type of stuff. You have people that are struggling. Maybe they hadn’t made sales in three months and they had to get the transmission to break down to make the sale happen. You have people that are having a lot of success. They hang up the phone and how they go up to the sales board and ring the bell. All those little things in terms of how you do it and when you’re at the top of the board, all eyes are on you in terms of how you act.
Everyone else is going to follow that. You’ve got to even realize even more when you are already a successful salesperson from a number’s perspective, your actions dictate so much more what happens within the room. We talk, coach and train on that. As a hoop junkie, I look at culture and team.
When you’re a successful salesperson from a numbers perspective, your actions dictate so much more what happens within the room.
I want you to watch how his body language has changed. All of a sudden, he starts talking about values, he’s up, he’s crouched. I want to tell you, this means something to people. You got to know what your values are.
There are reasons why environments and people become successful. I always use the reference of Jr Rider. He was as talented as a kid going to the NBA. He wasn’t in the right environment. He didn’t have the right mindset. He didn’t work. Give me guys that were playing in major colleges and put them in a good system and surround them with a lot of the right things. You go and build great leaders and something special has been individually awesome on his own, outside of the San Antonio system. You build the right structure and the right to give people the opportunity to go and flourish and be amazingly successful from a career standpoint.
Speed round. If you had to pick one college basketball coach that you most behave like or want to behave like, it could be pro too, who’s your guy?
I would say, Brad Stevens. Here’s why. There are two real attributes to Brad that I love. I’m a Bad Boys fan, I hate the Celtics. Let’s be clear. Brad, in a game, rarely stands up. He is done all of his work in practice. His guys know what to do, where to be and how to react. Brad doesn’t have to stand and yell on the sidelines. If you see me coaching my kids, I’m in a stance every possession. I’m like, “Get on the big line.” I’m not doing as good a job as Brad because Brad can sit back and he’s relaxed the whole time.
You got a level to get to.
I got a lot of steps to go to. When you watch his teams, when they come out of timeouts, ATO is common in NBA, After Timeout situations. His teams are the most efficient ATO plays in the League. That goes back to preparation, doing the work, knowing what the situation of the game is, draw them up the right play and putting the right people in a position to execute. That’s what our business is. Brad is the best.
Pick one skill that in this changing environment, if you’re a leader, what are you going to need? If you’re a salesperson, what do you need to do?
It might be the same for both lands. It’s your analogy. I’m going to mess it up. If you give me an hour to chop down a tree, you’re going to have someone that’s going to hammer away. Give me the person that’s over there sharpening their ax and make that thing as sharp as possible. When it’s go time, you’re chopping that fricking tree down.
I got to add this in. When this COVID broke out, all my sons are home. I said, we’re going to work around the house. I brought in eight yards of mulch. We’re going to cut down a tree and I bought a saw. My son has this bandsaw and he’s going like this with it. The blades are this big and he’s only cutting the tree with this.
I went over like, “Dude, you’re in college. What are they teaching you?” I felt like my father. I’m like, “You take the handle where it says and you use the whole blade smooth in like four strokes and cut it down.” I’m like, “The tool doesn’t work you. You work the tool.” Sharpen that, be ready to go. In your eulogy, what song do you want to play?
I’m a big music fan. I wasn’t even prepared for this. The way music has been delivered to people changed a lot over the years. Cassettes and eight tracks and then it’s all digital now. One of the things that I’ve been into is getting vinyls. I have something. I can hold it. It’s tangible. This is such a hard question. I’m going to go Bold As Love by Hendrix. It’s a little bit different that one.
This isn’t tribute to our boy, Tim Ferriss. You’re one of the guys that got me to listen to him. You gift a book, what is it?
I’m not all the way through this one yet, The Disruption Mindset. I think about what Legends have been fortunate enough to do in the industry. We’ve looked at spaces that have not changed a lot over the course of time and brought in a process and talent to help significantly change and disrupt the dynamic. Here’s another one, Range. We’re in this world of specialization. When you’re training a salesperson, and then you have some engineer coming from the outside and look at it and they’re like, “Why are you doing it that way?”
They use a number of examples in this book like scientists that are like working on cancer problems. It’s a group of scientists that are all working on the same cancer problem. They’re all approaching it the same way. You bring in some health pro that was working on something completely different and inject them into a scenario. They’re like, “Why are you approaching it this way?” All those people grew up in this environment. A little bit of what we push our crews on is have a different voice. That’s why diversity in your organization is such an important thing. You approach it in a completely different way.
I appreciate our relationship. I love how authentic you have been on this. People are going to love this. I appreciate you. Thanks.
One last thing, this is always competitive and people, I want more views than chats.
Thanks, Michael. I appreciate you.