Without a solid sales culture where everyone can perform at their best, no one would ever succeed. By building strong working relationships with no room for excuses and always ready for all challenges, any team could win big in the market. Lance Tyson sits down with Nic Barlage, President of Business Operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Nic outlines his four pillars for building a strong culture where sales can thrive, how he addresses the individualization of success and motivation, and the importance of a strategic sales process. Another must-view episode for anyone building a strong sales team.
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Building A Thriving Sales Culture With Nic Barlage
I’m excited to have Nic Barlage on. He’s the President of Business Operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Why I’m so excited is I remember when he was selling and watching his trajectory through leadership has been amazing. Nic, why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about your responsibilities and what you do with the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Thanks, Lance. Thank you for having me on. The folks you have had on here so far exceed me, so I feel lucky to be a part of it. I’m the President of Business Operations for the Cavs and Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. We also have an AHL hockey team, the Monsters, in our portfolio and a G League team, the Canton Charge, as well as an NBA 2K eSports team, the Cavs Legion GC. We got a lot that we are excited about. We’re focused on working with the rest of our senior leadership group on how we emerge from this situation stronger than we entered into it.
Listening to that portfolio, there are many things that you’re affecting in Northeast Ohio and all the state of Ohio. One of the premises of this series is to talk about how leaders come out of sales. You have one of the most interesting stories because I remember a while back you were in sales and talking about targets you were going after. Share your story because people would want to hear it.
I went to a small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota, St. John’s University. It’s a great school. I played basketball there for a while. I was stuck, wanted to be around sports, and didn’t know how to do it. I ended up interning for a collegiate wood bat summer league team in the Northwoods League and parlayed that into my senior year. I applied for jobs and I couldn’t get anybody to notice me. I had sent out about 172 resumes. I still remember the number and I always will. I didn’t get any callbacks.
I went back to that collegiate wood bat summer league team and became their assistant GM the summer after my senior year. I did that because I had always wanted to get into the NBA. It was for my research in my very rudimentary and what I had in learnings. I was able to deduce that it was the more advanced from the sales and marketing perspective at that time. I was able to get an inside sales job with the Phoenix Suns in the fall after 2006 and then the rest is history.
I have had a chance to work with a lot of great people. I tell people all the time, “My success hasn’t been built on me. It has been built on being able to learn and grow through great leaders throughout the course of time.” I spent a year in Phoenix and went to Charlotte, worked for the Bobcats for two and a half years as a premium salesperson, and came to Cleveland for the first time. I was a manager of premium seeding when I started. I spent five and a half years with the Cavs and in the last two and a half years or so, I was the VP of Ticket Sales and Service.
I had a few different stops along the way. I’ll call it internally with the Cavs on the first stint. I was fortunate enough to be recruited and go back to Phoenix to be the Chief Sales Officer for the Suns and the Mercury. At that time, it was US Airway Center and now is Talking Stick Resort Arena. I transitioned back here to Cleveland. I have been very fortunate to work with a lot of great people and have a lot of influential mentors in my life.
That’s ultimately what has been the biggest part of the journey outside of working hard and controlling what you can control. It has been being able to observationally learn from some people that are true leaders and titans in this industry and have great owners. It’s like where I work for and a guy like Dan Gilbert, our Chairman, who has laid the groundwork in the foundation culturally for somebody like me to succeed.
There are two things interesting about what you said. I remember talking to you about this in Phoenix. I didn’t realize you worked for a wood bat league and went to St John’s because my son plays D3 hockey, so St John’s always comes up. When you went back to Phoenix as a Chief Sales Officer, I remember walking across the street and having this conversation at my hotel with you. You started there in 2006. Share with everybody the year you became the Chief Sales Officer there because you have an interesting trend going on. When did you come back as Chief Sales Officer?
2014 was the year I came back.
There are people there that remember you as this kid from inside sales. If you’re not in pro sports, that is the entry-level boiler room where you either get made or broke right there. They remember there and within years, you come back as Chief Sales Officer.
It was unique.
Was it surreal or unique?
It was great. It was a much different organization than when I was there the first time. It was right during the middle of the transition from Jerry Colangelo to Robert Sarver being the owner. Jerry was still a little bit involved with Robert and Rick Welts was steering the ship. When I came back, it was under the leadership of Jason Rowley, who is their President and CEO. He’s a great guy and has become a good friend. It was much different, but there were still a lot of people that I remember that have been with that organization for a long time. It’s one of the legacy franchises in our league.
It was great to be able to come back, see certain folks, and be a part of that culture again because I had always felt like it was a great experience when I was there for a year. It was a little surreal walking into the first few days but once you get back to it, it’s all the same fundamental stuff that we’re used to doing. It was unique. There’s no doubt. It was a lot quicker than I anticipated, to be honest. I give Jason and Robert a lot of credit for giving somebody at my stage in my career the opportunity to do something like that.
Not every owner, president, or CEO would look at it that way but they set age aside and focus on approach and the things that I felt like were important at the time, and they’re still very important, which are work ethic and passion for what you do. I’ve been trying to do things differently and to an aggressive degree as I possibly can to grow the business in a sustainable fashion. It was fantastic. It was a little bit of a homecoming and it’s even greater to be able to come back here to Cleveland because this was my second home for quite a while. It’s very unique. I was fortunate to be able to work for two franchises for the majority of my career.
Whatever happens in your career, always prioritize work ethics and focus on the passion of what you do.
It’s interesting. You and I have talked about this for years and how important leadership is and reputation, being able to execute, and stuff like that. When you were in Phoenix, you left with a good name. There are a lot of people that early on hurt their careers and reputations. Your reputation is your reputation at the end of the day. You did a good job. Let’s fast forward. You took a trip here at Charlotte and got back to Cleveland as a manager of suite sales. If I recall correctly, you’re involved not only in managing the sales team, which is usually a smaller sales team, it’s not vast and can be anywhere at that time from 2 to 5.
We had three sales guys I worked with.
You were involved in a lot of deals. You were truly a player-coach at that point and were involved in every important deal.
I loved that role was because I knew myself well enough at that time that I knew managing entry-level folks but I didn’t have the patience or the depth yet to do it but I could still help people get deals done at a fairly high level. It was a perfect fit for me to be able to stay my toe in the water and still be able to sell while also gaining that first level of management experience.
This is for my own because I haven’t thought of this timeline. Manager, suite sales and Cleveland, what year?
It was 2009 when I started with the Cavs the first time. I remember it was three weeks after we had traded for Shaquille O’Neal going into the 2009 to 2010 scene.
You were there for five years. Let’s say in 2014, you swing back over to Phoenix as Chief Sales Officer and come back to the third place you had been after Chief Sales Officer back as President of Business Operations for the Cavs five years later. I didn’t even think of this either but let me put you on the spot. I didn’t even think of that trend. We’re talking.
For me, working for two what I call legacy franchises in NBA that have now been around for over many years, in the Cavs and the Suns, what was important to me in that next step was being able to work for people that ultimately you aligned with from a value end and also how you looked at the business. To work for a guy like Dan and Len Komoroski, who has been a mentor to me throughout all of these different stops that I have been able to be at. It was like a dream come true.
My wife and I were looking at it. She was like, “How can you not do this?” I was like, “This is the one thing that checks all the boxes and then some.” The biggest part is being able to have cultural alignment, philosophical alignment and ultimately, align with how you view the business, which both organizations have been fortunate between the Cavs and the Suns are very sales-minded and aggressive in how they try to approach the business in a respectful and sustainable way.
That was even more like a homecoming because there’s only a short period of time between those two stops. It was only about four and a half years. I knew all the people, the places and had seen it from different layers within the organization. I felt like I could help because I knew what it was like to be an entry-level manager, a middle manager and what it was like to be a little bit closer to the sun.
That experience of having that tangible qualitative relationship with people allowed me to come in and understand the landscape a lot faster and ultimately help and be additive a lot quicker to help provide potential solutions for things that were going on, whether it was driving revenue, trying to build upon a great culture already or whatever the case may have been. It put me in a position to shorten the learning curve a little bit as opposed to going into a situation where you don’t know the names and the faces and you have to take that amount of time to learn the nuances of the situation.
I have asked everybody this question. When you were in sales, what were you bad at? Think back to those roles. What did you suck at?
Mine was in phases, honestly. I remember the first time I got on the phone in Phoenix. We were a good team. This was the year after Steve Nash had won his back-to-back in the NBA MVPs. We were a perennial Western Conference Finals team, Top 14 League, or whatever the case it is. I remember when I first got on the phone, I was scared out of my mind to ask for a credit card for whatever reason. In my last job, I had made sales but it was more face-to-face and relationship-based and there was a process to it.
You had a couple of meetings and calls and maybe you hosted some people out of the ballpark. It was ultimately the handshake types of deals that you were able to get done. For this, it was over the phone. You push to get appointments but sometimes, when stuff rolled out, there was such a high demand. You had to sell on the spot. For me, at first, it was asking for the close. Not that I was scared but it was a difference in situation and scenario that I was used to.
Over the course of time, when I was selling in Charlotte, I tell people this all the time that was one of the greatest experiences I ever went through. It was an extremely difficult sell at the time. It was the Bobcats. It wasn’t the Hornets. It was before Michael had owned the team. It forced you. I have talked a lot about this in our group. From a forced evolution into a forced innovation perspective, situations and scenarios like that force you to be sharp. Your margin for error is next to none. For somebody to take an appointment is a massive win.
Sales don’t tolerate excuses. It’s about how much work one can commit to the process and the entire craft.
For me, that was a big learning curve as far as having to hone the process and approach and doing it at a pure B2B level. I wasn’t bad at it but that first year in Charlotte, I sold about $101,000. In the second year in Charlotte, I had knocked on the door of $1 million because that first year was me figuring out the process, the market, and the right B2B approach. Once I figured it out, I felt pretty confident in how I could do it. Those would be the two things. I was pretty bad right away. There was a learning curve associated with those things and it took me a little bit of time to figure it out.
Asking for money is always the toughest thing. You bring it all the way through and then you got to ask for money like, “I got to ask for money too.” When you look at what you got frustrated with and what you got or what you weren’t good at, the next question would be what frustrated you about solving it? Not everybody makes that round. They don’t make that transition or leap. Some people are individual heroic performers but you have moved up the food chain.
Candidly, this is the first thing that pops into my mind. For me, it was I always wanted to be the top salesperson. When I couldn’t do that, wasn’t there, or was somebody who didn’t make the sale, seeing somebody send out a sales thread every single time they made a sale burned and ate at me. It wasn’t that I was a bad teammate. Maybe it was the hyper-competitive nature you have in the sales environment. That frustrated me. It was always like, “Why isn’t that me?”
The other thing, this is in professional sports, is certainly the situation. I felt like I was pretty darn good at it by the time I got through my second year in Charlotte, and because we weren’t a good team or weren’t at the top of the board in regards to KPIs and metrics from the lead perspective and accepted it. That’s a little bit the case in sports. When you’re the hot or sexy team, you look that much smarter.
I have only been to playoffs twice in years. I have found in my career, that the great ones come from the ones that are able to refine and hone their game in points in time where they’re in adversarial settings and settings where things aren’t rolling in. I have always tried to hang my hat on that a little bit. I feel like that has ultimately been able to take frustration into an opportunity. I made this promise to myself. It was early on and years into my career.
A lot of people talk about selling in challenging times. I said, “Why are you going to look at it like it’s a challenge?” “Let’s look at it like it’s an opportunity.” Even to this day, we will be in meetings and I will stop people and say, “This isn’t a challenge. This is an opportunity for us to get better.” Even this situation is a challenging situation. There’s no doubt. The thing we try to focus on with our group is, “Where are the opportunities for us to get better?”
It starts to mitigate the frustration and focuses you in a place where it’s purely developmental and about what can you do, how can you do it better and how can you do it differently. That was a small change that I made in my mentality to look at things not as frustrations or challenges but as opportunities for development and to be better in every phase of it. That has helped me weave my way through the majority of the last many years of my career.
It’s like a lot of people are talking. People are going to sell in this uncertainty at different times. It’s not going back. It’s going to be what it is. Your job is to figure out how to get it done. Nobody said it was going to be easy. It’s challenging and uncertain. There are good teams, bad teams, great brands, bad brands or whatever, wherever you’re at. There’s no brand where you don’t have any name or conditions. It’s your job.
Here are two questions. The first question is, and I know you are multiple people removed from day-to-day sales activity, but you still know, you’re involved, you have an opinion, you understand the pipelines and stuff like that, what rubs you about salespeople? When you did have day-to-day interaction, what pissed you off excuse-wise or how people acted?
First, I’m not that far removed. I’m pretty connected with those. Our salespeople would like me a little more removed because it’s like, “This is how we can and should do it.” We have a great group of sales leaders here and they do a heck of a job. What frustrates me are excuses. In my mind, it’s selling in difficult times, selling in post-LeBron leaving the first time, selling in transformation and post-LeBron leaving the second time, and selling the Charlotte Bobcats for two and a half years. We found some great findings and some great success.
It’s about how hard you’re willing to work, how many calls, how many appointments you’re willing to go after and how committed are you to your process and craft. I can remember when I was in inside sales in Phoenix. I took my sales script up on the mirror in my bathroom and forced myself to read it two dozen times every day before I went into work. Those types of habits alleviate excuses. I can remember that every step of the way through selling, I tried to stomp on the gas pedal even harder.
Culture is a summation of the many parts of sales. It’s a summation of all the people coming together, creating and curating an environment.
I was expected to make 100 calls a day. I made 120. When I was in Charlotte, I was expected to make 60 calls a day. I made 140 calls a day. Those are real metrics that I lived by. I always said like, “Whatever the metric is, I want to double it.” That was something I always lived by in my career from a work ethic perspective. For me, when I get involved with salespeople, the greatest thing about selling, in my opinion, is you control your destiny. You have an opportunity to make it your own.
I have always looked at it like it was my own business within a business. I don’t have a lot of patience for excuses because I have walked in those shoes. You do those things and know you have a decent game plan for success. When you hear people say, “I can’t do it this way or that way.” From my perspective, it’s like, “We can always work harder, be more positive and be more focused on our craft.” There shouldn’t be an excuse for that. That would be the one thing that gets me going a little bit.
Let’s talk about culture then. It sounds like as the President, you have a line of managers around you, maybe even too deep and you are involved in knowing what the sales are, where they are, and things like that. What’s the value system? I know that Cavs have always been a great organization along with the owner-isms and things around culture. What’s your culture? Forget the organizations. What’s next with the sales?
Our culture is born on the foundation of the isms. That’s a bedrock of all of Dan’s companies. The one thing I would say from a cultural end, in my opinion, is that culture is a summation of its parts. It’s a summation of all the people coming together, creating and curating an environment. We have always tried to make it fun. I tell people all the time, “We sell fun.” At the end of the day, if we can’t have fun doing it, there’s an issue there. That sounds a little simplistic in nature but it’s not always that easy when you’re thinking about, selling a 21 Team, 31 Team or whatever the case may be.
I look at it from the standpoint of the four key characteristics that we look at when we hire people. Are people willing to work hard? Can they be innately positive? Are they open to learning and trying new things? Are they passionate about selling? It is easy to be passionate about sports. You can find those people anywhere. You can drive down to your local sports bar and find people that are passionate about sports but are they truly passionate about selling? Those are key pillars for us when we think about our sales culture.
At the end of the day, sports are cyclical. You see some of the highest highs and you see some of the lower lows. If you can create and maintain a high baseline of positivity, you can ultimately attack any situation and see it for the opportunity that it is. Culturally, our DNA is one where we are aggressive. We do have a vibrant sales culture and value things like training, development, and doing all the little things. Even now, I always tell our group, “How do we evolve that?”
We try to think a lot about how does that young salesperson think about things. That’s how we should try to evolve our culture and environment, so we meet them where they are. There have been things we have implemented like daily huddles and rallies that now we’re doing virtually. All these kinds of things are oriented around how the composition of our team members think and how they like to receive stimulation. Those things are important to be thinking through as you’re curating a culture.
The culture that worked for me when I started inside sales will work now. It won’t move the needle. We were on a different day. Call it old-school if you want to call it that. How we do it now, it’s the same basic fundamental principles but the environment is different based on the execution. You got to stay up with the times on that and stay focused on how people are thinking about things. I even think about how we train people. When I sat down in inside sales, you got to pick a booklet that’s this big and thick and roll through every single page.
We have taken and broken it into 3 to 5 pages per segment of the sales process and per segment of whatever it may be doing because people have to process information in this day and age in a bite-sized fashion. If it’s not 140 characters or less or an Instagram post, you struggle for people to retain that stuff. I’m getting a little bit down in the weeds on some other things but that part is very important from a cultural perspective. It’s having a pulse of the environment that you’re in and the way people retain those things.
When I’m talking to you, I think of architects because it’s interesting. It sounds like everything you have done from a career standpoint. You work with good people, your customers are good people, the people you work for are good people and the people you surround yourself with. You leverage off of people and that’s the right way to think about it. You also have architected of what you’ve done. You don’t get in your spot in three organizations without thinking about what your career is, who you are as a person and how you have to execute and produce. That’s great. You’re probably looking at that from your salespeople’s perspective also.
One of the things is that also I’ll sit down with their different sales groups and go through training from time to time to be engaged but also have a pulse of ultimately what’s going on. A lot of it at the end of the day comes down to you can see the people that take pride in their craft, practice and do the things that you need to do to ultimately be great. I keep going back to this. It’s like, “Anybody, in my opinion, can go out and make 100 calls or 120 calls but do you have a strategic process?” What is the cadence of being able to get to a face-to-face and then ultimately to a place of being able to get a deal done?
When you sit down and ask people, “What’s your process?” A lot of times, you get this blank stare. It’s like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Go on the whiteboard. From that first call or touchpoint and all the way through, what’s your process?” You got to have something you want to do and something you want to know. Something that I focused on very early on was all the processes within the process, on an intro call. I remember I used to hang up an intro call. If it didn’t go well, I would beat myself up and try to figure out how I could make it better, whether it was my tone, voice inflection, all the small nuances like smiling while I’m on the phone, and all those things.
If you think you cannot do something, you can always work harder and be more positive.
I got into needs analysis. It’s the same thing. I even developed buckets within my needs analysis of what were the most critical questions to ask? Make sure you get to them so that you can develop a pitch or a proposal that makes sense and get people face to face. It’s all those little things. I even developed a process where someone is trained on how to analyze somebody’s office. As I look at your office, you’ve got some Dr. Seuss books and Selling Is An Away Game. All those little things speak to your personality. How do you use that within your pitch or conversation to be able to create connectivity and affinity from a relationship? There’s so much there to unpack.
It gets into your thinking. What’s interesting is when I first met you when you first got to the Cavs, you put so much thought into how you were going to sell one of these capital expenditures that a company was going to have in a suite. There wasn’t a lot you’re going to miss. If you couldn’t get it with the finesse, you’re going to get it with the hard work or with the details too.
That’s what I remember. Every one of your teams or my company has worked with, I have seen the same amount of effort. It’s interesting because it’s just not, “I’m going to pull this off with personality or maneuvering my way through an org chart.” It’s a well-thought-out game plan and those are the details people don’t like to get into.
These are the last couple of questions. You showed me a side of you that I always watched you execute. It says details and that well-thought-out process. I ask everybody this question. If you had a niece or nephew, let’s say they are 7 or 8 years old, and they said, “Uncle, Nic, how do you define success?” If you had to communicate with them at their level at 7 or 8 years old, what would you tell them?
Success looks different for everybody. After being in this job for years, this job isn’t for everybody. I feel very fortunate that I feel like it is something that is for me. Success is different for everybody. Ultimately, what I go back to is, and this is even back to some of the re-engineering we did when I came back around our performance management plans, success is individualized.
When I think about managing and leading people, one of the first changes we made with our performance management thing is we made it a complete two-way dialogue. The very first thing you have to do, which is very deliberate, is you have to write down your personal and professional goals, get into projects you want to work on over the next twelve months, and then get into some of what I’ll call traditional feedback thing.
Success is localized and individualized. You’ve got to understand what motivates that person from a personal level first, in my opinion, and then from a professional level so that you can support and work with them on all those things. I’ve got senior leaders and for a lot of them it’s, “I want to get in shape and do a little bit more.” I have had these points in time in my career where I get up early to work out and send them a text to say, “Are you up? Let’s go.” It’s those little things because I know it’s supporting some of their bigger goals.
Success is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s fit-most. You got to define what it is. If you’re leading anybody, you need to understand what their motivation is. It’s that personal motivation. Is that what you were going to say?
A guy that I used to work with, Mike Tomlin, used to always say, “You lead the masses and you manage the individual.” I remember that and there are a lot of books that talk about it too. I have read a lot of those books as well. That’s so important. Success is localized. For that 7 or 8-year-old, to use your example of what success is for them, I tell them, “What are your goals? Are you able to achieve those goals?” That’s a success. It’s identifying with the individual to ultimately curate what that looks like because it’s going to be different for every person.
It makes total sense and I like that answer. I often think that a lot of these people I talk to are going, “We’re going to motivate our people.” I said, “You’ve got to understand the motivation. It’s not about being a motivator. It’s about understanding.” To me, understanding somebody’s success is a thread that’s tied like that. If you had to name your sales song when you were selling, a piece of music, what was the music? I could have asked you what to play at your awake, so I didn’t change my question to a sales song. You know the exact beat in your mind. Mine was always Onyx’s Slam. I made a big sale when it was on. It was the early ‘90s.
I haven’t put a lot of thought into it.
I didn’t prep you for this question.
This came out of the blue. Mine was initially, It’s the Hard Knock Life, to be honest. It took me a while to break in. It didn’t seem like it was but it was a solid three years of trying to find inroads in the sports. I always said that once I was able to get in, I was going to try to blow the door off the hinges. I say that in a very nice and normal way. I always remember there was always a little chip on my shoulder. I have not been able to be on an inaugural inside sales class. I was on the second wave of people that came in. I always wanted to kick that, stigma a little bit.
Here’s the last question. We’ll bring this bird down for a landing. If you have to gift one book to somebody, what would you gift?
I’m going to give you a couple. I have been trying to get into reading a lot here. If you’re an entry-level salesperson, I tell everybody, “You got to read How to Become a Rainmaker.” I have read that book about 22 times. The nuances of it. It teaches you things that they don’t teach you in college and in other things. I have gotten into memoirs about successful people and studied their leadership styles. I read The Ride of a Lifetime, which is a Bob Iger book that he put out there. That’s a great book.
I’m reading this book that is interestingly called The Outsiders. They follow nine nontraditional CEOs. That one has been a good one. I’ve got some recency effect here because I have read some of these. There was another one, Shoe Dog from Phil Knight. In my opinion, the resolve and determination that the guy had to build that company are unbelievable. I even still love ordering stuff on Nike to get it from Blue Ribbon. I know what Blue Ribbon means because that was the initial name of the company and it’s related to track and field. That stuff is unique and that story is incredible.
I liked the one for sales and also Shoe Dog, that’s interesting. I stopped reading. I have read so many of the same books. I’m reading P.T. Barnum. I would rather get into somebody’s thought process and how they did it, and it tells me a little bit about how they failed. Nic, this has been awesome. I appreciate your time.
Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. I’m humbled to be a part of the group.
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
- Cleveland Monsters
- Canton Charge
- Cavs Legion GC
- Northwoods League
- Talking Stick Resort Arena
- Selling Is An Away Game
- Mike Tomlin
- How to Become a Rainmaker
- The Ride of a Lifetime
- The Outsiders
- Shoe Dog
About Nic Barlage
Nic Barlage was named President of Business Operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers in September 2017.
Prior to joining the Cavaliers, Barlage was the Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer for the Phoenix Suns, where he oversaw the team’s premium and ticket sales, and marketing efforts. He began serving his stint with the Suns during the 2013-14 season.
Barlage was part of the Cavaliers organization for five seasons where he was most recently Vice President of Sales and Service before departing for Phoenix in 2014. Prior to his tenure in Cleveland, Barlage spent one season with the Suns and two seasons with the Charlotte Bobcats specializing in suite and premium seating.
Active as a community and civic leader, Barlage serves on the board of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the American Red Cross, as well as the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.
Barlage graduated from Saint John’s University (Minn.) in May of 2006, where he majored in Psychology. He and his wife, Traci, have two daughters, Brooklyn and Kennedy.