Building The Right Environment For Your Team As A Leader With Kyle Pottinger

You can’t just transfer one culture into another one. You need to build the right environment for your team. Join your host, Lance Tyson as he goes one-on-one with Kyle Pottinger, Senior Vice President of Ticket Sales & Service for the Phoenix Suns. Lance and Kyle touch on a few topics ranging from the importance of prospecting to the impact of community involvement. Learn how to build that team connection as a leader today. This is an insightful 30-minute episode that you wouldn’t want to miss.

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Building The Right Environment For Your Team As A Leader With Kyle Pottinger

I’m excited about this episode. I have with me Kyle Pottinger, who is the Senior Vice President of Ticket Sales & Service for the Phoenix Suns. My only trip ever to Phoenix was with Kyle on his team, so I haven’t been there often except for one hockey tour. Kyle, welcome to the program. I would love you to introduce yourself. Tell us a little about your job, your role, and who you are.

Thanks, Lance. I appreciate you taking the time. I’m hoping you come back to Phoenix and visit us now that it’s 120 degrees outside. It’s beautiful this time of year. My role here with the Suns is SVP of Ticket Sales & Service. I get to work with a talented group of sales team members focused on selling Suns, Mercury, Rattlers, our arena football team, as well as the concerts and shows that come into our building throughout the year.

My story is a little unique. I was born and raised in Arizona. I grew up in a small town on the Arizona Mexico Border, Nogales, and moved up to Phoenix. I went to ASU, and my plan was to get my degree, move back to my hometown and coach the high school basketball team. I was fortunate to connect with a college advisor who let me know about the idea of working in professional sports. As crazy as it is to say now, my response when she first brought it up was, “No way. That’s a thing? Can you work in pro sports without being a player? I had no idea.” She got me on the path.

I started with the Suns as an intern during the ‘07 playoffs. The Suns, at the time, were the favorite to win the championship that year. It’s an incredible way to start my career. I was lucky to work with some talented people and alongside some great people who took an interest in me and helped me develop within the organization. I spent my first six years within the sports industry here with the Phoenix Suns.

You went to Arizona State. Did you play ball there or have a dream to continue to play ball? What was the story there?”

I didn’t. I was going to play junior college basketball in Southwestern Arizona. My girlfriend at the time was coming to ASU, and I followed her to ASU. It worked out well because I ended up marrying her years later. I lived college life there but didn’t play any sports at all. I was a student at ASU.

You went to ASU right on the Border between Mexico and Arizona. Was it across the street, and you end being Mexico or the other way around?

It’s Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. The guys here at Suns gave me a hard time because one of the things I’m proudest of is coming from Nogales. A lot of my family is still down there, so I try to get back down there when I can. It is one big city. Roughly 25% of it is in the United States, and then 75% of it is in Mexico. At the time, we used to bounce back and forth between the US and Mexico sides 3 to 4 times a week.

Try to be the first person in the office, the one who shows up when nobody else would.

You go to ASU, the degree is in what?

Business and Mass Communication.

Any sales jobs when you are in college? What was your first job right out of college? Did you go right to intern at the Phoenix Suns?

Yes, I started as an intern with the Suns. I never wanted to go into sales. I started with the Suns as a marketing partnerships intern. At the time, the Suns owned a Minor League Hockey team, the Phoenix Roadrunners. It was great. Being from Nogales, going up on the Mexico Border, I had never attended a hockey game in my life. It was the only job that was available at the time when I was coming out of college. I started at the Roadrunners as a Marketing Coordinator and spent my first six months in that role. Our Director of Sales at the time noticed I was getting in the office early every morning. I have always been an early bird, Lance.

I’m usually walking up the side of a mountain at 5:30 AM.

I try to get out early. He and I usually pulled into the parking garage roughly around the same time. One morning, he approached me and asked me who I was. I was like, “I’m Kyle.” He’s like, “What do you do here?” I was like, “I’m the Marketing Coordinator.” He’s like, “Why are you here so early?” I’m like, “I wanted to get in ahead of everybody else.”

Jeff Ianello, who’s now at SeatGeek, was the first person who introduced me to the idea of getting into sales and gave me the opportunity to start selling for the Phoenix Roadrunners. Minor League Hockey in Phoenix, Arizona was one of the most challenging ways to start my career but it allowed me to cut my teeth and learn the foundation of the business.

How long did you do that? What was the period?

I graduated from school, and then I sold for the Roadrunners for one and a half years. The team eventually went under, and then I transitioned over to sell in groups for the Suns. The timing to transition over the Suns was unique because as the Suns were coming off of their run of being the NBA favorite, a lot of the people I was selling alongside were talking about how harder all of a sudden it was to sell Suns. I was excited to be selling a property. When I call people, they know who the heck I was calling from, and I didn’t have to explain to them what league we played in.

ASO 11 | Building The Right Environment
Building The Right Environment: Be really coachable and take feedback. You might not be the most talented person in the group, but if you could out-hustle them. You could climb your way to the top of the leaderboard.

If you watch Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance, that was coming off the Suns’ teams, those 3 or 4 years before that.

It was later. It was Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Raja Bell. It was right at the end of that era, right after Shaq came to Phoenix and then he left. The season after Shaq left is when I started selling Suns.

Everybody else is bitching and moaning how hard it is and you were like, “It isn’t as hard to sell on the Roadrunners.”

I was like, “This is great. People know what team I’m coming from.”

If you think about it now, you are the SVP, Senior Vice President. That title comes with some weight. Years ago, you were slinging group tickets and selling stuff for the Roadrunners, who are not even in existence. How long did you sell group tickets for the Suns?

I did group tickets here for three seasons. I came in as the youngest guy on the sales team at the time, and the team was stacked with talent.

Some of the people that you have sold against were big execs. Was Mark Jackson there when you were there?

Mark Jackson had taken off but Nick Forro was here, Ianello was here and a few other people were here that have gone on to careers in the industry. I was the young guy on the team and I came in. Looking back on it now, it’s probably annoying but I asked a lot of questions and tried to get in and role-plays with anybody who would allow me to jump in there and go back and forth them at the time. That’s what helped me out in figuring it out.

You get noticed and promotion early because you have shown up early. You have been there when nobody else is there. Go back to Kyle as this young salesperson. What did you do well? What did you suck at?

What helped me most throughout my career was being coachable. I’m able to take feedback and apply it. I realized fairly early on and looking at the rest of the people I was selling against that I wasn’t by any means the most talented person in the group. I realized that I could outhustle them, and that would allow me to climb my way up the leaderboard.

A lot of my leaders told me at the time, “Come in and focus on prospecting and ask for referrals throughout the day.” As simple of an idea is that to embrace. That’s exactly what I did. Every morning, I tried to be the first person in the office and would spend the first one and a half hours prospecting companies I wanted to reach out to.

I would start my day by being the first one on the phone, and I would call those prospected companies. Once I’ve got on the phone, I was persistent. I don’t think I was by any means as smooth as some of the other people that I was selling alongside but I had done some research. Not too much research but I had a general idea of the company and why they were in the newspaper that I was able to reference. That usually helped get me through the door.

I’m going to assume that hard work and being coachable is probably something that you lead by now. A big premise in this conversation is how people make it up through the ranks. My theory is that in most companies, in sports, entertainment or outside, a lot of people make their way up the corporate ladder being in sales or high finance. If you had to think of your average ranking, if you had ten salespeople in the sales team, maybe you had more, where do you typically fall on average?

In the beginning, I was bottom of the board. We used to have a big whiteboard in the office, and I would sit there at the end of the night, look at the board and think to myself, “I’m in last place. I’m the worst person in revenue.” I focused on the process and made a commitment to try to book two appointments every day. Over the course of two years, I was able to work my way up to be number one on the board. I usually hovered between number 1 and number 3 for the majority of my sales career.

Hate to lose more or like to win more?

Hate to lose, hands down. It’s not even close. I’m one of the worst losers you will ever meet. I’ve got an older brother who’s four years older than me, and he used to deal with me crying every time I lost when we were kids.

In sales, you really have to focus on the process and make a commitment to try to book two appointments every day.

You worked on your sleeve. I understand. I am a bad loser. There’s nothing gracious about it. Some part of me says you shouldn’t be.

I still haven’t figured it out. To this day, I’m not a great loser.

In COVID, I dominated my sons in Monopoly and wiped them out within an hour. I bankrupted them and decided that I was probably as bad a winner as I was a loser. I picture myself and stuff like that. Maybe I don’t compete enough but I understand. You’ve got contacts. From all the moves here, your formula for success isn’t like this secret complex thing. A predictable process yields better results. You didn’t claim to be number one. If you average it out, in the beginning, you are at the bottom, then you are the top three. You probably average out of 3, 4 or 5 overtime. You peaked. You hit it. You are a few years into this. What was the first management job?

The first management job I transitioned into was here with the Suns. I have gone from group sales to our premium sales team. I moved into a hybrid role as a team lead here, where I was selling and managing the team. That was one of the more unique transitions I went through and now leading a team of people I sold alongside. I made a lot of mistakes there and learned a lot of good lessons. That was my first step in the leadership position.

How long was that move?

I was in that role for about a year. From there, I went out to New Jersey.

Were you recruited or looking to move your way?

ASO 11 | Building The Right Environment
Building The Right Environment: The worst thing to see is somebody who you know has the talent and potential but they can’t see it themselves. They don’t have the desire to get the results that they can get.

Recruited by one of my first bosses.

Do you have a relationship with somebody?

We have kept in touch over the years. The New Jersey Devils have gotten acquired by the Philadelphia 76 ownership group, so I went out there. The best sale of my career was selling my wife and two kids to move across the country with me.

Arizona’s weather and New Jersey’s weather are similar. You talk about open space to not open space.

I spent my first year in Jersey, and nobody ever told me to buy snow boots. I was wearing dress shoes, trying to skate through the snow, slipping and falling. I was smarter the second winter than I was in the first.

In ‘07, you started. What year is this?

This was in 2013 that I moved out to New Jersey.

What’s the role?

Director of Group Sales.

Now you make this on your resume, so it’s making you feel good. You are going from Manager to Director.

It was a big role. In hindsight, I probably didn’t have the resume at that time to deserve that role. I had a boss who believed in me and assured me, “You can come in here and do this job at a high level.” I stepped into it and was able to build up that group sales team out there. When I first started, we had three sales team members on the squad, and when I left, we had built it up to a department of thirteen. It was fun to be a part of that process.

How long are you at that spot?

I was with the Devils for two years and then transitioned out to 76ers.

Which is part of Harris Blitzer, this bigger group. You go from North Jersey market, which is a big platform, big stage, you go to the 76ers. What’s the role there? Was it a similar role or different?

It was a similar role. I moved into a spot with the Devils where I was overseeing group sales, and then a premium sales team that we had developed. At the time, the group sales team of Sixers needed a lot of support. Our leadership had reached out and asked me to make the move down there. I moved down to Jersey and got there right in the middle of the whole trust-the-process movement. I was there during the ten-win season and learned a ton about the power of culture and creating an environment that people believe a ton in and want to be a part of.

The President-CEO then, if you are following this, Scott O’Neil, who’s mastered building culture, momentum in organizations, and things like that. What’s the biggest thing you picked up from him in what they would do there? How did you make it your own?

Scott had a huge impact on my career in highlighting to me the importance of connecting with your people and utilizing your platform not only to drive business but also do something great in your community. I remember when I first moved out to Philly, there was a day where we were doing a community event, and I didn’t realize everybody was going. I went into the office thinking that I was too busy to go. I’ve got to the office and realized I was the only person there. I called my boss at the time, Jake Reynolds, asking where everybody was at. He’s like, “We are all at this volunteer event. When we have a volunteer event, we all come to it. You need to get out here.” It was eye-opening for me while we drive business, also making sure that we are doing some positive things in our community.

Connect with your people and utilize your platform to not only drive business but also do something great in your community.

At that point, you weren’t initially even bought into that.

I was like, “It’s good.” It’s great that we were doing it but I have a bunch of stuff to take care of in the office. Between Scott and Jake, they opened up my eyes that we are fortunate to have this platform. It’s our obligation to do something positive from it.

At this point, you have had two big roles sales-wise coming out of Phoenix. When you look back to how you lead, what is the thing that pissed you off about salespeople or frustrates you? You are a competitive person. You hate delusions, and you are still not a good loser.

The biggest challenge I saw when I was out there, and there have been other instances of it, is where you believe in somebody more than they believe in themselves. You see the talent, potential, and what they can do but they don’t have that fire or desire to invest the time. Also, the energy to get to the results they want to get to, whether that’s trying to shortcut the process or if they don’t want to get to that next step. It has always been a challenge for me where you see the potential and want to get them there but they may not necessarily want it as badly for themselves.

How do you manage people like that? How do you coach them without getting frustrated? When you believe in something more than they believe in you, how do you lead toward that?

I made many mistakes going through as a young manager and trying to figure that out. What I learned early on is how important that connection is with your team members. It’s not necessarily trying to blanket manage everybody but understand what makes that individual tick, how they like to be led and be held accountable when it gets to that point.

There are certain instances where I worked with people who identified, “This isn’t for me.” We were able to work together to get them to where they wanted to be in life. I focused a ton on the personal and professional sides of things and tried to get people to a place where they could be happy overall. Sometimes that wasn’t at the organization I was overseeing.

That makes a ton of sense. You get this opportunity. You are in this next role with the Sixers. Where do you go from there? Is that your trip to Phoenix, back to the homeland?

Yes. I had accepted that I was probably going to be on the East Coast for a while. My wife is from Nogales as well. Eventually, we knew we wanted to get back to the West Coast. I’ve got the call from Phoenix about the opportunity to come back. The stars aligned.

What was the role?

It was a Senior Director of Business Development. It’s the opportunity to oversee all of the new sales here with the Suns. I came back to Phoenix in February 2016. You talk about perspective. I was coming from the Sixers where we had ten wins. I came to Phoenix, and they had eighteen wins. Everybody was down about it. I was net positive for the year, so I was pretty excited.

We are for the growth here. For everybody reading, all of a sudden, you are not doing group sales, which is one column inside sales. You are responsible for all new business development. I’m assuming group sales follow up with you.

It did. That’s taking a couple of steps back. That was one of the critical steps that I probably glossed over in walking through it. One of the important steps I took was transitioning to our premium team here with the Suns. I had been pushing hard while in group sales to evolve into a manager role. To Jeff Ianello’s credit, we went to lunch and he told me, “I can get you into a group sales manager job right now.”

“If you ultimately want to get to a point where you are a Vice President of Sales and overseeing your team, it’s important that you understand all aspects of this business.” The immediate move into leadership and instead of going to premium sales and learning that B2B process at a higher level eventually allowed me to assume the role I did when I came back to Phoenix and have a better understanding of the business.

If you go from 2016 to now, it’s probably less. You have been in this role for a little bit now. We are talking about a 2 to 3-year period. You make the leap from Senior Director to SVP in a major brand in the Southwest, and 1 out of 30 of these brands is inside pro sports. How’s that happen? Who are you to make that quantum leap? Were you lucky?

I have been lucky to work alongside great people, and that was one of the biggest things I learned when I’ve got back to Phoenix. I mentioned how great the culture was in Philadelphia. Being somewhat naive at the time, I thought I would be able to take the culture we had with the Sixers and drop it here in Phoenix and have the same immediate impact that was in place out there. It wasn’t the case.

It took at least two years to go through the pain and help people who weren’t necessarily bought into where we were trying to go and help them get to where they wanted to be. Also, bring in the right people to help us build this up to where we ultimately wanted it to be and where it is now. A lot of the success that I have had has to do with bringing in great people around me and creating an environment where people can come in and do their work daily and feel like they can continue to grow within the organization as well.

You get elevated to SVP. Give people a perspective. How much revenue do you have underneath you? How many people?

We have 70 total people on the sales team at full headcount. Revenue-wise, it’s significantly more than I was overseeing in Philly.

ASO 11 | Building The Right Environment
Building The Right Environment: Success can be achieved by bringing in the right people and creating an environment where they can just come in and do their work on a daily basis. Make them feel like they can grow in the organization.

In people count, that’s huge to go from managing a team of 10 to 15 to 70. You have an org chart. That’s three times the size of my own company. That’s a lot of responsibility. Every time I listen to you, humble is not even close to describing who you are. You are not a showboater. You are humble. You give credit to a lot of people, which is one of those things from a leader. Put an end cap on your leadership. What’s your philosophy in sales leadership? You don’t get where you are without a strong philosophy. There’s something you believe in or something that you sell internally.

It’s similar to the way I approach sales. I go out there, and try to find genuinely good people who believe in what we are building and want to be a part of something special. I provide them with the tools necessary to be successful. I will coach them up and challenge them along the way. If you have great people and people who have that genuine quality to them, I feel strongly that when you put them in a position to be successful, help them out along the way, and guide them, they are going to go out and do some great things themselves.

I watch a lot of the show Bar Rescue. I love that. I love the guy. It’s the stress testing of an organization to me. I have watched you for years, and I’m going to blow smoke at all. I have watched you lose not because you wanted to but because it should happen for some folks. You have had some excellent managers and good people that have been promoted going to other organizations that have worked for you. There are probably 5 to 7 I can think of off the bat. It always feels with you, and as many conversations we have had, you have loaded the gun.

We were talking about one of your managers how strong and young they are because you picked the right person. They want to be there. You know as well as I do, the Phoenix Suns doesn’t have three teams or X number of team members. It’s not a Harris Blitzer-type East Coast hedge fund money or whatever is involved with that. Maybe I’m misspeaking there. It doesn’t have a new stadium, and you invested a lot of money in this new arena. You always seem to reload the gun with management. What I’m trying to say is there’s a ton about you, who you are personally.

It’s taken some pain. Those people who transition on you, you hope they are going to a better spot or recognizing some of the goals that they have had. It has been exciting for me to watch their growth. Selfishly, you are bummed to lose great people but as long as it’s getting them to a good spot.

It seems like somebody else jumps on the spot for you. You usually pull from the inside, which is phenomenal. Here are our speed questions. You have two children. If they said, “Dad, what does it mean to be successful?” What are you saying?

It may be cheesy to say this, Lance, but it’s something we talk about quite a bit with them. The biggest advice I have given them to this point is I want you to be good and live a life that you can be proud of based on the way you conduct yourself, both in your personal life and business. Be honest. Conduct your business in a way where you can look people in the eye and follow through on your word. Success will come as a result of doing things the right way. It’s something I believe strongly and that I try to preach to them on a daily. They are there all over the place, so I don’t know how much of that they are hitting. I’m trying to ingrain it into their minds.

I talked to you and you were tired after the night before.

They are a lot now.

As a salesperson, what was your sales song? If you had to think about one song that described who you were when you were selling, what song?

The sale song I have always gone to is Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta. I don’t know if that’s the best one but it’s one that I always said would be my walkout song if I was playing in the Major Leagues.

No doubt. I have walk-out music and it’s Hypnotize. I understand. It’s at least how I see myself. The last question. This is my Tim Ferriss question. If you had to give away one book, what book would you give away?

Leadership and Self-Deception. It’s one that Scott gave to all of us in Jersey with the Sixers. If somebody who’s reading this hasn’t read that yet, I strongly encourage everybody to go out there and read it. It’s all about treating people as people and helping them develop as an individual.

You are the second person who brought that book up. I have it on my shelf. I’ve got the book because of Scott. It’s about human to human. It’s the new age How to Win Friends & Influence People.

It’s great. We have everybody who starts here with The Suns read it as well and who’s on the sales floor. It’s a big part of our culture and how we treat each other each day.

Kyle, it has been great. I appreciate the conversation. I appreciate the relationship. Thanks for being on.

Thanks so much, Lance. I appreciate all your support over the years. We value the relationship.

Important Links:

About Kyle Pottinger

ASO 11 | Building The Right EnvironmentAs a proud member of the Phoenix Suns/Mercury/Rattlers Family, I take great pride in building long lasting relationships with companies, organizations, and individuals across the Phoenix metropolitan area.

I specialize in working with each individual client in creating an amazing experience that has a long lasting impression on employees, customers, and friends and family whether that be at a Suns, Mercury or Rattlers game or one of the many concerts or shows at Phoenix Suns Arena.

Many companies look at our seating as an excellent means for developing relationships with new and existing clients. They have also realized the added benefit of utilizing our seating as a forum to cultivate internal relationships as well.

I believe we will be able to cater a specific package to fit your needs and deliver similar results to help compliment your current entertainment options.

For anyone interested in learning more about Phoenix Suns, Mercury, Rattlers, or Phoenix Suns Arena ticket options, please contact me at kpottinger@suns.com.

I look forward to hearing from you.