How do you hire the right people? Examine if they have the essential qualities to fit in the company culture. Lance Tyson introduces Greg Grissom, who is now the President of the Houston Texans. In this episode, Greg talks with Lance about how some people may have good sales numbers. But if they cannot fit in with your culture, the relationship would fail. Join in the conversation as Lance and Greg also review some critical topics on leadership and the importance of value and respect. You wouldn’t want to miss this episode!
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How To Hire The Right People For A Stronger Team With Greg Grissom
I’m excited about this episode. I have Greg Grissom on with the Houston Texans. He is the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development. You and I have known each other for a long time. I will always remember one of the best conversations I had as COVID opened up, how impressed I had was with Greg’s team. They had this whole COVID mentality and a call flow laid out. It was one of the first conversations. I was like, “These guys thought about it.” That was a great conversation. Greg, give people a little bit of your background, what you do with the Texans, and expand on your role.
I have been with the Texans for many years. Since the beginning of our franchise and my role, I oversee all corporate partnerships, sponsorships, revenue, and service, as well as the premium we call at Houston Texans, Luxe Sales and Service. Those are two revenue lines for the organization.
Before you start your journey with the Texans, go back before that. Where are you from? How did you start in sales?
I grew up in Austin, Texas. My dad has always been in sales. He owns his insurance commercial. He has always been an independent insurance agent. I grew up in a sales environment. I didn’t always know it. My dad was always trying to help people in the insurance industry. He is always taking clients to play golf and different things. I was immersed around it. I graduated from high school. I went to Baylor. In high school, I will admit it, I was not the greatest athlete. I knew early on that probably the path to sports was not on the field or the court but I was always curious about how sports worked.
I remember watching ESPN when we first got cable and I was in middle school. I was curious about the graphics and why certain things were done in certain ways. That led me to college. That was right when most schools didn’t have Sports Management Programs. Ohio University and maybe UMass were 1 of the only 2 at that time, and Baylor did not have one but I was interested in sports. In my freshman year, I parked cars at football games. I wanted to be around sports. That was always an interest. I didn’t put sports and sales together at that time.
In sports, relationships are incredibly important and how you cultivate them. I had a relationship ultimately with a third-party family friend who knew Drayton McLane of the Astros. I’m on the Astros at that time. Drayton was a Baylor grad. I used that relationship to get an interview with the Astros. Full disclosure, I had no idea what the interview was for and what job it was for. It was with the Astros. I put a tie on, drove to Houston, showed up at this time, and got the job. It may have been because of the relationship I had. Who knows? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Was this right out of college?
I had worked at the school athletic department through college doing random stuff. There was nothing meaningful. Right out of school, I ended up being in season ticket sales for the Astros within a week. To orientate you, this was about a year after the strike.
Was Nolan Ryan still with them?
No. This was in late 1995. They were staffing up after the strike of 1994 and 1995. Within a week of me being there, Drayton McLane, the owner at that time, said, “If we don’t sell X number of season tickets, we are moving to Northern Virginia.” I went on a journey to be a part of that, which ultimately is what is now Minute Maid Park. It was the outcome of all of that.
When I first met you, the first time we ever worked together, I don’t know if you remember this, I was mesmerized at the Astrodome. I had never seen it before and was like, “That’s where the Bad News Bears played.” Did you work at the Astrodome?
I worked there in the last four years of the Astrodome. I did two years in season ticket sales. Through internal relationships, I networked my way into the sponsorship fulfillment, which we call promotions coordinator. I did all the giveaways and stuff for the last year in the Astrodome, all the turn back and the clock stuff. I would tell my dad, “Can you believe I have a key to the Astrodome?” Before I would meet my lovely wife, I tried that a few nights out at a bar, which didn’t work as well but my dad bought it. It was pretty good.
Ask great questions to your managers so they’ll want to invest in you and give you opportunities.
To give everybody a reading perspective, if you have never been to Houston, where the Texans play physically is in front of the Astrodome that’s right next to that Convention Center where they have the rodeo. You physically see when you go to the stadium where you first started. That’s amazing.
I can tell you where I parked and walked as a nervous kid who didn’t know what he was doing on the first day. Sometimes with new people that come into our organization, I will go tell that story and say, “I have been there.” It was a cool experience to be there in the last year in the Astrodome, and the team was good. We won Division III out of four years.
That was with Biggio, Bagwell, and Randy Johnson trade, if you remember all that. One of our top clients was a company called Enron. They ended up buying the naming rights to the new stadium. They were looking for people to come and represent their interests, not only there but with a lot of other properties they have. I left the Astros about six months before what is now Minute Maid Park.
That was about a four-year run there. You had made your way into partnerships, and then you jumped over to Enron?
I jumped over to the client’s side. I was there for almost two years. It ended badly, as everybody knows if you haven’t seen The Smartest Guys in the Room. I lived that. A lot of those executives, the names that people know, I’ve got to interact with a lot because we had all the toys, suites and tickets. It was an unbelievable experience to jump on the client’s side and understand the pressures. Thinking quarter to quarter about the things they have to deal with, I realized, “I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.” That’s something else that I learned.
I met a lot of great people back to that relationship theme, people in Houston who were willing to help me. The same day that Enron filed for bankruptcy, and we were told to leave, which I knew was coming, we all did. I had my first interview with the Texans that same day. I was fortunate enough to be hired about a month later. That was in January of 2002. Our first game was in August of 2002.
I’m starting to see a theme that I didn’t know about you, which is interesting and worth pointing out. You grew up in Austin. You went to Baylor. Through some relationships, you were able to stay in Texas. You are an anomaly the fact that your whole career has not left the nation of Texas at this point. You were able to hop out of one of the greatest documentaries about business ever.
At that time, it was the largest bankruptcy in the history of America.
If you want to watch a documentary on how to do business, how deals are done, and how not to go, you watch that documentary of Enron. That’s an anomaly to be able to stay.
Sometimes, I wonder, “Did I do it right? Did I not do it right?” In other ways, I’m incredibly grateful for it. Those first 5 or 6 years, it was more of luck. When Enron went into bankruptcy, I knew I was at a crossroads. I had sold tickets, serviced partnerships, and had been on the client’s side. I wanted to get back into sports. I knew I didn’t want to work for Corporate America. I knew if I wanted to get back into sports, I had to get on the revenue-producing side to make a career, which is what I wanted to do. I consciously targeted sports sponsorship sales.
I was incredibly lucky that the Texans were there and my relationships and skillset. It was a junior position. I was the low man on the totem pole. I had a great leader, a guy named David Peart, who has been in a lot of different places. Now, he is running AT&T Sports Networks here for Houston. He worked for the Penguins, Stars, 49ers, and others, who gave me a shot.
Since that time, the key that has allowed me to stay in Houston for many years with the Texans is a combination of a couple of things. I say this to people a lot, “Don’t worry about title or money. Worry about being mentally stimulated if you are interested.” The moment that starts to flatline because it does at certain levels in your career, you are not challenged anymore. At that point in time, you need to advocate for yourself, talk to your manager and let them know, “I want to be here,” but I’m dull at the moment. Somebody gave me some advice and said, “It’s all about the owner, product and market.”
For me, when I’m working with the NFL Football in Houston, Texas for the McNair family, you are in a good spot. Those have always been checked for me. Identify your little dull, advocate for yourself, and then be patient for 6 months to 1 year. I’m fortunate that it has happened probably 3 or 4 times in that many years in different ways. Every time I have done that, growth has shown up. There are some skills to navigate those feelings but I’m also aware that I’m lucky that the timing has worked out for me to stay in the same place.
Pick one. Patient like a fly fisherman or deep-sea fisherman?
It’s probably more of fly fisherman because you’ve got to keep coming with it a little bit.
Let’s go back, and then we will move forward again. Were you in that first sales role with the Astros, great salesperson, average, inconsistent or consistent?
I was probably average at the actual job. I was good at managing up.
That’s good because you have alluded about 4 or 5 times that you have leveraged your relationships. We were talking about similar relationships we had in the conversation we were having here as well. That is a core competency or value of yours.
Particularly, when you were young, I was curious. I asked a lot of great questions to my managers at that time. It’s because of that, they invested back in me. They gave me opportunities. It’s a simple thing like I talked about that season ticket campaign that the owner put together. We were posting how many FSCs we had sold each day in the newspaper. At the end of each day, my job was to forward-fax from the basement ticket office up to the president’s office for our sales report. Within two months of being there, I was entrusted with that simple task. I asked questions, “Why are we doing this?”
It’s interesting everybody I seem to interview. I have been doing an interview series on diversity inclusion. I interviewed Mike Brown. He works with Legends. He has worked his way up from Atlanta, Tampa, Memphis, and the LA Stadium Project. He charges now with the crew. The one thing he said was, “As a person of color, I have leveraged my relationships. I have managed up, and it was a theme through the whole thing.”
You don’t always have to be number one. I’m sure it helps if you are number one. I certainly wasn’t the number one salesperson but I was always curious, ask questions and leverage. That’s important. Let’s fast forward. You left Enron, landed your first role, and said that was a job here with the Texans.
It was about a little less than a year in our first game. To be honest with you, I was better at sponsorship sales than I was at ticket sales. With ticket sales, the structure of the product probably doesn’t lean to the way I like to think but I was capable. After working at Enron or the Astros, I could see where I would be best suited. I sought that out with them.
One of the things that you have that I noticed in our dealings together, you are practical and reasonable, which I always find make excellent negotiators. Anybody that’s reasonable and practical usually is the right negotiator because you see clearly that it builds credibility and trust with people. Probably that sponsorship, you can move around a little bit.
It’s less structured. It’s more solution-driven. I realized this pretty early on. I like to see all the possibilities of the different ways that you can solve something. I see it as a game. I’m highly competitive. Sponsorship sales was a game to play, and you’ve got to set your own rules. I had a great product. It was an expansion franchise in Houston, Texas. I always say three words, “Football in Texas.” I was very successful in that first year. I had a great group of people around me and great leadership. I was able to grow.
See all the possibilities on how you can solve a problem.
Successful in terms of closing deals or successful in moving your capital and equity up in the business or both?
David Peart was the key. It was not so much closing deals, which was important but closing the right deals in the right way. In other words, “Here is how we are trying to do this. Here is the strategy. Here are the parameters that I want you to understand and navigate within.” By closing a large number of businesses but doing it in a way that was perceived to be the right way built that credibility that you are talking about.
You are on the sponsorship team and the partnership team at that point. How long do you do that? When do you start advancing into a leadership position because you have been there for two decades?
It was probably the first 3 or 4 years in a similar role, and then David left and had a new department head come in. It was a gentleman by the name of John Vidalin, who many people know. He is now with the Miami Heat. John taught me the value of relationships in a lot of different ways. When he came, there was an opportunity. Change is opportunity. If you see change as a danger or opportunity, I have always tried to embrace it as an opportunity. If you have ever read the book, Who Moved My Cheese? It’s adapting to that.
When John came, he needed somebody he could trust on his team. I sought to be that person at the end of the day. The result of that was, for that time that he was here, he and I were the teams, and I was his right-hand guy. That allowed me to grow. At that time, I had a ton of influence, not a ton of responsibility from a leadership standpoint but I’ve got to see it. I was close enough to it that I could understand what was going on.
You go back to your core philosophy, “Don’t worry about the title.”
It was more about the little things. He let me start managing the sales report. I was managing all the inventory management systems. He had some weaknesses that matched my strengths. We worked well together for 4 or 5 years, and then he moved on. Jamey Rootes is our Team President. I was at one of those peaks myself. I had been pursuing a couple of other things outside the Texans, not knowing John was going to leave.
Short story, John called me. I was at a lunch meeting, and he let me know he was moving on. I called my wife and said, “Either the next phone call is good or bad when I talk to Jamey.” Jamey called me and said, “I want you to take a shot at leading this group.” At that time, it was the sponsorship, sales and service. I said, “On an interim basis or for real?” He said, “This is your shot. We will give a little bit of time.”
Under John, you’ve got a responsibility without a title.
I didn’t have any real direct reports.
You have the responsibility for projects and systems. That got noticed.
There was some balance of trying to make sure that through that time, managing John and Jamey’s relationship and some other stuff. I was prepared but totally unprepared for that type of role. I was 35 or 36. I learned a lot in those first two years but it was fun. We were able to start building a team.
Talk about those jobs from starting at the Astros, popping out of sports, and popping back in again. How did that start to form in your experience as a seller? I was not the greatest salesperson in the world. I was average. I managed up well. I’ve got it done. I was consistent. How did that start to shape your leadership philosophy because now, all of a sudden, your first leadership job with the title and accountability is a big one?
It’s for an NFL team and a big market. I had two capable examples with the Texans but very different. David and John are great guys. The way that they approached it was different. I’ve got to see that. It was easy to see the contrast. I was successful as a salesperson within both of them but when I’ve got the role, I tried to hype and almost put the two together. I won’t get into the details of which came from which. One was, we had to be about something. We had to have a way that we went about it. It didn’t matter what the way it was.
Is it a process or methodology?
It’s a why, if you will, “This is how we do it.” The more you could define that, I know as a seller myself, I have thrived in that structure. Those boundaries gave me a game to play. I went about trying to define that. It took me two years to get to where, “This is how we do it.” There’s no right or wrong. It’s how we do it, and then how do you build relationships and trust with clients? How do you get people around you to think of a long view?
I always like to say this. I did this well as a salesperson, and I have tried to put this, “You define it in your stuff is the challenger mentality.” I always defined it until I read that. I always wanted to be respected more than liked because if you are respected, you are inherently liked. You have got a little bit of a backbone to you. You are not going to get pushed over.
I’m trying to create that dynamic where I can find people who could do both and create a barrier that says, “I’m going to negotiate hard but we are going to be good friends at the end of this. We are always going to try to look at it from the other’s point of view.” That builds trust up over time that people respect what you are doing and how you are going about it. You are trying to do it the right way.
You wanted to build this. I will call it the Texans’ way with this methodology, system process. You had to build the people that bought into that but you had to have a system from the buy-in. What mistakes did you make upfront of hiring?
Sometimes you hire off of resumes. Everybody has a resume but at some point, you’ve got to sit across from somebody and say, “Do I believe that this person is made of what it takes? Are we like-minded in that way?” The numbers need to be there, particularly in a sales role. I honestly think more about the people I didn’t hire than the people I did. When you asked that question, there were a few people, and I can remember who they were.
For whatever reason, I convinced myself that they weren’t the right person, and then they went and did something else. I looked in like, “I missed a huge opportunity.” It was getting too focused on the numbers. You’ve got to have them to play but sometimes you hired some people with good numbers but they may not have been made of the stuff that we felt was important for the culture.
You and I talked about Jerry, and I remember Jerry younger when he worked for the Jenkins. I hate to be the old guy but I mean, how much development has he had and responsibility? A lot of that has to do with Jerry, too. I won’t take anything away. He is success-driven. With the right system, people can thrive. When you look at the system you created, I want to ask a couple of questions about that. Before that, what is over the years that has rubbed you wrong about? You don’t have to name anybody but a salesperson’s approach that you know doesn’t fit in your system. There is a cheese grater effect on your sandpaper.
You first have to understand the Texans’ culture, and it started with Bob McNair. Our mission statement when we came in as an organization is we wanted to be the most respected and valued professional sports franchise in the world. It’s a lofty goal when you think about it, when you are starting at zero, and you have written a check for $700 million to be the most respected and valuable in the world. I find it more interesting that you put respect and value together. It’s easy to be respected and valued as standalone in either case. Putting them together is very difficult to do, in my opinion.
It takes the right type of person who is there to make money, hit sales goals, be out for the organization and themselves. There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to make money but who is going to try to do it the right way? Who is going to see it from both sides? Who is trying to create win-win relationships? Who is not short-terming?
You need every person in your internal environment to help you go where you want to go.
We are always looking for long-term, loyal and sustainable partnerships. I’m not looking for somebody who can do a bunch of one-year deals. We have had a few of those come in and out. When you start to identify the traits, generally, it’s selfishness. It’s things that people want that they are all in it for themselves, and you can start self-selecting who does what.
I hear you saying the people you struggled with the most and don’t put words in your mouth are the folks that haven’t bought in or aren’t buying into the system.
You can’t trust them to do the right thing at the right time at the end of the day. They are not willing to learn to be a great teammate or whatever word you want to use. There’s a little selflessness at it. As salespeople, I want the salesperson to want to win. I want them to be number one. You have to do it in a broader perspective within your team, what your organization represents, and what it’s trying to portray to the marketplace.
The timeless sport that’s played is maybe golf or even baseball. Baseball is played inside those foul lines but you are still inside those foul lines. The outside is outside. You are at the foul lines and the clock is endless. It just goes. That makes sense to me. I’m going to guide you this way. Not that you are using a ton of clichés but if I were coming to work for the Texans, how would you tell me that I would be successful as a salesperson for you and your culture?
You portray it with a product we have in the market we are in. You have to believe you can. I want them to first and foremost believe that they can play big and go above the fighter’s weight. They can go up a category two. Our product allows that. If you don’t embrace that and buy-in, you have lost before you start. If you are a 35-year-old salesperson, can you pick up the phone and cold call a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Our product gives you that opportunity. I’m looking for people who are willing to take that shot and, hopefully, do it effectively.
A lot of times, that’s a learned skill but you’ve got to be able to take the shot. You’ve got to understand that they buy you first. I go back to that respect versus like and then representative of our culture. You have to be willing to build trust with clients. It would be a very successful thing. You’ve got to learn how to communicate internally. You need every single person in our internal environment to help you get to where you want to go. How can you build relationships and trust internally that you are going to understand what we need as an organization? How can you find win-win solutions?
That’s the political game. People don’t understand that politics isn’t necessarily dirty. We talked about being able to manage up. That’s being politically astute enough to know where you have equity and where you don’t and how to manage. Sometimes in the internal negotiation, the leverage is tougher than anything.
Be willing to compete. I like to create games to compete. If you are probably around me and you don’t like to create little games within yourselves or be needled, you are going to have to have a little thick skin related to that. One of my favorite things to do is when somebody makes an absolute statement. I like to challenge them with a little bit of cash and see where we go from there. It’s some of those things. I’m trying to think of some others.
You did well. That’s exactly what I was looking for. You’ve got to have the confidence to play big, and that takes a certain mentality. Some people are trying to survive. Some people are laying bricks. Some people are there to build a cathedral. That respect piece versus like is huge. You should be able to manage internally, compete and score. That’s a lot without the clichés. This is the last question under leadership. What is something you struggle with day in and day out or week to week?
I will say something I’m working on. I call it a get better mentality. I’m always trying to identify places that I don’t struggle but it’s a place I need to get better at. I buy into the progress principle, and I know it’s cliché. It’s reading people who aren’t like-minded for me who don’t approach the world the way I do. I tend to be a little aggressive, direct, and a bit of a wild guy. In our lives and work lives, particularly internally, some people are coming at it that way.
I’m trying to work on how I can see it through their eyes, and mold myself to come at it differently to figure out a way to do it to get to the same result but maybe in a less way that doesn’t cause as much harm in the process. How do I get to the right way? You talked a lot about what is applicable to that is using questions versus statements. When a sales guy is coming at somebody internally, we tend to make statements, “Here’s what I need. Here’s how this needs to go. We are coming.” If you get yourself into asking questions as a tool to get you there, it makes a huge difference. That’s something I’m working on.
The biggest criticism that I get internally is how I run over the administration of our ops team. They think differently than me. I’m a speed-based first times obstacle. They are quality-based. I struggled with that myself.
I have eroded credibility and support. We have got a good culture. Where we are working, at least as a leadership team specifically, is to be able to have the conversation of what our differences are so we start to understand. If I can do it more often than not, I’m making progress.
Once again, I always learn talking to successful people that most of the time, our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. As you said, my greatest strength is managing my relationships. We come and land it. You go, “Sometimes it’s managing my relationships.” You are competitive. You brought it up a couple of times. The culture that you have there with your sales team and I have gotten to know over the years. What is your song that defines your approach to things, your leadership, and the culture you have internally?
The one coming to my mind is We Are The Champions. I know it’s cheesy but it’s more of that aspirational side of it. In the NFL market, if you don’t have that, it’s back to that mentality of the belief. It’s not about the, “We Are The Champions.” It’s more the, “I perceive myself that way. I’m here to win. I’m going to speak it into happening.” It’s the song that was popping in my mind. I’m not sure that’s what I would play in my gravestone. It speaks to the mentality that I want. I want people who can do it and are reaching. They are not settling. They are trying to be a little bit better than they think they could be.
If you have to gift a book, what book have you gifted?
I’ve got one for this one. This book is a little bit off the roadmap for you. Deane Beman was the Commissioner of the PGA Tour in the ’70s and all the way through the ’80s before Tim Finchem. It’s called Golf’s Driving Force by Deane Beman. It’s his autobiography. I’m a big golfer. I love golf, so that backdrop plays.
What I love about the book is what we know now as the PGA Tour, where it has volunteers, a charity-driven organization, the way the TV is represented, all that stuff started from him. The book talks about how he saw something that wasn’t there and created it. The backdrop is the PGA Tour but it’s more about not seeing limits, hindrances or barriers. He saw an opportunity. To me, it’s an interesting read using the backdrop of the PGA Tour as that mentality.
Greg, it has been an awesome interview. I learned a bunch about you. I never had a clue that you have been in Texas the whole time and what an anomaly. I didn’t even realize that before. There are so many great nuggets here. Thanks so much for being on.
Thanks for the time, Lance. Thanks to all of you and what your team does for all of us. We greatly appreciate it.
We appreciate the relationship.
About Greg Grissom
Greg Grissom was named president of the Houston Texans on March 24, 2021. Grissom has been with the organization since its inaugural season and most recently held the position of senior vice president of corporate development.