Leadership Skills For Success With Doug Dawson

Great Leaders are born, not made, they say; but given the right mentorship and mindset, one can gain the skills needed to be a leader. The question is, how would you leverage these skills for success? In this episode, Lance Tyson discusses leadership ideas with Doug Dawson, currently the Senior VP with the Dallas Cowboys. Their discussion highlights concepts that every leader needs to forge ahead, such as making the transition from staff to management, the importance of managing up, and the necessary elements in building a culture of excellence. Doug’s insights are required listening for anyone looking to mature as a leader.

Listen to the podcast here:


Leadership Skills For Success With Doug Dawson

I’m probably as excited about this interview as I have any. This is one of my oldest relationships in business. I remember the first time meeting you. It was in your offices at the Pacers when you were on the ground level. I would like to welcome Doug Dawson. He’s the Vice President of Ticket Sales & Service for the Dallas Cowboys. Doug, why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about your role?

Thanks, Lance. I’m super happy to join you. I have been watching these, and I have been excited to do this. As the VP of Ticket Sales for the Cowboys, I oversee all of our ESL sales, where the Cowboys also manage the sales team that sells all of our suites. For third-party events, I’m the one that goes in and works with them from the ticket standpoint and people who book the shows. When it comes to talking about ticket sales, I will go in and talk through that. I have been doing it for many seasons. It has been quite a run building the AT&T Stadium to now. It’s hard to imagine that it has been a lot of seasons in the building, time flies.

Let’s go back because the whole of Against the Sales Odds is where you start where you come from. You are at what could be argued that one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world, if not the most. Where did you begin? You are an Ohio guy, so where are you from?

I’m from Eastern Ohio. I grew up in a small town right across from West Virginia called St. Clairsville and went to Ohio University. When I went to Ohio, I went in as an Accounting major. I didn’t even know anything about sports management or anything, and I was there for about a week. One of my roommates was a Sports Management major, and he was telling me about it. I went in the next day and changed my major.

I always knew that that would be cool, so I was getting a degree in Business, thinking Accounting was what I liked but after a few Accounting classes, I realized there was no way I was going to do Accounting long-term. I had an opportunity in my sophomore year to meet a guy with the Detroit Pistons and talk to him. He helped me get an internship. First, he got me and helped me get an interview, and I’ve got the interview. When I talked to the Head of HR, he said, “Our only internship is in sales.” I was like, “I have no interest in selling anything.” I was shy and reserved. I said, “If that’s all you’ve got, I’m willing to do it.” It was a three-month internship in Detroit. When that ended, I had a complete change of heart and realized that I wanted to sell for a living. I know there are going to be the most opportunities to grow and to do that as quickly as possible.

Did you get a job from the internship? Did you start in sales with the Detroit Pistons?

Yes. After I finished my internship, it so happened that the gentleman who managed me, John Ciszewski, everybody knows him as Giz, asked me what my plans were after school. I said, “My thought is to go to get my Master’s degree. Ohio University has a story Master’s program, and I thought that’s what I would do.” He’s like, “I tell you what. Why don’t you come work here instead?” He was a graduate of that program, so I knew that I wanted to work and if I could get to work sooner, especially with people that I enjoyed because I had a great internship, which was something I would like to do. That was in November of my senior year. It was great. For the rest of my senior year, I was on cruise control because I had a job. I was ready to go, and I lived it up for the next 7 or 8 months.

You were in early. In that internship, you had a little taste of it. You are at the top of your game. To be at an organization for over a decade, especially in business, all in says a lot about who you are and probably the results you get. Describe Doug as the sales guy? Were you a stud? Are you the best one? What did it look like?

I was a grinder. I had to make more calls than everybody else. I would say I wasn’t as smooth as a lot of people are. I manage people now and I’m like, “This guy would have killed me when I was 22 years old.” It’s funny, somebody that you have a great relationship with, Chris Hibbs. When I noticed how different I was from Hibbs was when we were in Tampa, both selling. I felt like I had to make 120 calls to get to what he would get to in 40 calls. He was silky smooth on the phone. We both would do well but I did it differently. He was way more prepared, and I would grab a list and go to town.

ASO 20 | Leadership Skills
Leadership Skills: We needed to instill the culture that we thought would make us the most successful because we didn’t want to bring our talent in if the culture wasn’t right.

It’s interesting for me now because the salespeople we manage research all the companies, and going in, they know who’s what. Talk about the purest form of cold calling. I was cold calling and asking who in your company handles entertainment. That was it. Nowadays, you can go in and have an idea of who that might be. Back then, we had no clue. I would grind 100 plus calls a day. I felt like I would do well once I had somebody on the phone or in front of me. My numbers were always good but I definitely had to work at it.

Where were you on the board?

I was usually number 1 or 2.

You take somebody, Hibbs, who is also at the top of his game, from the Bears to the Legends. With the group you started with, who’s still in the industry? Who did you start with?

It’s a Who’s Who list. It has been fun. I will talk about our Tampa group because that’s the most fun group and the group that has done the most things. Chad asked us who managed us down there, and we had Chris Hibbs, Mike Ondrejko, Brent Stehlik, John Fisher, Chad Johnson, Chris Gargani, Joe Andrade, Ben Milsom, who was on my team down there, Brad Lott, and Clark Beacom.

These are guys who have done so much in this industry. Lynn Wittenberg, who has done some great things on the marketing side and Marcia Steinberg. I know I’m forgetting people but it’s such an all-star staff. It was so much fun, and we were selling a bad product in Central Florida, grinding it out, and doing whatever we could to make a buck.

That group that owned the Pistons also owned PAL Sports & Entertainment owned Tampa Lightning. You were in Detroit for a few years and went down to Tampa.

I had to stop in Columbus, so this is a good story. This was when I told Chad that I was leaving the industry. It was during the NBA lockout. I had gotten married and my wife did not like Detroit. I was frustrated by the lockout. I went and did mortgages in Columbus for six months and I hated every single minute of it. I called Chad one day because the Blue Jackets were hiring and he said, “I’m happy to help you any way I can,” and he put in a good word with the guy that was doing the hiring.

I’ve got back in the industry and did that for about four months. In month number four, Chad called me, and he had taken over as the VP of Sales down in Tampa and asked if I had any interest in coming down there. It was a much more colorful invitation that he gave me but I was driving the loop in Columbus around 270 while I was making my decision. I’ve got home that night and told my wife we were moving to Tampa. That didn’t go over great but it worked out.

Was the job you’ve got offered another sales role?

It was a Sales Manager role. Chad had told me, “You have been out of the game for a little bit. I want you to prove to me that you can still sell.” I knew I could but I was fine with that. He’s like, “I’m going to give you a Sales Manager title. Inside of a year, if you do great, you can probably elevate to manage a team.” Eleven months into that role, I became the Director of Ticket Sales.

You had a Sales Manager title but you were selling.

I was active.

It’s having clearly defined goals. It’s telling people what you expect out of them, so there are no surprises.

You have the title to hang a carrot. Chad is good with that motivation. He knows how to hang out to get you going. It’s a carrot or stick, and Chad puts great carrots out in front of the horse.

There’s no question. He told me what I needed to do. I knew it, there were no surprises, and he lived up to his word.

You are selling against Hibbs and Ondrejko. These are Presidents of teams.

They are the best sellers ever. I forgot Kevin Frattura, of all people. He’s my counterpart with the Giants. He’s going to be upset that I forgot him. I apologize for that.

He’s got a whole segment to itself now. That’s almost unheard of because a lot of sales teams who you start with know who you end with, and almost 66% of every sales team is out of the industry or most industries but you guys are a hell of a group. Talk about that a little bit because that’s interesting. When you look at why there was so much talent to assemble and why those people are still there, is that a leadership role? What is that?

I would say leadership. The one common thread with all of us, so we looked at Chad as a mentor. It was tough down there. It was one of the toughest sales I have ever made.

Amalie was in a crappy neighborhood, too.

At the time, it wasn’t anything like it is now.

It’s not as beautiful as it is now.

ASO 20 | Leadership Skills
Leadership Skills: Developing a great compensation program that paid them a lot of money for two years was one of our biggest wins.

It was the ice palace. That team had lost 50 games in 4 straight years, and it was hockey in Florida. Their ownership now has completely done a 180. They are one of the best owners in sports in what they have been able to accomplish. We knew we all had to work hard and none of us cared. It was a battle every day. How early can you get in? Whoever was the first one in had the bragging rights. Nobody would leave until everyone else left at night. If it was a Friday and somebody ducked out, everybody knew it. There was great leadership and good peer leadership, too. Peer-to-peer was awesome. We are holding each other accountable, and we all have a common goal. We wanted to take this difficult product, make it a success and do great things with it. We were able to do that in a difficult situation.

There’s peer-to-peer leadership. I have heard that maybe once or twice on these things. I’m going to feed you back some stuff I know about you. You have always been a leader. You are not into a lot of excuses. You have never been that guy or that sales leader. Does that come a little bit with how hard you had to work? You had to work your way or put the hours in. You weren’t going to be able to get it done on some innovation. You have to work on it. How does that form around your leadership?

A lot of it was how I was raised. My father was an over-the-road truck driver for 40 years and I saw how hard he worked. He taught me that and I never forgot that. Once I’ve got there was no other way that I knew how to do it. I’m the first to admit. I had to compensate for some of my lack of skill. Granted, that’s over 25 years later. I like to think I’ve got a lot better but it was tough back then. When I’m managing people, I want to hire grinders and I know. I have changed a lot over the years.

I also now have a great deal of respect for people who have the ability to do it differently but still have a lot of success. That’s something that has been an evolution with me. You and I talk about this all the time. Are you a manager or a leader? Over time, I definitely used to be 100%, without question, manager all the way. Over the last several years, that has become much more of a leader, and I’m proud of that evolution because it’s made me that.

What we have defined over time is people, unfortunately, use the word leader and manager as a word that tries both. If somebody chooses, would you prefer a manager versus a leader? People say leade, but you need to be a manager, too. How we define it as a manager is there’s a process, you manage a process, and you lead people but it’s people in the process that has to execute.

People support a world they help create. People support a process they feel helps them succeed. I would always say early, especially when I first met you was, “If you want a process executed, give it, Doug.” Talk about it in your sales leadership as a sales executive. In the beginning, what were you poor at? What got you nicked? What were some do-overs you would want?

If you do something and your intentions are good, people will support you in your decision.

My interaction with staff. I’m sure there are going to be people that I managed early on that didn’t love how I managed back in the day but I’m a completely different manager I feel now than I was back then. Some of the things that got me nicked up were it was hard for me to understand if somebody didn’t want to work hard and if they didn’t understand what I was trying to get across to them.

Part of this has to do with my relationship with Chad. Chad was always the leader, and I was always the process guy. We worked so well. We are the yin and yang. Over time, as I grew and Chad grew, we weren’t side-by-side in every interaction anymore, so I had to evolve into that leader. He helped me see that and you certainly helped me see that. You are a big part of that process for me. Overall, the way they are treating people, being more understanding, not being so demanding, and all of those things had to evolve for me.

To this day, I know soft leaders are managers. I know when I see them, and I run into them all the time. I would never, even to this day, put you in any close category to that. You layout a goal, a pathway, and you have certain expectations. Are you saying that you are more understanding, or somewhat more agile or flexible?

That’s exactly what it is now. It’s simple things. When we were in Tampa, there were no ifs, ands, or buts. We had to be there at least 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. We were suited up every day. That’s how it was. We do flex hours. We’ve got casual Friday and little things like that. That seems so little but it’s so important to me because that’s how I was brought up through the sales game in professional sports. For me, I’m way more agile now than I was, and being flexible is a great way to put it.

Do you think your relationships with the people that work for you and with you have evolved? Are they deeper? Are they better?

One hundred percent. As I get older, it’s a different relationship. I was a young Manager. When I was in Tampa, I was only 27 years old. I was a VP at 28 or 29. Most of the people I worked with or worked for me were my friends and people I would hang out with on the weekends. That’s what made it difficult in my younger years. Chad made me a Manager. I was the Assistant Director of Inside Sales. I don’t even know if you need that but he gave me that title in 1996. The people that I managed were on the same staff.

They are the guys I played basketball with on the weekends, went and had a beer with or went out with and all of a sudden, I’m trying to get them on the phones. They shouldn’t have been off the hook any more than I was because they weren’t great either. I would tell you that now because they took advantage of me because I was there, buddy. I was a crazy person trying to get them to get on the phone. I was also 22 years old.

There’s a line there, too, where it’s hard. I have probably learned this more from you than anybody. It’s when you leave the party, too. You go from Tampa, and your first VP job was where?

My first VP job was in Indiana but I had a sixteen-month stop in Cleveland. Chad went up there to be a VP of Ticket Sales and made me the Director of Ticket Sales up there.

That’s the next big promotion from Tampa to Bear. I’m going to feed you back some things. When you get to Cleveland or Indianapolis, before matching talent up, and this is no criticism, you don’t have the talent, the camaraderie, and the brotherhood, sisterhood you have down there that you had in Tampa. Do you have that in Cleveland or was it a mess?

ASO 20 | Leadership Skills
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

When we’ve first got there, it qualified as a mess but we quickly fixed that up. That’s where we met Todd Fleming, as he is one of the best in the business, and I’m so thankful for that relationship over the years. He’s somebody that worked with us in Dallas, too. We were there for a minute, and Mike Ondrejko was up there, so it was great to have Mike back.

We did add some pieces to the puzzle. I will give the group that was their credit. They bought in. Some didn’t. There were a few that left but that group there saw the writing on the wall. Some of the things we wanted to do were different. We are going to be good for them in their careers, so they bought in. I would say that turnaround was pretty quick from the day we’ve got there to the day. I felt a lot better about that staff.

Did you start building culture or talent first in Cleveland? What was first?

Culture.

You took and didn’t worry about the talent but you adjusted the culture.

That’s the same thing we did in Dallas. We needed to instill the culture that we thought was going to make us the most successful to have that success because what we didn’t want to do was bring our talent in if the culture wasn’t right because then that’s another miss as far as I’m concerned. I would always say you do the culture. In both places, we were able to sprinkle a little bit of the talent at the same time with the culture, which is always helpful.

Chad is going there. He’s bringing you in. Flem buys into the process because, from a leadership standpoint, he’s about as agile as can be. I have seen him operate at any level he’s thrown at. You guys started sprinkling talent. Since you have always been so strong on the process side, from a sales leadership-wise, what’s the strongest thing that you put in as a process if you had to do it all over again? You’ve got a brand-new team, a culture, and a process that builds the culture. Is that a certain metric or expectation? What is that?

It’s having clearly defined goals. It’s telling people what you expect out of them, so there are no surprises. One of the most difficult things we had to do when we started this program in Dallas was the compensation because we looked at it as a two-year project. Chad nor I didn’t expect to be here still back then. I’m thrilled that I am but I didn’t expect it. I thought we would come in, sell the stadium and go to something else. We found out pretty quickly that what we didn’t want was the staff that we hired.

We hired about 31, and we kept 5 that were with the team when we’ve got here. We have 36 sellers and we wanted to keep them for that two-year period. We didn’t want to continually train new people because, as you know, you were part of the training with us, it was a difficult product. It was dealing with PSLs, a twelve-page agreement, and all of that stuff. Also, the process that came along with getting an agreement signed, processed and all the stuff that came with that.

The press came along with it, too.

We have a six-week training. Probably one of the toughest things we had to do was the way we designed our compensation so people, in year one, made as much money as they could and didn’t have a reason to stay. Developing a great compensation program that paid them a lot of money for over two years was one of our biggest wins. The Jones family was so supportive. Our objective was we need to hire the 36 best people in this industry to sell this and to do that, we have to pay them. We made sure that they had their goals outlined. We held them accountable and that’s one of the reasons we had a lot of success.

Things are changing so often that sometimes you’ll make a decision, and something will change 12 hours later. You can’t have a long decision process, but you have to think things through.

Are you saying that compensation drives behavior at some level sales behavior?

Absolutely.

I’m going to hit rewind again because we have gone from Detroit to Tampa to Cleveland. A short little stint that will mention in Columbus where I am but then you go over to the Pacers. Is that the first big title role?

That was my first VP job. I was working for a team in Cleveland that was struggling. This was the year that they ended up with the lottery ball that got LeBron James. I did miss out on that luxury.

That’s right when I came in. We missed each other.

I went over to a great organization in Indiana and was fortunate to, at a young age, take on that responsibility. I was there for the next 4.5 years until I’ve got a call about a job in Dallas, which I knew at that moment, I had to listen to.

Let’s look at Indianapolis. This is your first stint, no Chad. No supergroup. What was your biggest struggle there as a leader? This is your biggest title role. Now you are in E Suite. You are level 2 and level 1.

My biggest struggle there at the beginning was managing up. I was intimidated. I knew what I wanted to do would work. I knew that we would have some success but I didn’t always explain it in a great way. I struggled with managing up there. I would also say that my greatest lesson in Indiana was learning how to manage up because I had to train myself to do better. By the time I left, I felt good about it.

Was it the approach? Was it a presentation? Was it intimidation? Help me understand that.

I was intimidated. I go in there, I would be so prepared, I get nervous, and I would lose confidence. When you go in, I would have to sell through what I wanted to do, whether it be budget or product. We’ve got a lot of things done. We did some great things there but that was my biggest struggle. The age thing to me was probably a bigger issue than it was to them. I chalk it up to them like, “I’m young.” It was hard for a couple of years to get that level of confidence. As things started to go in and they would work, I would have a level of confidence that was a game-changer for me.

ASO 20 | Leadership Skills
Leadership Skills: The key to weaknesses is knowing you’ve got them.

We have talked about this a ton over the years. It comes from the salesperson and evolves into sales leadership and moves their way up. They don’t take into consideration their own strategy of how to manage and sell up, and laterally inside the org chart because that’s the other big thing. Politics could kill you. There are a lot of casualties between people dying from 1,000 cuts and being able to walk the shadows. Sometimes you can’t always demand what people are going to do. You’ve got to sell it on them. You will lose morale. That’s the biggest lesson there.

Lance, I had a twelve-page PowerPoint that I took to Donnie Walsh, my EVP and my CMO that was all about culture. I had things in there they told me where they are like, “Everything you want to do, put in a presentation. I want people to wear ties, work from 8:00 to 6:00, sales board up, bell, and an inside sales department. Here’s what I’m going to do. I want to hire Ben Milsom to run the inside sales department. I need someone on the sales team that knows me and the culture I want to create, so I want to hire Kevin Frattura.”

We made those changes. Two Tampa guys that I was fortunate enough to have with me up there made that transition a lot easier. I had to put that in the document and sell it to the president. I will never forget. Donnie Walsh looked at me and said, “I’m not going to wear a tie but it’s fine if you want your staff wear one.” I was like, “As long as you are good with it.” It was interesting.

Everything I did there in that first year was the first time I had done it. It was the first time I had written a budget that’s big and their budget process was way more extreme than anything I have ever done before, so everything was different. I didn’t have the people beside me that I was used to having beside me until I was fortunate enough to have Ben and Kevin.

It’s safety net confidence and all that good stuff. You get to Dallas and it’s one of the first new stadium projects. You are dealing with a ton of unknowns. You have this monster group of salespeople. I remember you had this big career fair. You took your managers who reported directly to you. You had Fleming. They reported directly to you and you are then looking for people that you developed in there that are all over the place in pro sports. That is how you cultivate that. Chad is now in a different spot also. How did your relationship with Chad change from what you had? What pressure was there? Maybe it didn’t change but how did it look or feel different?

I do the job now that he did here originally so he set the bar high. I was involved from the jump, the day we were ordering trash cans to put in our sales office. You talked about starting at the beginning, that’s the way we did it. It was a much easier transition because I’ve got to watch him do the job every day. Quite frankly, I do it well so I knew how I wanted to do it.

Things didn’t change all that much until he moved to the star a few years later because then he was no longer around the corner from me. We stopped seeing each other ten times a day and maybe once a week. I have a list that I would work out and I would send a note to his assistant to book a call and we would hammer that list. It took me a while. There was a time where I wanted to run every little thing that I did by him.

It’s again, a confidence thing as you continue to make decisions and realize they are the right ones. I have a pretty good understanding. Over the 25 years, I have been with him for 21. I’ve got a good understanding of how he’s going to think and answer things so we are routinely on the same page and that worked great but the biggest thing was not having him around the corner. Also, knowing that I needed to be confident in my decisions, he trusted me, was supportive of me and I no longer had to cover my ass or ask for forgiveness. I had to know that if I do it and my intentions are good, they will support me in the decision I made.

The bumpers come off a little bit and you expand your reach. What I have learned about you over the years in all the conversations we had when a known goes away or is removed, even physically, it’s sometimes easy to lean on those people to make quick decisions. It’s almost like Friday night, “Where do you want to go to eat?” “I don’t know. Where do you want to go eat?” It’s easy to ask that question. Now you have to make those decisions timely, plan things out, defend yourself, get out of the permission line and get in the forgiveness line. The second one is a hell of a lot shorter.

What’s great about this conversation is this has been more pure leadership than most conversations I had but I had a feeling it was going to go that way. One of the things that I have always admired about you and I will make this a huge love fest because you and I have had some tough conversations. If you had a list, 2 or 3 weaknesses, and strengths, what would you say they are because I think your ability to look in the mirror is phenomenal?

My weaknesses are sometimes I want something done so quickly. I’m so process-oriented, I like check boxes and sometimes I make decisions too quickly. I don’t always think it through until the end. Fortunately, I’ve got some people that work with me on a daily basis that are good and understand me, and helped me with that. The key to weaknesses is knowing you’ve got them and trying to balance yourself out with the people that are currently my direct reports.

That’s probably my biggest one. I want to get the box checked sometimes and I want to move on to the next thing. Sometimes that’s not the way to do things. I will say, over COVID, this has been an area where I have been forced to improve that because things are changing so often. Sometimes you will make a decision and some will change twelve hours later so you can’t have a long decision process but you’ve got to think things through, so it has definitely been more difficult. That’s probably the biggest weakness.

For my strengths, I love the people who work for me. One of my strengths is trying to do everything in my power to get them to the next level. It’s important to me. I have had that luxury in my career and I want to give that gift to others as they come up. Another strength is my experience. I have worked in three different leagues. I have worked for a long time. I have worked with teams that were impossible to sell tickets and teams where we sell them better. I have worked for good teams, bad teams, big and small staff. Indiana was an operations heavy organization. Tampa was a sales-minded organization. If you know anything about the Jones’s family, I’m in a sales-oriented organization now, which I would much prefer over ops any day.

Not that you can exist in ops, though, because you are such a process guy.

That’s what I was going to say. Probably another strength is my ability. I always tell people the best guy that does my job but also has the opposite mind in the industry is Chris Guardiani. From watching him over the years, that’s one of the things that I strive to be and I’m a lot better at that now than I was. There was a time where I barely knew how to use the ticketing system and now, I can get into the weeds with it a little bit but that’s a strength. I’m not just sales and service. I also oversee operations. I have gotten a pretty strong skillset in all three.

You, Gargani, and Stehlik probably, in terms of the process, can easily be COOs as much as you could CSOs, which was hard to find. To wrap this up in three more questions, if you had to summarize without a cliché your leadership philosophy, in a nutshell. Describe it.

I want to have a lot of fun and get results.

If you had to pick one book that you would like to gift or have gifted the most that you feel would leave a mark on somebody, what would it be, besides my book, of course?

I was going to say that it’s got to be that one. Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is probably the book. It was given to me when I was in Indiana when I was struggling with how things were done there and it made me see things in a different way, and I have probably gifted that book more than any other.

You know how much you and I are like family. If you had one song that defines your life that you wouldn’t even need somebody to give you a eulogy but they were playing that song, what song would that be?

I knew this question was probably coming and I still don’t have a great answer. I’m a huge country music fan. They could put on anything by George Strait and it would be great.

Does one George Strait song come to mind? I’m putting you on the spot.

Unfortunately, to replace a eulogy, The Chair is one of my all-time favorites. Pretty much anything the man sings, I’m down with.

Doug, it has been a great conversation. I appreciate our relationship. As always, I love the candor and self-reflection. I appreciate you.

It’s my pleasure. It was fun.

Important Links:

About Doug Dawson

ASO 20 | Leadership SkillsVice President, Ticket Sales and Service
Dawson runs point on ticketing for one of the most popular and valuable brands in sports, and what is by far the NFL’s annual attendance leader with an average of nearly 93,000 fans per game. In addition, he was a key figure in the club’s construction of its new multiyear partnership with SeatGeek, a deal that also covers other events at AT&T Stadium and The Star, the club’s practice facility in Frisco, Texas, and marks the most notable move by any NFL team away from Ticketmaster for primary ticketing.