If you’re wondering how to compete in a way that helps you grow and build relationships, Gretchen Sheirr has the answers for you. Gretchen is the Chief Revenue Officer for the Houston Rockets who has years of competitive experience to share with you today. She talks with host Lance Tyson about how you need to break your own record rather than try to beat other people. Learning this will help you create a high-performance sales team, powering through the challenges that come out of the left field. So are you ready to break your record? Tune in!
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Against the Sales Odds Talk about Healthy Sales Competition With Gretchen Sheirr
I’m excited about this episode of the show. This is a person I’ve known over the years. Every time I talk to her, we get into a very lively opinionated conversation. She gets me going when she starts stating her opinions. I’d like to welcome the Chief Revenue Officer of the Houston Rockets, Gretchen Sheirr. Gretchen, welcome.
Thanks for having me.
Far everybody reading, we got people in sports, out of sports and all kinds of industries. Talk a little bit at a high level about your role with the Houston Rockets. What falls underneath it?
All the revenue falls underneath me. Throughout COVID, it’s expanded a bit from life and moving parts in any living and breathing organization. I oversee our ticketing suites, partnerships, and then any of the other revenues that come in through the arena. I work closely with the GM of the building, our FNB piece, retail is in there, and then our suites, which go through the Toyota Center and the Rockets. I have a lot to do with our marketing business ops and communications as well.
How many bodies, people or souls report up to you?
During COVID, are you more focused on being agile or crisis management? What would you say?
Being flexible has always been something that we’ve built into our business plans. That’s how I operate. My team is going to laugh at me because I’ve said the word pivot more times in my entire life during COVID than ever before. Being able to pivot quickly with our team and some of the stuff that happened there, some of that could be seen as a crisis. Some of it could be seen as operational. It depends.
A few weeks ago, we were in crisis mode. Our city froze and the pipes burst. You couldn’t get transportation and people didn’t have power. That was crisis mode. How do we respond as an organization? Generally, it’s how do we take this opportunity, try to be as flexible as possible, learn from this, and which things are going to stick around post-COVID. We’re doing things that we never would have done had this not happened. Our hope is that stays with us forever.
I look at Houston and between the pipes freezing and at one point, it was the epicenter of Coronavirus, and being in sports entertainment, it’s interesting that you went to pivot as opposed to a crisis. As I was thinking about this interview, I looked at your area and you could have one right with that one.
A crisis is something that you had something to do with and either made a mistake or led to something. This just happened to the world. It was nobody’s fault and everybody had to react. While our industry was more front and center, and was the first to be impacted, and will probably be the last to return, it certainly was a crisis. We can’t control it. How can you be flexible and make the most out of what you can with what you can control?
The premise of the show is when I talk to the sales leader, almost 9.9 out of 10 have come up through the ranks or come up through some revenue generator. If you know anything about pro sports at all when, when Gretchen says all the revenue, there are multiple different sales processes underneath that revenue. It’s not just hawking tickets for a game. You’re talking about complex media deals, sponsorship deals, very high-end capital investments and suites, and things like that. When you think about how you started in sales, how did you break into the industry or sales?
No matter where it gets you, you’re always hawking tickets at some point. I was a diver at LSU. I’m working in college, interning, and doing all that stuff, that was not something that was accessible nor feasible to do for a college athlete. When I was graduating, it was like, “I need to find a job.” I had taken a live event marketing class at LSU. We put on a pep rally at a bar, which was pretty fun. I remember the professor going, “You could do this for a living.” I’m like, “Sign me up for that.”
To date myself, I was mailing, faxing, and I emailed a couple, whatever existed on my resume which was like, “I went to school and I’m a college athlete. Please hire me.” Most of the responses I’ve got were from ticket sales jobs, which I did not want to do. I was like, “I didn’t go to college to sell tickets. I’ll do something else.” I took a marketing rep role with a Minor League indoor soccer team in Houston.
I remember my dad going, “I don’t know if you want to do that. I’m not sure this is a sustainable career. I don’t know if you know but they’ve been around. They don’t play a season and then they come back and play another season.” I’m like, “It will be fine.” I took the marketing rep role and it was fine. There were six people in the entire front office. We did anything and everything that you could think of.
Chick-fil-A was starting to get into the sports world. This was from 2000 to 2001-ish. We did family packs before they were a thing. I pass out chicken sandwiches from a cooler to our fans. That was a legit part of my job. The season ends and we went into the meeting that was going to be our first off-season meeting. We got information about COBRA and got our final paycheck because they were ceasing front office operations.
From there, I went and took a ticket sales job as an internship through an organization. Before inside sales teams are big, this company would outsource. I moved to Portland and sold tickets all over the country for a few months. The Rockets were one of their clients. We weren’t selling for the Rockets but they were doing some sales training for them. They were hiring a season ticket account executive. I moved back to Houston. My intent was to go wherever the job went. The irony was to take the ticket sales job when you get offered because eventually, you’re going to take the ticket sales job. That’s what I did.
Now, you go from a marketing role from Chick-fil-A and hand out sandwiches. Dad was right and was point on, then you start at the Rockets. How are you as a salesperson? Did you kill it? Were you in the middle? What was the deal?
You always need to build flexibility into your business plan.
At that point, I had been in an inside salesroom. I was an athlete. I’m generally a competitive person. That competitive environment was something that I thrived on. I’ve always been on individual sports. I’ve always been a part of a team. At the same time, your teammate at a gymnastics meet or a diving competition is also your competition. That dynamic of being part of the team but also competing against your team is something that I was familiar with. I felt like I was a good teammate but I was also competitive and I like that.
Whether we had a good inside sales class or a balanced inside sales class, I was at the top of that class. When I got to the Rockets, we were on a fifteen-game losing streak in my first season. It was not an easy thing to sell. Luckily, we had the Comets. I leaned into the WNBA because we would sell both products. I was fine. I wasn’t great but they were rebuilding their sales culture at the time. They had come out of a good run.
The team was not good as I stated and it was taking a bit for people to adapt to not being good and things not being easy. I was the newbie that had come from an inside salesroom. They were rehiring sales management and I had that inside sales mentality. My work ethic and commitment to the process were very strong. My technique and ability were average but I overperformed because of the other stuff.
What’s one thing your first managers would say that was positive about you? What’s one thing they would be grinding about you?
I grinded it out. I knew that it was an uphill battle to climb. I was used to doing these exercises in college where we have these goal meetings every week, and I hated doing them with my college coach. I didn’t like to set a goal because what if I didn’t reach it. I learned the process of setting short-term and long-term goals, and how do I reach those milestones along the way.
What’s one thing your manager had to coach you a lot on when you first started out? What would they seem to ride you about or coach on?
My first manager was rough. He would tell it like it is. They saw potential in me. I saw myself as an entry-level salesperson. I acted and carried myself in that way, getting pushed to carry myself 2 or 3 steps above where I was, and balancing that out of where I am now but acting like where I want to be in the future.
I’m going to come back to something important because you and I probably agree and we’ve talked about this before. From a sales team culture standpoint, I’m a team person but I always look at sales as a wrestling team, a swimming team, a diving team or a golf team. You’re on a team but you’re competing against each other. I always look at sales teams that way, not as a basketball team but more as that individual sports. That drives competition too. I want to come back talking about how you’ve built sales cultures at the Rockets. Have you gone from inside sales? What’s your next move?
The Rockets didn’t have an inside sales program when I got there. I was hired directly into a seasoned role. The Toyota Center was opened two years after that. I sold for a little over a year at the Rockets, and then our leadership team decided to start their own inside sales program. That was one of those things like, “How do you act now? What do you want?” I’ve been selling for a year and they were taking internal candidates. They were also looking externally.
My boyfriend at the time who’s now my husband was like, “You need to apply for that. If you have a chance to take this step in your career, it doesn’t matter whether or not you think you have the experience, whether or not you’re ready. You got to go all-in.” I don’t know if I would have done that. He pushed me to apply for that at the time. We were talking about opening new buildings and what that means for salespeople with the commission. There weren’t as many internal candidates as you would think, but now there would be a lot more.
Back then, inside sales were brand new. They were like, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll see what happens but you might not have a job.” It was a risk to go all in. I went all in and I got the opportunity. I started the inside sales program at the Rockets the year before we opened Toyota Center. We had a team that was focused on the new building. My team was focused on selling the current season while the rest of the staff sold the move into Toyota Center. We then opened the building.
The team was super successful at the same time. We didn’t have a service team yet. Group sales weren’t separate. Everybody was doing everything. We were building out our organizational leadership team. Shortly after the building opened, I moved into the Director of Ticket Sales role. From there, Senior Director and then VP of Ticketing, Suites, Business Analytics, and then moved into the CRO role.
When you could go back to that director role, you’re now starting to have your legs in leadership. What are the things you focused on as you start to build these teams? You got that inside sales piece you’re running then you go over to Director of Ticket Sales. That’s a leap right there.
At the time, I was young and naive. I came into work to do my job and to do the best that I could to make sure that we were building good and strong teams. We were trying to create a culture where we trained people in our organization where they had a chance to grow internally. At that time, we were fighting to get inside sales candidates as the ones hired into sales roles, into marketing roles, and all over the organization. Now, I’m like, “Why the hell did they put me there?” I was young and I was pretty green, but we were also trying to do something that we had never done before. My ignorance was probably helpful.
You play it down a little bit, but how much has competitive diving has to do with how you led? You’ve talked about that a couple of times. You said it’s helped with your goals and stay competitive. How much of that did you integrate into? What part of that did you integrate into?
A few years ago, I was talking to someone in some conversation like this. That was the first time that they asked some questions. I was like, “Maybe that has more to do with my management, leadership style, and work environment than I thought I did.” It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter how you feel that day. You’re climbing up to a 10-meter platform and you have to dive off. That’s dangerous and you can hurt yourself.
No matter how you’re feeling or what hurts, hungover or not, none of that stuff mattered. You had to pull yourself together and do it. Ignore the noise or reasons why you can’t or excuses about why things weren’t the way that they were, and focus on controlling what you can control. It has always been how I’ve operated. In hindsight, it probably helped.
When I’ve talked to you in the past and worked with your teams, as you said, there’s all this other noise. If you go back to your first comment, “I look at crisis as one thing but I look at being able to pivot and being agile as something different.” It comes out as a little bit of that training because the way you’ve always communicated to me is like, “These are the controllables. Get it done. You will figure it out.” That’s what I’ve always heard from you at the end of the day. That’s part of the mix.
Set short-term and long-term goals and reach milestones along the way.
The other thing you said is you always set short-term goals for yourself and long-term goals in a person because that’s definitely a part of diving. Diving is one of the loneliest games you can play, and I think sales is one of the loneliest games you can play. You don’t always have somebody there. You go on as a director. From the director, what’s the next move?
I went to Senior Director. It’s the same role but also some other leadership stuff in the organization. I moved into the VP of Ticketing role and shortly after that, there were some changes. Someone left in the organization. Our suites group had been a part of our partnership team. They had gone from ticketing to partnerships. That’s common in a lot of teams on where that lands.
Was the Senior Director role to VP role a big change in responsibility?
It was because now all of our services and our operations team reported to me. At the time, it wasn’t because of what I was already doing from a leadership standpoint. That was probably the most natural transition for me at that time.
My question to you as you moved up in sales leadership is, how did you deal with high performers and with low performers? Maybe up to that VP role because you’re more hands-on day-to-day. You’re probably dealing with a couple of managers. How did you deal with a high performer? How did you treat them? How did you deal with the low performer?
A lot of our high performers are still here and functioning at high levels. Some of them have gone and done other things, and are running other places. Generally, we call it a meritocracy where if you perform well, it’s rewarded. That is evident in our company. What that performance is at any given time can be different. Low performers are probably something that I’ve grown a lot early in my career. It was cut bait pretty quickly.
I had a pretty clear expectation of what it was, and then there are two things. If you’re low-performing because you’re not doing these things, then I don’t have the time to put in. There are all of these other high performers to lean into if you’re not giving this work, then there’s low performance but you’re doing all of these other things correctly.
That is probably something that I’ve learned better later in my career. That’s either mismanagement, wrong alignment of skillsets or in the wrong position. I probably didn’t take a lot of time to delve into what was leading to that. Now, I’ll spend more time making sure that the alignment is right and the performance isn’t because of something that the organization is not providing or that we’re not doing.
You said it well too because a lot of times, you ended up getting people misplaced. At the end of the day, you don’t have somebody in the right place and they are not equipped to do it. You try that and they could be a good person. I’m with you on that and I don’t have a lot of time to have somebody on the staff trying to reinvent our business. I was like, “I didn’t hire you to reinvent our business. Trust me, we’ve done it. If you don’t want to do it, I get it. Let’s cut it here.” By the time you get the VP, was it in the early 2000s when you started?
I started with the Rockets in the summer of 2001.
By the time you had the VP role, what year was that?
It was at the beginning of 2010.
Inside of a decade, you’ve moved right up the food chain. You keep your head down and you get the job done. What’s the next big leap?
My role stayed the same. We had some re-alignment. Business analytics was not around in 2001. Someone left and most of that support was being done to help drive revenue. It made sense to have it support the revenue areas. We had that alignment. In 2016, I moved into our Chief Revenue Officer role, which didn’t exist before. Our CEO probably at one point had an SVP of sales and marketing. That was probably the closest thing but that had been a long time, and then we had a different leadership structure after that.
You then started to require different types of sales stuff you hadn’t done and talking about sponsorship and partnership sales. You’re dealing with a lot of different vendors and brands. Did you have to change your game or how did you have to change your game to that?
It’s probably the thing that I do worse. I don’t change my game a lot. I am who I am. Learning that process took a little bit of time. We’re small and we do not have a large team. We’re pretty flat and we don’t have a ton of layers. We had a lot of transparency as an organization and as senior leadership on what was happening. When I moved into the CRO role, I had been involved behind the scenes and learning that part of the business for a while.
It wasn’t as difficult for me as people think that it might have been because I had exposure there. At least understanding the business, the revenue, how it flows into the bigger picture, and all of that stuff like managing the staff and understanding that was definitely a learning curve. It was the first role that I had where I hadn’t done that job before. Where I had leaned into in my career is I’d always done what our staff had done. I’d worked in the windows and done all these things.
Ironically, when I was a marketing rep for the Minor League indoor soccer team, I did execute and activate sponsor contracts. Technically, I had a little bit of experience. I would not call it remotely close to the same thing as anyone on our team but that was the first time. A lot of leaders have that, particularly a lot of women leaders. It’s like, “I’ve never done that. Am I qualified? Can I do that sales leadership and business operation?” That is what it is. Those verticals have their nuances.
Cultivate confidence in your decision-making.
That was probably the most nerve-wracking and the scariest part for me. It was to go lead a department where I didn’t have an instinct and a core knowledge. I’m decisive. Sometimes it takes me a while when I make a decision. Sometimes I make them way too quickly. Making sure that I had the confidence in that decision-making in a new area was something that I struggled with.
I remember when you sat me down and grilled me from about three different angles about the team. You wanted to understand things from a 360 view, so I knew I was dealing with something. I didn’t plan to ask you this question but I’m going to. My company got through the pandemic. My whole senior team are women besides myself, my VP of Training and Sales, my Director of Client Activation and my VP of Finance are all women. You know as well as I do because we’ve talked about it and you said it. Sports at some level has been a little bit of a boys’ club. I’m not trying to understate it.
People who are successful as you, Michelle Kawahara, April Sanders of Topgolf, Jamie Morningstar who went from ops over to MSG, and Kirsten Bernard. I look at that and there’s a core group. What advice would you give to a female trying to make their way up through the ranks at any company because you’ve succeeded? You are confident and decisive. Give some advice.
I struggle with this one a lot. I kept my head down early in my career. I do what I was hired to do. I make sure that it’s a good job and that we’re developing our staff and move on. I probably didn’t give enough thought to making sure that the paths were well-paved for others. Obviously, I did notice. I would go to league meetings.
There would be inside sales managers at the time. There would be one female and there would be 29 guys. That can work and be beneficial. It’s not hard to remember the one female’s name. You can’t remember that you’re probably not good at sales. In some ways, that was beneficial had I not been competent or I misstep, which I’m sure I did eight million times.
In 2016, 2017, I had the 40 Under 40 honors. That was probably a tipping point for me because I had these women and students finding me on LinkedIn. They are sending these amazing messages that I went, “Oh my God.” I never stopped to think how few of us there were because you’re raising a family. You’re trying to make sure that your team has what they need. You are trying to make sure that you’re a good wife and a good mother.
It’s hard and you have to make a concerted effort to carve out time. That’s something that I definitely did not do until later in my career. COVID is hard. My husband works. When we go home, it’s the mental space in my head, that virtual schooling and my kids’ stuff takes up. I think there are switches that you guys have that women don’t have. It’s constantly there.
My Vice President of Business Development has worked for the Cowboys, Legends, Topgolf Sponsorship, and Al Guido of the 49ers. She had her second child and her baby is sitting in our meeting sometimes because we’re working from home during COVID. You were focused on getting the job done at whatever point you were at. Whether it was Director of Ticket Sales, you’re getting the job done there. During that time, you’re raising and taking care of your family. It’s a 360-view but you’re focused on getting things done.
I don’t care if you’re male, female or whatever as soon as you get looking at the 40 different things you can be doing or where you should be as opposed to the task at hand. You said it four times, “That’s probably why I got this done. I got the next thing.” If you look at your transitions, you moved up the ladder, whether you say it’s a major brand or a big footprint in a Major League. You moved up the ranks quickly because you can get stuff done. I’m not trying to blow smoke here.
It’s prioritizing what is getting done. In hindsight, I didn’t get that piece done early enough in my career. We’re on a good path now. It’s very important to me. I’m still relatively young, so there’s still time but that’s something. I remember in 2004 or 2005, we were at some meetings with some inside sales managers and I had a lot of women on my inside sales staff. I remember it was one of the open discussion timeframes. It was like, “How do you do that?” It was before true diversity and inclusion, and its importance.
Those conversations were not quite happening yet at the level that they should be. When you go in a room and you interview six people, and all six of them are male and don’t look like you, or there’s no representation, you feel that as a candidate and as a person. It’s making sure that when you’re interviewing and hiring, that you have a diverse set of people so and that people understand that they’re represented in their company. It puts a candidate at ease and they’re more likely to be themselves. People lean into things that they have more in common with.
You’re saying more so at this part of your career, you’re more working on making that pathway for people because you made it through.
It’s something that I always thought about. It was something that we did. I’ve always had other departments and different people involved in interview processes, even when they weren’t doing that. It was important for our one-team culture as an organization. In hindsight, that was probably a very strategic forward-thinking thing to do because we were accomplishing a lot of other things along the way. I just didn’t view it like that at the time.
What you said was profound. I did a bunch of talks on diversity. I don’t know if you know Mark Jackson. I interviewed him and a few other folks. I had to get into the diversity and inclusion piece too because I’ve never sat in a meeting where somebody said, “Don’t hire that person because of their gender.” Mark was coaching me. He’s African-American and he goes, “Have you ever heard this?” He was talking about things you might hear like, “That guy is aggressive.” He goes, “That’s a code.” I go, “I have not heard that.” I look at myself and I never thought that way.
A gentleman who works for me goes, “Have you ever walked by a car and had somebody lock their doors?” I said, “That has never happened.” He said, “Have you ever got in an elevator and see somebody clutch their purse?” Those comments woke me up a little bit. As I started thinking through how important that is to leadership, even in my own company, that diverse thought, a different way of thinking, different priorities, and different views are absolutely critical to any culture moving forward.
The other thing you said that I love is we’re small but we’re transparent. We’re very transparent so people know the direction when they can see through the curtain a little bit. It always helps with communication. My last couple of questions are, what is your leadership philosophy, without using a cliché?
I lead by example. I know that it is probably a cliché but I don’t think anyone on my team feels like I would ask anyone to put in work or effort that I would not do or not be willing to do, except for our team that is doing content. I can’t edit and film stuff. I cannot do it. You do not want me doing that. My leadership style is probably competitive. I don’t feel that we have an environment of a lot of office politics and some of those challenges. I compete against ideas and move things forward.
If I see a team, a league or some other industry do something that’s cool, different, progressive and drives the business forward, and we didn’t think about it, I get competitive that we didn’t think about it. “Why didn’t we think about it? Do we not have the right structure? Do we not have the right resources? Are we not leaning into the correct areas?” I don’t know if that answered your question.
Beat your own record.
You brought that competitive piece up a couple of times. Being competitive is not racing against your neighbor or winning a race. It’s a long-term evolution. I’m very similar. I see somebody do something that’s different and we hadn’t thought about it. Sometimes, I’ll get mad at myself like, “Why aren’t we thinking that way? That’s so different. Why are they out there doing X, Y and Z?” I 100% understand that.
One of my very good friends won a gold medal in the Olympics. The other one that was my college teammate was the alternate on the team who should have been on the team, but that’s for another episode. I learned early on in my career that I could be as competitive but I was not beating them. Unless they scratched a dive and could not get up, I was not going to beat them. I was very aware of what my skillset was. I had to pivot my goal setting. Instead of, “Where was I in terms of where I finished in rank?” It was, “What was my score last time? How can I beat my own record?” Sometimes, when I talk about my competitiveness, I get a little worried that it comes off like I’m trying to beat other people.
The diving would probably bring it back. That’s a perfect example. You are competing against yourself and your last score. When you talk about competitiveness or anybody that does, you got to look at the depths of it. Somebody said one time, “You’ll play lonely games. Games that you can’t win because they’ll be against you, but it’s that competitiveness against yourself that’s the next level.” I’m going to fire away a couple of questions here. I always end up the interviews this way. If you had one song on a big sale, whether you’re a vendor negotiating or you know something or brought you back a few years, if you had one song you played in your head, what was the sales song?
When I was on the ticketing floor, we had this group and they would play that annoying song Friday. They would play it every Friday at the end of the week. They would all stand up and have this weird dance that they would do. My office overlooked all of it. It was fine and happy. No matter what happened that week, they would do that. Anytime there’s a fun moment here, that stupid song goes in my head because of that group.
Put your kids back to 6 or 7 years old, niece or nephew. They say, “Aunt Gretchen or mom, what is success?” What would you tell your 6 or 7-year-olds?
I would ask them if they’re happy and did they do what they love? Can they put a roof over their head? At the end of the day, do they come home to who they love? Do you have enough money to take mom on a vacation like take care of me when I’m old?
The last question, if you had a book to gift, what book did you gift the most?
I don’t read a lot of business and sales books. The book that I get the most is when anybody has a baby, I gift a book called My Very Own Name. You personalize it. It’s awesome. I’m sure there are people on other teams or my team that has it. That is my go-to book. If we know people and we share friends and they have a baby, you are not allowed to give them that book. Not that I’m competitive but it’s a good baby gift book.
Gretchen, this has been awesome. I appreciate you being on this show. People will get a ton out of it. I appreciate our relationship and thank you so much.
Thanks. I can’t wait to when you’re allowed to come back and visit us in person.
About Gretchen Sheirr
Gretchen Sheirr, who recently finished her 20th season with the Rockets, began as an account executive and worked her way up the ranks, becoming the team’s Sr. Director of Ticket Sales, Vice President of Sales & Services, Chief Revenue Officer (CRO), and eventually COO.
As CRO, Sheirr oversaw all ticketing and suites sales, services and operations for the Rockets and Toyota Center as well as corporate development and business strategy. In her expanded role as COO, all business departments reported directly to Sheirr.
Early in her career, Sheirr spearheaded the implementation of a private-label ticketing venture, now known as AXS Ticketing, which garnered success for both the Rockets and Toyota Center. Her comprehensive understanding of ticketing strategy and ability to forecast industry opportunities along with a commitment to digital innovation and fostering strong relationships within the Houston business community have been vital to the organization’s success.
A native of Spring, Texas, Sheirr graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in marketing. She also was a four-year letter winner as a diver for LSU. In 2017, she was named one of Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40, which annually recognizes the top young professionals in sports business.
Sheirr is a founding board member of WISE Houston and is a member of the Executive Women’s Partnership. She and her husband, Ken, have twins, Zachary and Jordan, and live in The Woodlands.