Understanding The Ideals And Principles Of Servant Leadership For Success With Mike Drake

Are you managing your business just to earn money? You can’t succeed without the people you have around you, so it’s very important to keep growing, learning, and evolving while making a difference in people’s lives. Let’s all listen to Mike Drake, the Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships and Premium Sales for the Atlanta Hawks. In this episode, he draws heavily on the ideals and principles of servant leadership when he talks about building a first-class team and the supporting sales culture. But he also highlights a fundamental sales concept that is foundational in his leadership and his selling style: before you can sell your products or services, you must first sell yourself and build your credibility. It’s all about trust and credibility.

Listen to the podcast here:


Against the Sales Odds and Mike Drake Discuss the Ideals And Principles Of Servant Leadership

I am excited about this episode. I have a good friend, a partner and somebody I’ve worked with. I have Michael Drake on who’s the Senior Vice president of Global Partnerships and Premium Sales for the Atlanta Hawks, State Farm Arena, NBA 2K, their G League team and Centennial Yards. It’s good to talk to you, Mike.

Thanks. I’m very happy to be here.

I was excited for knowing how lively our conversations typically are over a good steak and a couple of drinks.

Continue to evolve in your partnerships and businesses.

We’ll get on some tangents here. Keep us focused.

No doubt. I’ve got leaders and salespeople from a lot of different industries. It’s a big role, big title and a lot of properties that your group manages. Tell us a little bit about your role at a macro level.

It starts at the partnership level. We are deep in trying to figure out how to continue to evolve our sponsorship and partnership business across all of those properties, figuring out how to integrate them in a meaningful way. Where it starts is taking our partnerships and stringing those where it makes sense across all of those properties from real estate, to gaming, to our G League team, our arena and concert business and then our basketball business. A lot of time spent there and then the premium side of our business is a nice revenue driver. The arena that we built rooted in a ton of different premium options. I try to balance our time between both of those but a lot of it is spent in the partnership world.

It’s interesting enough that you say that for some quick background on Michael. He’s been in the Atlanta market for several years. He’s been involved in two major products in terms of anchoring that city. Mercedes-Benz Stadium when he was with Legends and the Falcons and then as the Hawks were redoing their whole Arena, a major investment. Talk about two big things you did because soon as you came in there, you were able to put together a pretty big deal with State Farm. That’s a big naming rights deal.

ASO 38 | Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership: Genuine curiosity and relationships with the people that have direct impacts on your career at the early stages are very important.

The largest pelt on my wall, for sure. There were some big stadium projects that Legends, myself and colleagues architected. The State Farm deal was tremendous. I didn’t do it alone. There were a lot of players. There always is. A lot of people played a key role in that. Big deal rooted in community and community activation. State Farm was not interested in putting a sign on our building. In fact, if that was our pitch, we wouldn’t have had a deal.

It was going to be rooted in community, which was a big challenge for us. Is the evolution in many respects of the partnership business? The community side of any deal is going to be critical going forward but nice deal. A lot of community work that we’ve been fortunate to pull off and they are great partners.

It’s indicative of all the different properties and brands that you’re managing and tying that in, anchored in the community. If anybody knows how Atlanta has made investments over the last few years, in terms of infrastructure, arenas and things, you’ve been a critical piece of that. How this conversation always goes is one is always asked. “How the hell does he get there? How does somebody land at that title?”

Let’s go backward. The theory is and you and I have always talked about this is that you’re either in high finance. You move up the ladder in high finance, you can bring pelts or food to the table. You and I aren’t high finance guys from what about you but we’re sales guys. Where did you start? Where’s the beginning for you? California boy?

Southern California boy and college at UC Santa Barbara. I got out of college. I thought I want to maybe be an attorney but I did not want to go to law school for 2 to 3 more years. I tooled around and then quickly put a note together with my brother of what are the things I like to do. Surfing was at the top. I couldn’t make a lot of money at that.

Having beers with my friends was probably number two, I can’t make a lot of money at that but sports was three. We stock opinion in and said, “That’s what we’re going to start.” I got a job up in Los Angeles for a small company at the time, Mandalay Sports Entertainment that ran Minor League Baseball teams. I ended up moving to Frisco, Texas to open up a Minor League building.

Tons of surfing. A lot of beaches. Interestingly enough, I landed in Frisco with no real idea where my career was going to go but I opened up a new Minor League building. As you’ll start to hear, it ended up being my IP in my career growth. I spent six years with the Frisco RoughRiders and progress from ticket sales, ticket management, sponsorship sales and sponsorship management.

I got a chance when the Dallas Cowboys were starting to open up a new building to move across the street. A gentleman by the name of Chad Estis who you know well. I’m sure many on this reading will know as well. When he came in as the Executive Vice President for the Cowboys, I got a call. I knew Chad from playing basketball and knew Doug Dawson. I got a call and they said, “Do you want to come over and help?” At the time, I was ready for a move out of Minor League Baseball.

Figure out what’s important to the buyer.

There’s an important piece here. You spent six years at Frisco. You start to start to network yourself. I’ve never asked you this question. A young sales guy and starting ticket sales. You are involved with opening that building and then you’re going to go into a conversation about opening another building. I never thought about that being your IP but it is your IP at the end of the day. How’s Mike Drake as a young ticket salesperson? What’s that look like? What were you good at and bad at? One of your mentors or one of your close allies, I asked him this question, “Who were you as a salesperson?” He goes, “I was a solid 5, 6 or 7 on the board.”

That’s probably right for me. If chances are 5 or 6, I’m going to say 7 or 8. I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know it. I listened a lot to the guys around me. The manager, but I had a couple of guys around me that had been doing it a little while and I listened and I more or less copying and then I started putting my personality into it.

Fortunately being the last of eight kids, I had sounding boards, four of them brothers of how do I approach this? Some of my brothers are clear, “Shut up and listen. There’s no problem with copying and then you’ll start to get your rhythm.” I was middle leaderboard, maybe up a little bit. I hit a couple of big wins that moved me up but I listened and I copied early on and then started to figure out what was important to the buyer.

You were with the crew there. To anybody reading, Mandalay is not around anymore but the alumni from Mandalay are around. There’s a lot of them there. Brent Stehlik my VP of Sales, Gina Beltrama, Marsha Steinberg, Michael Burns and Matt Goodman. Kevin Rockledge, a former Raven is there. What a great crew to have. At one point you were all down there too.

ASO 38 | Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership: Understand the importance of leadership and culture and how to display that the right way.

That first year when Rock was there, it would have been him, myself, Brent, Marsha and Goodman. We were all there.

Everybody was there. You start copying, imitation, observation and repetition. I’m with you. That’s the easiest and fastest way to get stuff done. Why reinvent something if somebody’s already doing it well? You go from there, get recognized and your next role inside Mandalay, you go from ticket sales?

Managing the ticket sales department. Maybe there’s a nuance here that that’s worth sharing. One, I’d be remiss not to mention, Jon Spoelstra how he knew Steve DeLay, who did a nice job of engaging me and allowing me to engage them. I was genuinely curious about the evolution of me and the business. I oftentimes found myself in conversations with them.

Rate yourself as a networker.

I was good at networking with the people within my organization and a little bit in the community too. I’m more aligned with the mentors within the organization, Mandalay at the time. I got the opportunity when the position opened to put my hat in the ring. He said I’m interested in learning and getting on that side of the business.

The time I had spent with Jon Spoelstra, Steve DeLay and Mike McCall at the time, I had earned enough credibility to when I asked for that role, I was able to get a shot at getting it. I would tell everybody on this show, that genuine curiosity and relationships with the people that have direct impacts on your career at the early stages are very important. I did okay at that, I got a chance to manage that and that happened throughout. When our sponsorship department had some turnover, I put my hat in that ring and I got the ability to go learn that side of the business.

You have a responsibility to yourself and a career to keep learning.

You had a good rapport with people internally. You were able to network your way up through. You get a look at a different side of the business, not just a transactional ticket sale, you all of a sudden start to move into sponsorship, which was more complex and some more layers. You get to do that.

Jon Spoelstra at the time did a good job of training me and teaching me about the consultative nature of a sponsorship sale and the collaborative nature of a sponsorship sale. A lot of data out there that when you invite that other side of the table to your side during the sales process, your win rate is much better. He did a good job at teaching us the importance of that versus talking at prospects.

The reason I want you to stay there for a minute is because anytime I’ve talked to somebody early on in their career where their foundation was and it so happens, there’s a lot of predictable and scalable that came out of that Mandalay process. The proof to me is in the execution. All those people that you mentioned have moved their way up. They’re in other organizations, sports or other industries. They have a foundation or sound. That’s important. Now you go from a more minor brand and you get into the big leagues but in a similar market. You’re in the market. You understand the market.

Same market. Fortunately, Mandalay was a Minor League team, it was run like a Major League organization. The leaders, Howie Nuchow, those guys who are now big waves in the business. They ran it like a pro team and they had the resources to do it that way. The transition to Major Leagues and the Cowboys was not as hard as it might perhaps be for a traditional Minor League employee.

There was an evolution there too, to get into that space, have a brand like the Dallas Cowboys, asking for astronomical investments from folks for that project but I started to learn and perhaps when we start to have this conversation at some point, it was where I started to understand the importance of leadership and culture and how to display that the right way. I’m still learning that. You always got to get better at that was where some evolution in my management philosophies and my philosophies with people in general.

The role you go over to the Cowboys, that’s that big suite role you’re at. What’s interesting about you and every time I think like you’ve always had sold or managed teams in tough scenarios. The bottom line, if you go back to the beginning of this, Michael is at the Hawks now but came off the fact that they built this beautiful new stadium across the street and he’s selling into that already with the Hawks that didn’t go to a completely new build but a complete refurbish.

The market wasn’t hot and he goes into the Cowboys. FYI for anybody that doesn’t remember this, it wasn’t that the Cowboys were getting press on that stadium. Prices were astronomically higher than anything that had ever been charged in history. They’re selling a premium product that’s not getting the greatest press in the world either. Talk about how you had to change your sales style because one of your superpowers is to understand the motivation of the buyer and form-fitting around that. Talk about that because you jumped right back into selling.

I went from the management of the sponsorship business back into selling. At least in my world, I’ve never gotten too far away from the sales side of it when you’re managing. We went over there and you had to be a maniacal prospector because there were budgets that you needed to know you could absorb an investment that you were asking about. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.

You had to be smarter in your research, in your prospecting. Once you were in a room, we learned how to story-tell in a way that brought this suite product to life more than “entertaining.” You hear that a lot of young sellers, “You can use tickets to entertain.” That was probably the last thing we talked about. We talked about how to use these platforms as recruiting tools, philanthropic tools and event space. We had to evolve how that suite product was used by the consumer. We had to teach, consult for them, share with them how that worked and then convince them that it was a good vehicle to do that with.

ASO 38 | Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership: Learn the importance of accountability and true personal relationships with employees versus just a number of relationships.

You separated yourself there because you were in a very competitive pool and the people selling those suites. The marketplace was competitive. It was a tough marketplace. The prices were comparable, nothing else. She couldn’t go back and say, “This is what they were charging Philly.”

It was a twenty-year deal only. You had to do twenty-year deals and they averaged $250,000 a year and there was no moving off that. Recognize it’s the Dallas Cowboys. They are a massive brand but no one is forking over $10 million and $20 million without real need so we had to get after it.

$10 million and $20 million sale requires a $10 million or $20 million presentation. You succeed there. What happens from there because now you’re locked in. You’re at that spot with the Cowboys, a big brand. Two things too. I want you to start thinking about it. How is your leadership philosophy changing or evolving? How did your sales strategy started changing or evolving?

On that suite team, we’d gotten to a pretty good sell-through. I was pretty open again with my direct reports and Chad and the team that listened, “I want to evolve. I’m a bit of a restless soul. I don’t want to sit here and do suite rentals.” That was a conversation we had a lot. Fortunately in my career, sometimes there’s luck. In many people’s career there’s got to be a little luck.

We had some innovators in our front office that agreed, “Let’s form a service consulting business agency and Legends.” As Legends was formed, there were two folks that had to go and start the first project, which was a San Francisco 49ers and it was myself and a gentleman named Al Guido. We had to go and do it. Chad and the team looked at us and said, “You two know how to do it. You guys start heading to San Francisco and let’s start this business.” The Legends was born. We start working that and we have some success there in San Francisco then onto Atlanta here.

Let’s not be remiss on that too because this is where strategy and leadership come in. San Francisco at the time Candlestick was might’ve been the USS Midway. I remember going there and there’s grass growing out of concrete and this is where the 49ers play. The Golden State Warriors is over-crossed in Oakland and the San Jose Sharks had this old barn they played in. It wasn’t like those marketplaces now. Once again, you guys go in asking for the biggest prices in the world, the longest and they’re moving the stadium from San Francisco to San Jose. You got a lot of heavy lift there and you had all the premium team.

I went back into opening up the stadium in a management capacity of the premium space. We’re back to 10 and 20-year deals, 250 plus the same environment. San Francisco, the 49ers big powerful brand but a lot of work needed to be done there. I had some success there. I started to learn a bit more about management, culture and developing people.

You need to earn the right to ask for business. You cannot just walk in and ask for business. 

Talk about that leadership style. What’s evolving for you at this point? Because now you have to build it. It’s not inside the Mandalay system. Legends at this point is an entrepreneurial company. They have a way to do it but it’s evolving. How do you evolve as a leader?

It was an interesting time in my career because I did not want to let Legends fail. You might remember this. Largely, the success or failure of Legends at that project because this is our first NFL project was going to be determined by how much money we could bring in and how quickly. They negotiated a deal with us where we didn’t have a deal with them unless we performed first.

I give you that context because I was very focused on revenue, which I later started to evolve out of that but I was focused on that first and foremost. I probably didn’t do a great job of developing people but as the project went on and as I knew we had them as a partner, I started to learn that I needed to shift my focus to a bit more of servant leadership, perhaps. I’m still getting better there but servant leadership and less about my own success.

We remember a lunch with you and it was my first trip ever to In-N-Out Burger. I can honestly say, this is the guy that brought me there. We had a pretty authentic conversation about your frustration with leadership. I’m not saying that solved anything. I remember that day, I was getting to know you because I was in their training and it wasn’t a check-off list. We were going through how you were managing up and how you were managing across. I distinctly remember that conversation.

I was not great at it. I started to learn the importance of managing up. I started to learn the importance of accountability and true personal relationships with employees versus a number of relationships. That’s where it started to evolve into the benefits of that relationship with deeply personal relationships with staff and starting to manage up and making the lives of people above me easier. I had to start developing that skill because I was focused on generating money for me and the project because if that didn’t happen, we didn’t have a project. I had to evolve out of that.

The sales skills were there. I can remember conversations where I know you were with salespeople all the time being the closer or being the caller. I’ve gone in there. That’s well said. The one thing that I’ve always admired about you is you never claim to have the world by its ass. You know what your weaknesses are and what your strengths are. It’s something you said, it’s practice. It’s not you’re not going to arrive. You’re going to keep getting better.

You have a responsibility to yourself in your career to keep learning.

It should be somebody’s KPI.

There’s experience is one way to learn but that’s a much longer process versus internally looking at things in every situation like how would I handle that now versus how I handled it back then. That’s at least one of the ways I try and grow up.

Ultimately, this thing becomes a success and then you get the next opportunity. Some of you need to know about Mike. He is needling at his bosses at all times the next thing. When he said he is restless, I cannot state that enough. He thinks about getting the job done, very goal-oriented and wants to advance his career. I don’t even know if strategic is the right word but it’s something that you’re bugging in people’s ears because it’s the next mountain for you. That’s what I respect about you immensely.

ASO 38 | Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership: The mind is a powerful thing, and it can drive you to do big things if you’re using it the right way.

I certainly was not shy of, “When the next opportunity comes, I want a shot.” I never thought I was owed it. There are plenty of stories of being thrown out of a room saying, “We understand Drake. Get out of here and we’ll figure it out later”

You get this next big opportunity. To remind you, two more key opportunities. Cowboys and 49ers. Two brand new stadiums, part of his IP, went to leadership, back to selling, back to leadership again. He goes from San Francisco talking about this next big rock that you launch.

Legends. We have some success in San Francisco and now we’re getting in every room where there is a potential new stadium. We got a chance to go sit in front of Arthur Blank, myself, Mike Ondrejko, Chad Estis. We sat in front of Arthur Blank and convinced him that we can help him raise money, raise the capital needed to build up a new stadium. When he agreed that we were the agency to do it, fortunately enough, Chad and Drake is in that team and said, “It’s your turn. Go run it now.” Now different than just the premium. Now I’ve got to run all of the PSL ticketing campaign and the premium all on behalf of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United in order to build enough working capital for the buildup.

The thing you all have to think about because I distinctly remember early stories here, you don’t have the storytelling that you have the Cowboys and 49ers with the Falcons. You don’t have that story and that heritage. I’m not criticizing the Falcons but it is a new stadium, mega-market and now you’re becoming out there at Atlanta.

The new stadium and new market. College market. They love their college football, by far the hardest challenge of my career, that project.

What was the biggest hurdle there for you?

The importance of the PR strategy in PSL campaigns, we overlooked. I don’t think we were smart enough coming out of our first 49ers project let alone Cowboys. We knew there were PR challenges. 49ers project now to the Falcons, the PR around these seat licenses got way out in front of us. We were always fighting uphill to justify those. That was difficult.

That affected your sales strategy. Back to that question because we were addressing that at all times, that PSL objection.

That drove our talking points. We were going to hit on that aspect of the PSL campaign and why and we weren’t shy. We were fine putting it right on the table up front but that was a hard project. It goes back to the importance I started to place on the people that worked for me and less about me. I have deep relationships and I hope I created an environment. You’d have to ask the people an environment that the team loved to come to and that they felt comfortable in.

We spent a lot of time there on that one. I think about it as opposed to what we did at the 49ers. We’re very focused on how you are doing stuff. You and I know the time we spent together, how we were going to deliver it and what we wanted to get out of this. We spent as many hours preparing how to how train off of what you were training with and then anytime I’d come in to put an end cap on something. People’s personalities, how we were going to push? What temperature are we going to create in the room?

That was important. Creating that environment that felt good to everybody because everyone’s motivated a little bit differently. You had to be able to shift a little bit here and there. We did that pretty well. We had great support from the Atlanta Falcons and we ultimately got there. We had a little Super Bowl around that helped us, I have to admit that but a little bit of luck sometimes.

Find the positive in something and try to build on it. 

With how hard it was in the beginning, we needed that. We do that at the end of the day. All of a sudden, the storytelling Mike Drake is I’ve been involved in all these startups, these builds and this laying the foundation then you’re landing now coming off that project, putting it to bed and you get the opportunity at the Hawks.

I’ll say something because I’m sure it’s on people’s minds. They’re reading. You hear a lot of ticket and premium work in my background, which is true at the time but it’s important to know that I was also intentional, even after the RoughRiders in Dallas, San Francisco and certainly Atlanta. I aligned very closely knowing that the sponsorship world was ultimately where I was going to get back to at some point. I needed to have some more experience there.

I aligned very closely with all of those stakeholders at each of those properties. I stayed very close to that sponsorship business. In many cases, we found prospects for the sponsorship team to ultimately talk to because we had a giant sales team. I was intentional about that. When I left that Falcon project, remember there was a transition. I ended up leaving Legends to be on the executive team for the Falcons and AMB sports.

We got to a time when I didn’t want to jump and move again at that time. I ended up on the executive team and aligned closely with sponsorship. We built a cohesive unit of two departments acting like one. Fast forward, across the street, what do you know? They’re going to open a new building, more or less. It was a giant renovation. I had a relationship previously with the owner of the Atlanta Hawks from my time in Los Angeles and my family member. I got to meet that leadership.

That interview process, was that a no-brainer for them or did you have to get a little elbowy about why Mike Drake as opposed to going somewhere else?

It was probably a little bit of a no-brainer for them. They literally needed to do everything I had done for the last several years. I just had to say, “Here’s what I want to make sure you’re doing.” When they said, “We still need to do that,” I said, “I can help you do that.” The leadership team is solid. The owner is unbelievable.

A guy by name of Tony Ressler had a clear vision. Everybody was aligned. They were all saying the right things, which was important to me. If I was going to make a move, that ownership and that insane executive was important. They all said good things. There were opportunities back in a deep sponsorship business.

Naming rights and partnerships that needed to get done. Jersey patch deals that needed to stay in tack. An entire sales process needed to be developed. Things that I was pretty good at and started to learn from my experience of opening these buildings. The fact that I could walk across the street built more on the sponsorship skillset that I had before and aligned with another good ownership group. It became an easy decision.

The last couple of questions, we’ll bring this bird down for landing. Fantastic story and you can see the trend there and the IP of you. I love that. As you look to the future of sales in a more complex deal, you and I had spent hours over steaks talking about big deals. I can remember when you broke down the State Farm deal with me. You and I talk a lot about negotiating. From a complex sales standpoint, no matter what you’re sold whether it’s sports you’re trying to land, your manufacturer trying to sell capital equipment, what do you think the future of sales is? You spend a lot of time in that world.

It depends on which aspect I’m thinking about when I think of all the different parts that factor into sales. The one thing I believe in and separate again, I’ve mentioned culture and your staff, that’s one but you got to do that right first of all. As it relates to traditional sales, I am a big believer and I started to get this way before the Hawks but even more with the pandemic.

Credibility and trust, you have got to earn that first before you earn the right to ask for a deal. Whereas an eager young sales guy, “I’d call somebody. I got something you need. Let me meet with you. I’m going to come to pitch it to you and you’re going to buy it.” That is a much more naive approach. You have to build some trust and credibility with the prospect, know their business, speak to them about their business prior to even getting in a room and asking for a deal. That’s important going forward.

It’s interesting about what you said too because so many salespeople default to this word relationship. I’m like, “It’s a rapport thing but it’s also credibility and trust.” A lot of the best salespeople I know get in there and grind it a little bit but the people respect them. It’s not about the likeability factor all the time. Credibility and trust are this together. They lock.

You’ll have a relationship after that. You need to earn the right to ask for business. You cannot just walk in and ask for business. How do you even get in front of them? When it goes to prospecting, it’s making prospecting even tougher because it’s longer now and you better know your research, you better know about that person and you better build credibility by knowing all that info and using it to your advantage. That’s going to be critical.

Last couple of questions. I always ask these questions. Rapid-fire these questions. You’re going to do a big deal, the next big deal with your salespeople and the next naming right, what song are you playing to get ready for that deal?

I’m a Metallica Enter Sandman guy. Although you’re Phil Collins, start with beautiful now. I can get jammed on a little Metallica to get me going.

Second question. We’re talking about your kids in our pre-game. Your kids’ age, right around their age. They say, “Dad, what’s it mean to be successful?” Your quick answer is?

That your story when you’re gone or your story when you’re retired, the way that people reflect on you as a person and having the character be in the right place when you ask other people, that’s success to me and I’ve evolved. That was not a success for me years ago.

I didn’t even care about it at one point. Now the legacy is huge.

Your character and legacy, that’s become much more important to me.

I know you study and prep a lot. Last question, besides my book, what good book do you gift the most?

It’s a small read. It’s not sexy. I don’t know if anybody knows about it but it’s called The Positive Dog. It’s a small book but it’s easily handed off to somebody. It’s the power of a positive mindset. As we talked about some of the challenges that we have in our career and I had plenty, I could either go down a dark hole of negativity and it’s never going to get better or I could try and shed that, find the positive in something and try and build on it that way. I like The Positive Dog. There’s a lot of good books. There’s negativity in the world even more now than before. The more I can get people to think on the positive side of things always, the mind’s a powerful thing and it can drive you to do big things if you’re using it the right way.

Great talk with you. I want everybody thinking as they read this, what’s your IP look like? What’s your story? Michael, this was a great interview. Thanks.

Great hanging. Anytime and hopefully, we’ll be seeing you and your team down here before too long.

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About Mike Drake

A Sports Entertainment Sales and Marketing executive who prides himself on effective leadership and developing talent through demonstrating the character, humility, experience, wisdom, and inclusiveness needed to drive the right results, for the right reasons, at the right time. Skilled in strategic innovative planning, revenue growth, sponsorship and ticket sales & service, marketing, ancillary event revenue development, analytic decisions, legal and public relations.