Imagine, for a moment, what it means to work in the sports industry in an entry-level position. Many things might come to mind… but yoga? Improv comedy? They probably don’t top your list.
Yet at Major League Soccer, a league growing as quickly as the popularity of soccer itself, that’s exactly what you would get. By sidestepping expectations, the MLS National Sales Center is creating a new standard in the industry. Here’s an in-depth look at how they’re making it happen.
TRAINING THE WHOLE PERSON
The MLS National Sales Center (NSC) in Minneapolis was born a mere five years ago as a response to growing demand for new sales talent. Bryant Pfeiffer, VP of Club Services for MLS and founder of the NSC, crafted the program to teach trainees how to navigate their new profession. “In addition to the over 200 hours of curriculum, we included elements to help our trainees get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Pfeiffer explains. Which is where improv and yoga fit in… but we’ll get to that.
MLS also sought to create a strong culture that cultivates passion, which meant, as NSC manager Melanie Seiser explains, recruiting people truly passionate about growing the soccer movement. Applicants are even asked to submit elevator pitch videos to showcase their desire to start a career in sales and soccer. For some, this is their first lesson in getting “comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Candidates selected to become MLS NSC Sales Trainees then go through an intensive training process with a robust curriculum, live phone calls, and constant self- and peer-evaluation. And yes, improv and yoga. How exactly do they help build a strong culture? Let’s dive in.
Sales can be a challenging field to jump into, especially for many trainees who are starting their first real jobs. That’s where improv classes come in to play. Various improv exercises are used to help build confidence and push beyond comfort zones.
“In sales, bad and awkward things are sometimes going to happen, but the more you can embrace those moments, the better you’ll be as a professional,” Melanie says.
Through a partnership with local improv theater the Brave New Workshop, trainees learn the fundamentals of improv and how it applies to the sales process.
“Everything we do here has a ‘why,’ and we make sure we discuss that,” Melanie says. “On the surface, improv and selling tickets have nothing to do with each other. But once you dig into it, the parallels are obvious. We make sure the trainees understand and can bridge the gap between the two, so it’s more than just a fun game.”
Improv also helps create an immediate sense of community. The number one rule of improv is to say “yes, and,” which provides a safe environment where there are no wrong answers.
Improv has even permeated the rest of the league. It didn’t take long for management at the different MLS clubs to see the benefits improv provides their reps, and it’s now used in league-sponsored training. “We’ve done everything from having [Brave New Workshop owner] John Sweeney present a motivational keynote on creating a ‘Yes, and’ culture to facilitating improv based exercises at our league-wide workshops and meetings,” Pfeiffer says.
Alum Nick Lamb, who now manages season ticket sales for the LA Galaxy, says he continues to practice improv to this day. As a trainee in 2011, Nick learned how to reframe the way he thought through improv training. “It helped me approach sales with a different mindset. Now, as a manager who regularly trains sales executives, I incorporate these unique methods to help my executives succeed and to keep the material fresh for young professionals,” he says.
The other piece of the NSC puzzle that might be a head-scratcher at first is yoga. (Though as we recently learned at LITG, practicing mindfulness can be a huge asset in your career.) At the NSC, trainees get yoga mats on the first day. With the help of the local Heat Yoga Studio, trainees practice yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques at least twice a week.
A career in sales—and the sports industry—takes a lot of energy, so it’s important that trainees learn to take care of themselves from the outset. “We believe that your mental health is just as important as physical health, and mindful practice is a big part of that,” Melanie says.
“Yoga has the ability to completely exhaust you physically while simultaneously allowing for mental rejuvenation,” says alum Hannah Linton, now an account executive for Orlando City SC. “With hot yoga, my mind was freed from any problems because it was forced to focus on not falling on my face, which was humbling,” Hannah laughs.
At the end of the day, the priority is showing trainees how to live a more healthy lifestyle early on in their careers. Melanie explains: “It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and skip the gym or swing by a fast food joint for dinner in favor of an extra hour of sleep. If we can help them get into a healthier routine while they’re at the NSC, their good habits are more likely to continue once they’ve reached their club.”
For a program that’s not quite five years old, the NSC is already ahead of the curve. With nearly 200 trainees placed in the MLS since 2010 and around 10% already in management roles, they could sit back on their laurels and give themselves a pat on the back. But growth and success only drives them to see what else they can accomplish. “The coolest part of this program is its ability to constantly evolve and progress. It’s so fun testing out new ideas; I can only imagine where we’ll be in another year,” Melanie says. “We don’t just produce strong sales people, but people who 100% absolutely love what they do for a living. Living grey isn’t just a goal, but a way of life here at the NSC.”
As part of our Company Culture series, this article takes an in depth look at a company innovating in the culture space. Learn more about the MLS NSC and their training program here. Read more company culture stories from Live in the Grey here.