Hailed as “the Female Jerry Maguire,” Molly Fletcher spent nearly two decades as one of the world’s only female sports agents, recruiting and representing hundreds of top athletes and coaches, including John Smoltz, Joe Theismann, Tom Izzo, and Doc Rivers. The author of three books, Molly currently heads up her own company where she consults and coaches business leaders on the lessons she learned from the sports industry.
In a far ranging conversation, Molly talked from a sports agent’s perspective about what elite athletes and successful sales people have in common – and what separates the top pros from the also-rans in both worlds.
Confidence, feedback, purpose
While most people will do whatever they can to avoid change, she says, premiere athletes – and premiere sales people – are the opposite. They push themselves out of their comfort zones to new levels in the absence of a crisis. “I think the best athletes say ‘no one is telling me to change, but I know I can get better,’” she says. So, what do these world-class performers have that others don’t? Three things, she says, all of which can be learned. First is confidence. They believe they can change. Second, they’re willing to discover what their gaps are and get authentic feedback from people with whom they have good relationships. Third, they approach change with a sense of clarity and purpose. In a sales context, says Molly, “This is about being relational, not transactional. It’s behaving with tremendous discipline, being intentional about being present.” Success in both sports and sales requires constant improvement. “If you are selling, you have to discover what your gaps are, which sales make the most sense, which deserve your energy, and which don’t.”
The byproduct of trust
According to Molly, the keys to improvement – whether in the field or on it – are credibility, reliability and trust. “Great teams have the courage to hold each other accountable,” she says. The byproduct of trust and accountability is feedback, a powerful platform for action and change. “The best athletes in the world have taken a lot of advice about how they should swing the bat or field the ball.” What impedes a great team? Largely, she says, a lack of accountability and trust. To that end, she uses teambuilding exercises when working with business leaders. “When we work with teams, we’ll put them in adverse situation physically and mentally, and try to get them to make great choices under stress and pressure. We try to get them to build trust quickly.” She helps her clients build environments where people feel safe enough to give meaningful feedback that stimulates real growth.
A great example of a foundation of trust in the sports world, she says, is the San Antonio Spurs. “To have three guys wearing one jersey for their entire career is incredibly unique,” says Molly. “The trust among the players and the trust with [head coach] Gregg Popovich is profound. They didn’t have the best players in the world, but they had trust and accountability, and clarity about what they wanted to accomplish. They had the foundation, they had the trust, and they won the championship.”
Or consider Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who sits down with each player and asks what success will look like at the end of the season. “He gets a lot when he asks that,” says Molly. “’Win a national championship, a Big 10 championship. Graduate with honors…’” Then he drills down, getting the player to acknowledge that skipping class or missing study halls will spoil their vision of success. “He gets the athletes to frame up what they want, then he asks their permission to hold them accountable,” she says. “His players love him. They’ll do anything for him. They create their own platform for success, and he holds them accountable.”
Negotiations: building a bridge
In addition to willingness to change and an environment that supports it, Molly stresses the importance of knowing how to negotiate. “Fifty-five percent of people say they taught themselves everything they know about negotiating, and eighty-six percent say they want to learn how to be a better negotiator,” she says, citing a recent salary.com survey. “So there’s a need in the market for this skill.” Not surprisingly, Molly links successful negotiations back to building trust. “There are people who love to argue,” she says. “But you should stay focused on the task at hand and why you are there. There’s a bridge. You are trying to connect to the other side.” You build the bridge by being authentically curious, she says. To get to the other side, “You have to get inside their heads.”
Negotiations are difficult conversations, says Molly. “But it doesn’t need to be adversarial. It’s not a battlefield.” Instead, it’s about building relationships, about being curious and empathetic, and understanding what’s driving the other person. “People think if you are negotiating you want to raise your voice and argue. I don’t think it’s necessary.”
A bigger influence
After so much success in the world of sports, why transition to business? More opportunities, says Molly. “I got into the sports agent business because I loved the people, but when I had the opportunity to take the lessons I’d learned and deliver them to business people – to a bigger space than sports – I got to be an influence in a bigger way. I loved managing the athletes ‘relationships, but I was talking with twenty-five guys a week. On the other hand, this week I’ve spoken to over 2,500 people. You get to the point where you say to yourself, ‘am I just going to go to my grave having made athletes a ton of money? Is that enough?’ As much as I love the agent space, I love this more.”
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