Every Moment Matters: Interview with Ryan Tanke of the Minnesota Timberwolves

Ryan Tanke lives at the intersection of driving sales and marketing innovation and delivering an exceptional experience for fans. As senior vice president and chief revenue officer for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, he’s responsible for sales and service. That means building a world-class team to deliver consistently for individual fans, families and corporate partners in our community.

Selling professional sports is both uniquely challenging and intensely competitive. There are a lot of other options in the Twin Cities competing for our discretionary time and entertainment dollars. There is very little control over the final score of the game.

And no surprise, customer expectations are changing. Fans have increased expectations not just about team performance, but about the total entertainment experience. Basketball is one part of that package.

The Timberwolves and Lynx are responding. They’re in the process of building out two new facilities (a practice and administrative facility in partnership with Mayo Clinic along with a big renovation to their arena, Target Center) and Ryan is making sure the business is ready to bring the future vision and story of the Timberwolves and Lynx to the marketplace. The team is tasked with delivering on some big expectations. That requires change.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to lend a little support to this change journey. I am a huge NBA fan and adding both the NBA and my hometown Timberwolves to the client roster have been career highlights of mine. The Timberwolves story has also served as a case study in leading culture change and preparing a sales team to compete and win in a constantly changing environment.

Here’s how Ryan and his team are making every moment matter and winning with culture.

Focus on People

Big goals require a balanced focus on performance and innovation. The Timberwolves and Lynx organizations have always differentiated themselves by providing extraordinary customer service. So, when interviewing candidates, Tanke and his team require a customer-centric, service mindset. They’re looking for employees who meet the organization’s goal of being “aggressively friendly.” Reorganization and recruiting have been a critical part of preparing to take the next big step in evolving the business. People will continue to remain a top priority. The culture demands that people deliver results.

View Change Through the Lens of Opportunity

As he’s evolved in his own career from a sales producer to a leader, Ryan has found that it’s more important than ever to stay open to new ideas. He built his career in a traditional, disciplined sales environment (just like I did), where activity was measured closely and number of calls made was the most important metric. Today, employees have different expectations about work and much prefer to be evaluated based on results, and not grinding out calls simply for the sake of completing the weekly activity report.

“As a leader, you have to make a decision. You can change the people, or you can change your approach as a leader. I think the answer is blending those two things together. You have to blend your old-school, proven tactics with a willingness to adapt. You don’t want to become a dinosaur.”

Ryan has taken steps to evolve the  sales organization, both to meet the expectations of the next-generation workforce, and because it makes good business sense to do so. He balances an emphasis on activity and results with a flexibility that helps employees use their individual strengths and achieve outcomes in the way that works for them.

He’s also balancing new ideas with existing best practices. The organization has brought in new hires at all levels, which has opened the group to change and new ideas. Ryan tries to encourage the new ideas that new hires bring while respecting time-tested, successful processes.

Share the ‘Why’ Behind Decisions

Ryan has been deeply influenced by Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why.”

He interprets the book’s lessons by focusing on the common purpose and cause that unite the Timberwolves and Lynx teams. Sales jobs can lead to an every-man-for-himself, individual contributor mentality. So, Ryan works to create a connection among his staff to a shared cause. Together, they’re building a cohesive culture. They’re bringing positive change to the Minnesota community. They’re committed to delivering a world-class experience to fans.

Employees who work in that kind of “why”-oriented environment understand that they’re part of something larger than their sales number for the month. That doesn’t diminish accountability it actually elevates employees’ commitment.

The organization’s leadership also works hard to be as transparent as possible about why they’re making big changes or implementing new decisions. Selling is a team sport.

Invest in Developing People

Ryan knows that the best sales organizations invest in training their people. The best people expect their organization to invest in development and it’s become a leading driver of engagement. The goal is to expose the team to different styles and perspectives to help people find their own voice and a process that works for them as individuals.

One example is leveraging Brave New Workshop, an improv comedy theater that helps the Timberwolves and Lynx staff learn about the art of improvisation. They use improv training to pull people out of their comfort zones and prepare them for unscripted, improvisational situations with customers.

Many sales organizations miss an important element of training: management training. Often, sales managers are former top salespeople who got promoted into a leadership position. But producer and manager are two very different jobs. So, leadership development is also a priority.

Ryan’s best advice for new sales managers: Remember that leading and managing are different. “You see new sales managers fall into the trap of managing calls or managing meetings. That’s not inspirational.” Instead of just managing, great leaders learn how to inspire their staff by being an example and creating a great environment.

Every Moment Matters

“Every moment matters” is a mantra at the organization.

Internally, it means that people matter most. Leaders can’t get too busy to spend time with people, answer questions, celebrate small wins, and give full attention to every phone call and meeting.

Externally, it means celebrating fans’ sports memories. When fans drive home from the game, they may not remember the final score, but they will have specific moments and memories that stand out. Ryan asks his team: What’s your favorite sports memory? How can we create one special memory for every single fan when they come to a game?

No matter what you’re selling, it can be easy to default to the lowest common denominator. Where are the seats? How many tickets does your customer want to buy? What is the Plan B if price is the barrier? The idea is to help move people past the transaction and connect them to the experience. The best vehicle to make that meaningful connection is storytelling. The team leverages the power of story to elevate connections with fans.

As a fan myself, I’m excited to watch the story unfold. It’s an exciting evolution for the organization and community.

I asked Ryan for the best advice he’s received on his own journey. He put it simply: “There’s less traffic on the extra mile. Especially in sports, there’s a narrow difference between being good and being a star. The only way to become great is to push yourself forward and break through. Effort counts.”

And every moment matters. Go Wolves!


Read More leadership

And join our email community to receive bi-weekly insights with actionable tips and videos, new research, and inspiration and ideas for cultivating growth in business and life.