Curiosity Thrills the Cat

  • Jenna Byrnes, Senior Vice President, Oklahoma City Dodgers

She’s an Ohio University Bobcat. She’s a curious leader who seeks curious employees. She’s twice been recognized as a Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year nominee. She’s led a ticket sales success story that’s matched by only one other Triple-A organization. She’s Jenna Byrnes, Senior Vice President of the Oklahoma City Dodgers. 

By Jared Frank, ALSD

The ALSD first met Jenna Byrnes (Snider at the time) eight years ago when she was the Senior Director of Ticket Sales at the Frisco RoughRiders. Today, a few of her identification fields are different, including her name, title, and company, but what still stands out since that initial introduction is an unchanged curiosity and passion, both for her organization and for the people that work for her.

“Jenna has exhibited a curiosity for how the organization can get better and for how she can apply what she’s learned to quickly accelerate people we identify as our future leaders,” says Michael Byrnes, President & General Manager of the Oklahoma City Dodgers.

In any company, the role of putting employees in the right positions to succeed has a significant impact on the critical elements of revenue generation. In Oklahoma City, Jenna’s fingerprints are all over the organization’s ticket sales, special events, and suites initiatives.

“Jenna has such an influence on the biggest revenue areas of our business, and it’s something that stands out,” adds Michael.

And the team president isn’t the only one taking notice. Jenna Byrnes has been a finalist for the Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year award two of the last three years. All 160 minor league teams have an opportunity to nominate a deserving woman executive for the award that has been presented annually since 1976 at the Baseball Winter Meetings to a woman who has made outstanding contributions to her club or league, or to baseball.

Is this award like an Oscar or an Emmy, where they make you pay your dues before you win?

This was my second nomination [in three years]. Maybe I’m going to be the Susan Lucci of this award. But it’s nice to be recognized by the people in our league that know me very well.

What are some of the things that you’re achieving here that would lead those people in the Pacific Coast League to continue to nominate you? What are you having success with here in Oklahoma City?

There are a couple of things that come to mind. We offer a seven-game package that we sell thousands of, as a way to introduce people to the team. Like everywhere else, there are a lot of options and entertainment choices in Oklahoma City. So for us to get people to commit, not just their money, but their time, that’s a big win for us.

Some teams will say that the best way to get people out to experience your product is to comp tickets. But everybody can identify that once you pay less than full price for something, you will never pay full price for it. And so, for us, we do a lot of group packages and the seven-game packages, and that’s our intro, or starter, package.

I guess it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

It doesn’t. Baseball is fun. So we take that approach in everything we do, and incorporate fun.

When I have sales reps who are trying to get their feet under them, I tell them, hey look, you’re not calling people to try and sell them copy paper. Try to have some fun with it.

I always tell them that the faster you can turn a cold call into a conversation, the better off you’re going to be. When you’re talking to someone and you’re excited, then they’re leaning in, and you’re leaning in, it makes such a big difference.

Can you quantify the success that you were able to have last season?

We are one of two teams in Triple-A baseball that have increased attendance each of the past five seasons. We sold out 23 games last year, which for us is a big measuring stick because we focus on selling out games that people want to come to. That’s the old Mandalay way. And even though we’re not part of Mandalay Baseball Properties anymore, if something works, why not embrace it.

Our goal for sellouts was 20 [games], so we over-delivered by three. And the previous season was 18, so we were able to really grow and see significant returns. This year, we have 25 targeted games. That’s where our promotional emphasis is put, and our sales team is making recommendations into those games. We feel we’re going to have the biggest impact on those games that people want to go to.

We’ve also invested heavily in the sales team. We have a team of 22 people now that are directly focused on ticket sales. It was four when our management team got here in late 2010. There are some teams where [22 people] might be their full-time staff overall. We’re lucky that ownership has given us the resources to invest in the people part of it and to continue to grow the number of members on the sales team.

The subject of gender equality is one where it’s easy to say things that are politically correct, but as a collective industry, we remain male-dominated, especially on the sales floors. We still have work to do in eliminating stereotypes, as they relate to specific roles and responsibilities, to encourage young women to join the industry, go into sales, and pursue paths to leadership positions.

“We’re blind to the gender element,” says Michael Byrnes. “It’s the high performers that stand out and deserve more attention and opportunities to grow.”

The industry continuing to promote more women into decision-making executive roles should be an antiquated subject at this point, but is it?

It’s a tough question. I’m asked all the time about what it’s like to be a woman in business in a leadership position. Obviously, I don’t really know the difference. When I go into a business setting, I don’t feel any different or feel that people are treating me any differently. I’ve had great opportunities within this organization to continue to grow my career.

One thing I would encourage all young women to keep in mind is if you ever feel like you’re in a place that you’re not thriving professionally, then you need leave and find someplace better for youself.

Pat O’Connor, the President of Minor League Baseball, came [to the Baseball Winter Meetings] and said something that made a lot of sense to me. He mentioned that 48% of people who attend minor league baseball games are female. At major league baseball games, it’s 47%. So if you aren’t employing people who can speak to that demographic, then you’re missing out on business opportunities.

So his message wasn’t that you should hire more females or minorities because you have to. It was that you’re crazy not to take advantage of a resource like that because that’s who your customers are.

Jenna hails from Somerset, Ohio, a bustling metropolis of 1,500 people about an hour southeast of Columbus. She graduated with 130 people, which came from three towns that funneled into one school. Growing up without convenience, illustrated by the fact that the nearest movie theater was 30 minutes away from the house she grew up in, Jenna appreciates modern city amenities and is thankful for her path to them.

Now where’d you go to college?

Ohio University. I’m a Bobcat.

And what was your major?

Organizational Communication, which was basically Undecided.

Did you have an eye on the sports industry at the time?

I didn’t. But I had a summer where I was a promotions intern with a team, the Chillicothe Paints. They used to be an independent team in the Frontier League. So that’s where I started. And then the next winter, I did an internship in New Jersey with the Metrostars. I stayed at an extended stay for eight weeks in Secaucus. It was so cool, and obviously much different than anything I had experienced before.

The past three years, the organization has placed a significant emphasis on onboarding and integrating people into the company culture, including with small touches like everyone on the leadership team sending a congratulatory note to every new hire. The Dodgers stand out in this area, so much so that Jenna led a seminar about onboarding at the Baseball Winter Meetings last December.

“We know the importance of the investment in new staff,” says Michael Byrnes. “We highlight some of the key things about our business and what we think is important, so when [new hires] arrive, no matter what position they were hired for, they’re going through a presentation with Jenna on what makes our organization different and how they can have a long-term impact, no matter where they are in the business.”

Jenna also heads a leadership development program within the organization that allows it to identify and grow those people who can have a future impact on the company.

“We’re paying attention from the moment we onboard them,” Michael adds.

From a human capital perspective, how do you identify and attract the right people here in order to execute the plans that you have?

The biggest thing is getting people here who are interested in helping progress. As far as the type of people that we look for, I want people who are going to be excited about being here, who are enthusiastic, who are curious, have a great attitude, and are going to work their asses off. We look for people who are going to go that extra mile, and not because I’m telling them that they have to, but because that’s ingrained in them.

Nobody is ever going to write “Slacker” or “Not a Self-Starter” on a résumé. So how do you identify those characteristics before it’s too late?

By the time I talk to someone, I’m evaluating organizational fit and character. I have the benefit of honing in on that. I’m not asking them questions like “Can you share two strengths and two weaknesses?”. I’m asking them to tell me about themselves. So if you’re listening, people will oftentimes just say things, and I’m able to figure out who someone is.

Interviewing is hard. You have to find out as much as you possibly can about someone in such a short period of time. So being able to freely ask questions and listen is really important.

Once the right people are hired, how do you train and retain that talent?

We have a big onboarding process. An engaged employee makes a big difference, as does having someone who joins the team and is ready to go, feels good about their decision, and has clear expectations. If you’re just looking for a job, we’re not a good fit for you. If you’re looking for a lifestyle, that’s working in sports.

So we have an onboarding process that over-communicates. You never want someone to show up and not know where they are. Things like office culture, start time, what to wear, some of those little things can make a big difference in the success of someone’s first day.

I also think if you have someone who starts, and on their first day, you don’t have business cards for them, then you have failed. That’s the one thing that tells someone that we’re excited that they’re here and they’re an official member of this organization. So our onboarding process is a big deal for us.

Then we do a lot of continuous training. That’s my jam. The more you invest in an employee, the more likely you are going to have an engaged employee in return.

If I polled all the readers of SEAT, and I asked them, “Could you work with your spouse?”, I bet 99% of the responses I’d get would be some derivative of “There’s no way I could work with my spouse.” But for Michael and Jenna Byrnes, it’s all they’ve ever known.

“We’ve worked together the entire time we’ve known each other and had a friendship long before it developed into anything more,” Michael says. “It’s just something that’s a part of who we are. In the office, it’s just business as usual in our eyes. There are hundreds of thousands of family-run organizations in America, and all of these other organizations are able to make it work.”

Michael and Jenna first met at the Frisco RoughRiders. During their first year working together, the two had a joint birthday celebration that led to their great friendship. Yes, these two actually share a birthday. You can’t make this stuff up.

“Although Jenna is quick to point out that it’s four years apart,” says Michael.

This might be a tired question for you, but I have to ask: What is it like working with your husband? Can you give me a sense for your relationship and how you make it work?

It’s worth noting that Michael and I met while we were both with the team in Frisco. And so we were friends for almost two years. By the time that we started dating, I was 70% sure that I was going to marry him. I don’t know if he felt the same way about me, but if you’re going to enter into a relationship with someone in the workplace, that’s pretty dodgy territory, so if you’re not sure, you shouldn’t do it. So I pushed my chips in.

We got married in 2008 and moved up here when our ownership bought the team here in Oklahoma City. We were a package deal at that point. But we each had enough credibility on our own with our ownership, so we were both able to not just relocate, but we were both able to get promotions and have new opportunities at the same time.

And you have a daughter, I believe. What’s your little girl’s name?

Her name is Peyton.

What phase is she into right now?

She’s walking pretty well now until she’s not. Yesterday, I got a call from her day care, and when I see that number on my phone, it makes my heart go in my shoes. They said that Peyton fell and hit her head on a bookshelf, and that we needed to come look at this. When we walked in, she was sitting at a little toddler table. When she turned around, she had the biggest smile on her face. She wasn’t affected by it at all. It was like if you cut a Cadbury egg in half and slapped it on her forehead. Kids are so resilient. So now I’m like, girlfriend, just try and keep your feet under you today.

The Byrnes family tree extends its branches down the street from Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to Chesapeake Energy Arena, where Jenna’s brother-in-law Brian Byrnes serves as the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What’s it like having Brian right down the street?

It’s funny. There are 160 minor league teams, and there’s 30 NBA teams, so the fact that we landed in the same place is pretty remarkable. We’re not from here, so to be able to have family here makes it really nice.

So it's the holiday season. What's a holiday like in the Byrnes household?

It’s loud. There are four brothers, and they are all insanely competitive. We have one night where we’ll play board games or whatever, and it’s dangerous.

Susan Lucci did finally win her Emmy Award, after being nominated 18 times without taking home the hardware. So there’s hope for Jenna Byrnes that she’ll eventually be recognized as the Woman Executive of the Year.

Not that it’s necessary. Jenna is the first to say that her reward is her work, watching the development of her staff and the continued progress of the organization towards higher and higher revenue goals, one cold call turned curious conversation at a time. 

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