Elizabeth Lindsey joined Wasserman Media Group in 2007 and currently serves as Co-President of the Consulting division. She leads a global team supporting clients in more than 70 countries and has resulted in many landmark deals with giants of the sports and entertainment industry. Lindsey was previously a Senior Vice President with sports and entertainment consulting firm OnSport and most notably developed a comprehensive golf strategy for American Express. Prior to OnSport Lindsey director of global sponsorship at Nortel, overseeing the development, implementation, and integration of the telecommunication giant’s sports and entertainment partnerships. In 2010, Lindsey was honored for her accomplishments by Sports Business Journal in its annual “Forty Under 40,” a list of the most influential sports executives under the age of 40.
Read Lindsey’s full bio at the end of the LifeChat.
Problem solving and resiliency
- Especially in times of disruption, good ideas break through. Innovations break through
- There are three things I coach people about: Be completely honest and transparent; Be one of the people who work the hardest to find a solution and not someone who points out the problem; Put things in perspective
- Put your head down and do good work, and the rest always works itself out
Being a female leader
- Growing up in this industry, one of the things you get criticized most about is emotion. And I never apologize for that. I think it’s an unbelievable strength for women leaders
- I have to bring emotion to how I assist, coach, even if I have to reprimand someone
LifeChat with Elizabeth Lindsey:
How did you enter the sport industry?
I got into sport through PR at Nortel, here in Research Triangle Park (RTP). I was assigned to do the PR for a Formula 1TM racing event, and I was tapped to write the press release and handle the launch of the partnership. I was fascinated by brands in a world where it is really hard to get a brand message across these days because everyone is: zipping through TiVo commercials, not reading newspapers, listening to satellite radio instead of the radio. I watched how rapt people were when they were talking about sports, and was intrigued. That is a marketing dream: to have consumers so rapt with attention.
What is your background and how does that translate to the sport industry?
I was trained as a journalist, and to this day, I find myself hiring journalists unintentionally because I respond to the skill sets of a journalist. Journalists write well, analyze huge amounts of information, and find points to draw out. That is a fascinating set of skills for what we do, particularly here on the agency side.
You learn a powerful set of skills as a journalist: to write powerfully, persuasively, and truthfully. Anyone who can write like that is really fascinating. I have sources in this industry, the same way I had sources when I was a reporter. There are people who know me, know they can trust me, and know that when I call them for a piece of information, a request, or ask a question, that they can give it to me because I am going to treat it with respect and keep their confidentiality.
It also involves creativity, defined with an angle. It is not about the same old story and same old information, but rather how you dig beneath the surface and extract information in a different way. I tend to hire those people and gravitate toward those skills.
Because of the disruptions in the sports industry, there are opportunities for leadership positions in sport. What insight do you have for the next generation of women interested in leveraging sport for the power of x, y, or z?
I don’t think the fact that the industry is in flux is a bad thing. I don’t think it’s disrupted because it is being mismanaged, or because the wrong people are in leadership. I think it’s in flux because we live in such a disruptive time, when it comes to technology advancements, or the copyright fragmentation, or how viewers spend their time.
But the whole situation creates opportunity – sometimes from very unexpected places. If someone told me that Mixed Martial Arts was going to be one of the biggest sports, I would have laughed – and I would’ve been wrong. We had the opportunity once to work with the poker tour and we turned it down. Talk about living through a mistake.
I once was quoted as saying that the global recession was a good thing for our industry – and I believe that. That disruption forced the whole industry to think differently. To be more creative, and to open up new revenue streams, new categories, etc. The whole thing is rife with opportunity. Especially in times of disruption, good ideas break through. Innovations break through. Good ideas, good people, and quality work will always rise to the top. We have a phrase, “put your head down and do good work, and the rest always works itself out.”
Your openness and diversity of thinking is unique. How do you think being a woman has made you a better leader in the sport industry?
Great leaders come from both genders. There are fabulous male leaders and fabulous female leaders. But at the end of the day, women are different. They approach problems differently.
Growing up in this industry, one of the things you get criticized most about is emotion. And I never apologize for that. I think it’s an unbelievable strength of women leaders. I categorically bring my emotion to work. This is what I do 60 hours a week. This is what I choose to do away from my family. It is a personal decision. I personally invest my time in work and I personally care. I have to bring emotion to how I assist, coach, even if I have to reprimand or fire someone, etc. The team here and I bring emotion to the brands we work with. I bring emotion to all my clients. I genuinely care. The reason the deals I have lost hurt so much is because I can look down the pipe and see the struggles that my clients are about to face. I find that incredibly motivating. Because I see them, and I care deeply on their behalf, then I am motivated to help them fix the problem and also selfishly to make myself feel better. I happen to believe this is a huge strength of women in business.
Finally, I think women are sometimes more collaborative than men in this industry. A lot of the men in this industry treat negotiation and deal making as a zero-sum game. In order for them to win, I have to lose. That is ridiculous. Women are often better at finding collaborative and mutually beneficial solutions. When men determine that collaboration is the only way for them to “win” an argument, they will eventually get there, but it often takes a lot longer.
Tell us about a time where you faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge or doubt, and how you got over that?
Fear is a human condition. People who tell you they never fear, or that there is never doubt in their lives, are lying. I tell my son this every day because he is in first grade and it is the first time he is dealing with academic challenges and the social challenge of making friends. He’ll say, “mom, I’m scared. I can’t be brave,” and every day I remind him that bravery has nothing to do with being scared. Bravery is acting anyway. That is what you have to do in this industry. There have been deals I have lost that were game-changing for my client, my company, and the industry. And I definitely was afraid of the outcome.
Fear is human; and people, especially women, feel they shouldn’t show any emotion, particularly emotion that could telegraph weakness. People equate fear with weakness, but I believe categorically the opposite. I believe that not only is fear human, it’s also a strength because it is so motivating.
The biggest challenges don’t come from admitting your fears, they come from failing to act. This is where the issue of bravery comes in. I constantly get people in my office saying, “this is about to happen and I’m scared.” There are three things I coach people on:
1) Be completely honest and transparent. You need to explain, for example, why you can’t make the situation work. You will be surprised how often calling a spade a spade and owning up to things works.
2) Be one of the people who work the hardest to find a solution and not someone who points out the problem. You are not going to escape a mistake; mistakes happen. I get upset when people see a mistake and don’t fix it. Be the one who owns up to and fixes the mistake.
3) Finally, the last thing I coach people on is the bigger perspective. At the end of the day, you are not sitting in an operating room with a scalpel in your hand making a life and death decision. So breathe and put it in perspective. It really helps with step one and step two.
You want to do well for your client and for yourself and it’s so easy to beat yourself up in the process when something goes awry. How do you handle such situations and what do you tell yourself?
An example of something crushing that happened is the loss of a 15 year partnership for one of my clients. We didn’t do anything wrong; we didn’t make any strategy mistake. It was a money issue. Someone came in with a lot of cash, and we lost. And you can’t guard against that. You can do the best you can to build relationships that go beyond the check you write, and you can create partnerships based on loyalty and trust. With this partner, we had done both. We had a 15-year history, but the money was so insurmountable. It was ten times what we were offering.
When I lost the deal, there were people who told me not to show emotion. How could I not show emotion about losing a 15-year partner? That would be insanity! What I would be embarrassed about is if I wallowed about it for a week. I walked into the bathroom, cried for half an hour, brushed my face off and said, “let’s go!” Maybe that’s crazy, but that is who I am and I am proud of it.
It was rough, and of course I beat myself up. So did my client, and so did the agency as a whole. But at the end of the day I go back to my three steps. First, remembering you’re not curing cancer. It doesn’t dismiss it, but it keeps it in perspective. Secondly, being completely honest – we called a spade a spade and no one tried to shift blame. And third, to work hard and fix it. Something I have learned through this is that there is always an alternate path, especially in an industry like sport that is so dynamic. When one path is shut off to you, there is always another one.
Ironically, losing the deal ended up energizing the team. It created a blank slate. I asked them if they could now do anything with the money we now had, if they could craft a program from scratch and build it the way they wanted, what would they build? And my team came up with a great solution.
How do you integrate your work life and home life? Having a husband in the start-up industry, who is quite busy himself, and a young son, what advice would you give to women trying to balance work and family?
When I came back to work after maternity leave, my boss said, “you are back? Welcome to the life of being a C student.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained, “for the next 18 years, you will feel like you are never a good enough mom, and never good enough at your job. And the sooner you let it go, the quicker you can get on with your life.” He was right.
My first year back, I struggled to be good enough, and I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. I remember when Will, my son, was around eight months old and I got a call from the daycare saying he had a really, really high fever. My husband was traveling, so I was the only one in town. I had to leave work and cancel a meeting, so that makes you feel bad.
I picked Will up, and then couldn’t get him into the doctor until an hour later, so that makes you feel bad too. His fever was so high that I needed to cool him off so I had to put him in a cool bath, while simultaneously recognizing I had 24 hours to close a $50 million plus contract. I had my final call with the attorneys that afternoon.
I vividly remember sitting on my bathroom floor, trying to keep my baby cool, while I was on the phone with attorneys all around the world, trying to close this $50 million deal, and with my son screaming in the background. Just trying to keep both things together was a challenge. When I finally hung up and closed the deal, I just started shaking. I was so nervous about trying to keep both of those things going at the same time. The tension of that, while trying to get through it all, had made me so nervous. Being a working mom means learning to survive these situations.
How have attitudes toward work-life integration changed at the workplace?
The one thing that I think I have learned is that when you need to be a mom, you need to be a mom. I think I am at an advantage being in a leadership role, because it can be challenging as a day-to-day employee to do this, although we do try to cultivate this kind of culture at Wasserman.
There is nothing that says our jobs have to be defined by hours on a clock. Today, our job is 24 hours. It is global. The least we can do is to give our employees the opportunity to be parents, or to do what they need to do. I sell intellectual thought; I sell people. And if they are not happy, they are not productive; and if they are not productive, I can’t sell their thinking. If your client calls at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, you answer the phone. If Australia schedules a phone call at 2:00 a.m. our time, sorry, you get on the phone. You have to do what you have to do to get your job done, but the least I can offer you in return is not a strict set of parameters, either by time or by space, under which you must get those job responsibilities completed.
How would your son and husband describe you as a leader?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that my son would characterize me as a leader. He knows me as mom. About a year ago, I came home and there was a green piece of construction paper tied up with string on the table. He was just learning to spell at the time, and on the paper was his cute writing, with all the g’s and e’s written backwards. On the paper, he had written, “I love you mom, you are the best thing that ever happened to me.” First of all, it was incredibly sweet. But second, it’s both funny and telling, because it shows he just views me as something that happened to him, and there is something magical about it.
Full Biography of Elizabeth Lindsey:
Elizabeth Lindsey joined Wasserman Media Group in 2007 and currently serves as Co-President of the Consulting division. She is responsible for leading the global team that develops, negotiates, and manages sports and entertainment partnerships on behalf of all corporate clients. Wasserman’s roster of corporate clients includes American Express, Lenovo, PepsiCo, Nationwide Insurance and Verizon, among others. Her team’s work in support of those clients currently spans more than 70 countries and has resulted in many landmark deals with giants of the sports and entertainment industry, including the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, Ticketmaster, NASCAR and others.
Prior to Wasserman, Lindsey was a Senior Vice President with sports and entertainment consulting firm OnSport, which was acquired in 2007 by Wasserman. In that role, Lindsey’s team was responsible for strategy and negotiation for the American Express portfolio of sports, venue, entertainment and ticketing partnerships. In addition to overseeing American Express’ relationship with partners like the NBA and the USTA, the team also developed a comprehensive golf strategy for American Express that resulted in two landmark partnerships: the Patron agreement with the PGA of America and the first-ever corporate partnership deal with the United States Golf Association. The team was also responsible for American Express’ notable entertainment partnerships with Madison Square Garden, Ticketmaster and AEG. In 2009, those partnerships were expanded globally to markets like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Previously, Lindsey served as director of global sponsorship at Nortel, overseeing the development, implementation, and integration of the telecommunication giant’s sports and entertainment partnerships, which included relationships with the NHL, Venus and Serena Williams, and the BMW-Williams Formula One racing team.
In 2010, Lindsey was honored for her accomplishments by Sports Business Journal in its annual “Forty Under 40,” a list of the most influential sports executives under the age of 40.
Lindsey holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism and a master’s degree in mass communication from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She currently resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband Jeff and their son Will.
The LifeChat Series in Sport was created in partnership with Beyond Sport. More information at www.beyondsport.org.