Creativity Meets Strategy:The Atlanta Hawks’ CMO Reveals Her Executive Superpowers
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory and WiST Board Chair
WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who embody a more diverse and inclusive workforce, setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
Kids These Days
Melissa Proctor has some superpowers in her pocket. In her wildest dreams, her young daughter will inherit some of those superpowers and maybe add a few of her own. Melissa navigates life and work with her personal goals and priorities in place. “My daughter believes that I am here to live for her. What I am most proud of is that she truly feels that I make her a priority. I don’t have a nanny, I don’t have extra help; by my choice, I want to do as much with her as possible—that’s my joy.”
While it’s easy for a six-year-old to think that going to Atlanta Hawks games and meeting the players and owners is routine, someday she will realize it’s because her mom is the CMO and EVP of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena. Her special access is hard won by her hardworking and whip smart mom. Melissa notes, “I wrote my book From Ball Girl to CMO to share my journey. As my daughter gets older, I want her to learn about my journey from my own perspective.”
“I am living the life that I want to live in the best way that I can. I want my daughter to understand that mommy made decisions and sacrifices with purpose, so that she could live her best life. Ultimately, to be better than me.” This mantra is echoed by many high-profile mothers who believe their work and their families are distinctly tied to each other. Case in point, tennis star Serena Williams declined to participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics because she could not bring her young daughter with her (due to COVID restrictions). Serena does little without her daughter present; neither does Melissa.
As CMO and EVP for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena, Melissa knows that now, more than ever, the right technology can drive optimal outcomes across the sports ecosystem. She has made it a priority to identify and steer her company towards sourcing and deploying a fully integrated sports tech stack that delivers the best returns for the organization.
“The pandemic changed everything. Creating a fully integrated tech stack that can grow as our company grows is a top priority. It used to be that a single solution technology would address a problem in one department, another single solution technology would address a problem in a different department, and so on. The pandemic made it clear we were not integrating and leveraging our tech stack in an optimal way.”
Melissa is crystal clear, however, about the linkage between technology and innovation. “Silos are the biggest killers of ideas in innovation at organizations. The more that we can align and bring others under the tent, the better our decision making is—especially when it comes to our technology stack.”
While the Sports Technology revolution is recent, other verticals have been deploying a variety of tech solutions to automate and drive their businesses for decades. The technologies that sports properties deployed years ago—CRM, ticketing, marketing—have been significantly upgraded, sophisticated and fragmented in recent years. Sports CMOs today must be aware of the newest technologies available and understand how they can be implemented and leveraged to drive ROI.
Melissa is acutely aware of this. “We are constantly adding new departments to address the growing needs of our fans, consumers and corporate stakeholders and these departments require technology that we may or may not already have. If not, let’s take a very intelligent look at what is needed and what is available to add to our tech stack.”
“Technology is critical for us to assess our ROI, to understand how we are most effectively reaching our fans and consumers. Resources are always limited, so we need to be creative about how we repurpose existing technology within our stack to deliver even greater outputs and outcomes. This concept is very exciting for me. A completely unique opportunity. I love it!”
Her final word? “Take a technology and make it better.”
The Path To Harmony
How does an art loving kid growing up in a Miami hood become a power executive in sports? In Melissa’s experience, “Anyone can make it. Start anywhere. With luck, ability, confidence and an innate set of guideposts you can be much more than you ever thought.”
The ability to be confident about life and opportunity is not where Melissa started, but it is where she has arrived. “When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what direction to take and that totally stressed me out. Because of my stress, I was putting together plans A, B, C, D, E and F and running in so many
directions. When I was ‘in something’ (school, an internship, a job) instead of soaking it up, I was always looking at what was next. In my early days I was in one position for about three years and I thought I was failing because I was there for so long. A mentor I greatly admired told me, ‘Melissa, sit down and live. Let it come to you.’ I realized I was running after ‘it.’ But I didn’t know what ‘it’ was!”
Turns out, “it” is the ability to know what tools you need to be successful. “When I’m asked to participate in an agenda, I am clear up front about what I need to bring value and success to that agenda. This early action eliminates much of the potential stress that comes from misalignment and miscommunication. Clarity about the intent needs to be discussed up front to eliminate stress. If you know what matters to you it crystallizes things and clears the path to harmony.”
WiST: Over the course of your career, you have developed a set of guiding principles to help you navigate your internal and external awareness, communications, negotiations, leadership actions and decisions. Can
you share those guideposts with us?
Many years ago, a mentor shared their guiding principles with me. This construct—a set of beliefs that you hold dear to help you navigate your career and your life—made so much sense to me. Over time, I set five guiding principles that I have found to be invaluable. When I am at a crossroads, I go back to those guiding principles to course correct and reset:
1. Know where you thrive. I thrive in positions that are both creative and strategic. When I put those two things together, that’s my superpower. I started my career attending Wake Forest as an art student (creative), then onto grad school for brand strategy (strategic). With numerous experiences in corporate strategy, it turns out that my creativity is essential to setting a unique and successful strategy.
2. Add tools to your personal toolbox so you can grow. If I am an agency of one, I need to constantly add new tools to my “capabilities presentation'' to show that my offerings, based on my experiences, are best in class. I know myself; I get bored pretty quickly. If I am in a job or a role that I can do in my sleep, and I’m not adding tools to my toolbox, it’s time to move on.
3. Financial independence. I recognize that I need to work hard to achieve my goals of financial stability and freedom for myself and my family. I don’t expect anyone to do this for me. Do your estate planning. Consider your financial future. Make it happen.
4. Work/Life harmony. I’m a single parent so I know the stresses involved in this balancing act. I need to have the opportunity to address personal and family issues during times convenient for my lifestyle. Work and life need to allow room for overlap without cannibalizing each other. If I plan to take my daughter to a class during the workday, I make sure I do—and if I have to work a Hawks night game, I do that, too. This type of latitude allows me to be my best self across the board. What I practice is what I encourage my team to practice. Do what you have to do, when you have to do it. Be a whole person, not separate pieces.
5. Authenticity. I am who I am. I am a black woman with a nose ring and dreadlocks. I want to bring my entire self to my work environment and I want my colleagues to bring that as well. People don’t have to conform to the organization. If that organization doesn’t support them, maybe it’s not the best place for them.
Life is a journey—and you can unlock your best self by generating guideposts to navigate that journey.
WiST: There is a leap of faith that one takes when they assume a leadership role, especially for the first time. When you were tapped to make the leap into the EVP/CMO role at the Atlanta Hawks, what measures did you take to prepare for it (then) and how do you keep the process and the people moving forward (now)?
I read a book early on in my career, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office. The underlying message is about how you need to navigate things differently as you grow in your career. You can be promoted because you are great at a task, but that doesn’t make you a great manager. Bottom line, while you have to shift your strategy and skill sets to drive your own growth, make sure it aligns with shifts in your company’s strategy. When you are both on the same page, magic happens.
One thing is for sure, you do not know how to do a job until you are actually doing it. At one point, my boss at the Hawks came to me about a position in marketing. I was very interested; however, this was not in my toolbox. So, I asked for an executive coach to help guide me. Where others might see the request for an executive coach as a negative (what am I doing wrong), I saw it as a positive (what I want to get right). I was lucky to be supported by the Hawks to work with an amazing executive coach, Cheryl Jordan, who really helped me understand myself better and identify my strengths and weaknesses. And I wanted to be better. I always want to be better. When I gained insights into myself, I was able to apply those insights to my teams. Better leaders make better teams.
I have often been asked about how to drive teams forward. In my experience, a
leader must deliver value to the team —as individuals and as a group—to help them understand how they can tap into their “best selves.” This concept is far reaching. Team members tap into their best selves when they recognize and share success and failure. We all need to feel comfortable doing forensics on what happened and why. Learn and grow from mistakes and participate in the group’s wins and losses. Always, always move forward.
A few more tidbits: I am a huge fan of the open-door policy. You have an issue; I want to know about it. Always prepare for the next level. Network. Reach out to peers who understand best practices and challenges. Learn from others. I am constantly learning from my NBA CMO peers. It’s so enlightening to understand how they have approached and solved a problem that I am facing. We make each other better and stronger which makes the team and league better and stronger.
WiST: You are an advocate of servant leadership. Can you share how this leadership style was instilled in you and how it has led to your success and the success of those around you?
I believe this was something I was born into. As a nurse, my mom was the picture of servant leadership—working with her patients, her peers, the doctors—letting everyone know that they always mattered. This really rubbed off on me. When I entered the corporate world, I saw other examples of putting others first by mentoring. First thing, be prepared to put your ego away. I started out as a ball girl mopping the floors of the court. If I had to do that today, I would pick up that mop and go to it—I am not above any role. Those foundations were set from the time I was a kid and have served me ever since.
I grew up in the metropolis of Miami. Every summer we would visit family either in Belize or Jamaica. Unlike the fancy resorts and Miami lifestyle, our summers were completely native. I always appreciated the differences in lifestyles. Both worlds are amazing. I find that the duality of culture and life—polished and unvarnished—instilled in me the understanding that the humanity of people is always at the core. That’s what the foundation of servant leadership really is.
Servant leadership means putting others first. It also means leading by example. I have an open-door policy; my door is always open to new ideas, as well as ongoing concerns regarding anything—from corporate policy to your loud colleague in the cubicle next door. Always ask for help. Operating in fear-based culture is not helpful to anyone and it is not how I operate, or how my teams operate. Just as important—in my mind, anyway—I have a no BS policy. If I think you are undermining or not aligning with the organization's mission, I will call you out. We all need to row the boat in the same direction. This is called progress.
WiST: You are an African American woman and a role model for all
women in the world of sports. What do you envision is the future for women and the BIPOC community in the world of sports and sports tech? What barriers need to be broken down to open up access for future Melissa Proctors?
The “firsts” are in and they are breaking down doors for others: female reporters in the locker rooms, female referees, female GMs, black female team presidents. It is already happening. We need to drive the momentum.
Stereotypes are terrible and they are hard to overcome. When I was promoted to CMO of the Hawks, I was given a designated parking spot in the “reserved for executives” area. In my early CMO days, I parked in my designated spot, dashed out of the car—headed to a meeting in sweats and sneakers—and the parking attendant came over to advise me that this area was reserved for executives only. I advised him that I was an executive, the CMO, and I thanked him for doing such a great job. The attendant looked at me and spent some time thinking before he said, “Ok, go ahead.” Some people would have been angry at this exchange, but I was happy because I just changed that man’s perception of what an executive in the NBA looks like with that one small, but crucial interaction.
As women and people of color, we have to change more of those perceptions—and change them from the bottom up. The more people see women in power roles driving success, the more common it will become and the easier it will be to change organizations towards embracing a diverse workforce.
When I am hiring, I really need to understand how a prospective hire treats everyone—from the receptionist to me. After an initial interview, I will ask the receptionist, the assistants, and others how this person treated them from
the time they entered the building to the time they left. If they did not treat people with respect and dignity, they are not qualified to work for me. Who you are “in between” is so very telling. Bring your best self to the table, always.
At this stage in my career, I don’t know what’s next, but I have the confidence to know that my work, my passion, my energy, my attitude, my discipline—giving it my all—will always lead me to “what’s next.” When it comes, I’ll know it.
Future Melissa Proctors take note: Whatever is next will appear when it's time to appear. Be your best self. My mom always told me, “As long as you can do your best, you can’t do any more.” And that is the truth.
A special thanks to Melissa for sharing her journey with the WiST community. Be your best self! Inspiration comes in all forms.
Join the WIST community at www.womeninsportstech.org
Check out the Atlanta Hawks at https://www.nba.com/hawks
Reach Melissa Directly on IG @melissamproctor