Episode 10: Do Your Job! | Zoltan Mesko

Episode 10: Do Your Job! | Zoltan Mesko

In this final episode of the Merchants of Change Season 2 podcast, JR and John sit down to talk to acclaimed former NFL (and Michigan) punter, Zoltan Mesko. This podcast is the can’t-miss episode of the season. Check out JR’s thoughts on the conversation with Zoltan and listen to the pod to hear the details right from the horse’s mouth.

Usually when I write about a podcast it’s part-summary, part my interpretation, part other related thoughts, in varying degrees, depending on the conversation. But this conversation with Zoltan was unique, so different from any other podcast this season, that I’m going to gently demand that you listen to it start to finish. No interpretation from me will do this one justice.

Here are some of the things the podcast will illuminate:

  • How a broken light in a middle-school gym led to Michigan football history and a trip to the Super Bowl.
  • How organizational excellence can get everyone aligned to do their job.
  • Why it’s important to show up, even when you don’t want to.
  • How taking the time to have an uplifting exchange with someone else can pave the way to unexpected (history-making) outcomes.
  • How 360-degree mentoring can help you develop as a person and as a professional.
  • How knowing the facts can be used to your advantage.
  • What FATFIRE is and why you should care.
  • How what you value and what the path forward looks like for you is critical in choosing an employer and a role.
  • The importance of trust, credibility, and believability.
  • Why you should avoid buzzwords.
  • The importance of reading good books. (Spoiler alert: The Speed of Trust by Steven Covey is one of several titles he mentions.)
  • How Zoltan manages to be a sales leader, crush his numbers, golf when he wants, and coach his daughters’ soccer teams.
  • Why it’s important to get to “no” fast.
  • The differences between managers and leaders and why it matters.
  • What makes Zoltan elite.


What struck me most was Zoltan’s strong sense of self. He has crystal clarity of what matters to him, and he aligns himself to succeed in those areas. A career in tech sales gives him the financial freedom to, as he tells us, “enjoy the ride,” but make no mistake—he puts in so much hard work, so much effort, but he wastes none of it. Zoltan knows what he needs to be happy, and he figures out how to optimize at every shift change.

Would you believe me if I told you that Zoltan Mesko found financial independence in his tech sales career after leaving the NFL? Buckle up for this wild ride of a conversation that brings intelligence and persistence and flexibility and dedication and self-knowledge together in a unique way with a unique guest who achieves unique outcomes. I’m telling you—don’t take it from me. Tune in and listen to Zoltan.

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Episode 9: Nobody is Upset When Deals Are Closing | MAri Malatos

Episode 9: Nobody is Upset When Deals Are Closing | MAri Malatos

In this week’s episode JR and John sit down with Mari Malatos, former University of Delaware Blue Hen and current Senior Director of Sales at Fairmarkit, a leading product that helps companies make every buying decision a smart one. Mari’s secret to success is summed up at the end—listen or read to find out. Mari is about as steady and as no-nonsense as they come. In person, her intent gaze clues you in that her eyes are always on the prize, but an easy laugh lets you know that she isn’t all business. That’s important because in Mari I am reminded how critical balance is, how important it is to be hyper-focused, but that it’s also important to have some fun, to stay human.

3-sport athletes: an observation

Mari was a three-sport athlete in high school (field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse) before focusing on ice hockey at Delaware. We’ve interviewed several multi-sport high-school athletes for this podcast, and two things stand out—one is physical and one a bit more practical, both of which have go-forward applicability. From a physical standpoint, those who play multiple sports in high school seem to be less inclined to get overuse injuries due to the diversity of muscle use for each sport, rather than repetitive use. More practically speaking, playing different sports also provides a mental diversity—you need to be physically adaptable to excel under different athletic conditions, sure, but you also need to be socially adaptable too. Different teammates, coaches, strategies, etc. require a different type of approach to achieving success. No matter how you look at it, there are different advantages that come with playing multiple sports—advantages which mean nothing if you don’t capitalize on them. Mari clearly does.

Choice vs chance: getting started

When Mari first started in sales, she didn’t really know if that was what she wanted. Her uncle sold her on the idea of getting her foot in the door at a good company through a sales job; if it didn’t work out, it would open doors to other roles. Around the same time she bumped into someone she knew at a grocery store, a VC guy, who also promoted a career in sales. And Mari’s dad had a long career in recruiting, a kind of sales. Between these three outside influences, Mari decided to make the move. She quickly learned that showing up at an interview with no sales experience wasn’t a fast path to a job, so she got adept at telling the story of her waitressing days on Nantucket and how she developed a certain expertise in upselling the lobster roll to customers—genius! When you’re looking to break into tech sales, know your own story cold, tell it in an engaging and compelling way, and offers will follow. And when they do, be prepared to evaluate them as objectively as possible. The leadership team sets the tone for everything, so you need to feel confident in them. You also need to consider the product you’ll be selling. Potential customers will look to you for expertise—so if you can’t be a passionate expert in that space, the role probably isn’t right for you.

Roots in sports: translatable, transferable skills

Mari is ultra-competitive, and she loves being part of a team. In sales, when every single metric is measured every single day, no competitive athlete wants to be at the bottom of the board. That competitive energy is a huge advantage athletes bring to sales jobs. We talked about hockey and the impact of your linemates on your game. As you look to build and progress in your career, consider this as you set yourself up to make bold moves and take responsible chances. Mari advises making your boss’ job easier, get on the radar of key players at the organization, and deliver consistently.

Her secret to success: keep reading this post

What? Did you think I was going to give away her secret without making you work a little for it? I love asking guests what they think makes them a sales pro. We get a range of answers, some surprising, some novel, all interesting.  At the beginning of this conversation, it was clear that Mari has laser-like focus on results. But her without-hesitation answer to this question gave so much more insight into her success. Mari says what makes her a sales pro is taking “extreme ownership.” Her unwavering commitment to being responsible and accountable for all outcomes is what sets her apart. (And we can’t recommend the best-selling book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin exuberantly enough.) Tune into the podcast to hear our whole conversation and to hear more about what makes Mari tick.

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Episode 8: Be Your Authentic Self | Brian Kolb

Episode 8: Be Your Authentic Self | Brian Kolb

For this episode, John and I talk to our friend (and former teammate of JR’s) Brian Kolb.  Brian works as a Senior Account Executive at Tidelift, a company focused on helping application development leaders take advantage of open source software so that it works better for everyone. We cover a lot in this podcast, and raises one key concept that is worth zeroing in on in more detail here.

As is always the case with a Merchants of Change podcast, our conversation with Brian covered a lot of ground, from our shared history at Holy Cross to how Brian broke into tech sales to what makes him successful today to his aspirations to take on more of a leadership role.

We’re at the end of a calendar year (though we still have a few more pod eps in S2 of Merchants of Change so stay tuned!) and there’s a natural tendency to look back on things, to reflect, and to use what we see to influence how we move forward. To adjust, to improve, to do more of, to do less of—it’s so much like sitting down and watching film. And something came up in this conversation again and again, something that we heard in some way or another in other episodes—though not to the extent that we heard it here. In this conversation, it was more of a theme, and I think it’s a really important thing to focus on. You can listen to the podcast to hear everything Brian has to say, but I’m going to keep the focus here ultra-sharp and dial in on the importance of authenticity.

In several episodes past (and this one was no exception) our guests have either alluded to or explicitly stated how important it is to find people who do the things you want to do and then to emulate them. This takes many forms. It may be that you see someone with a lifestyle you admire, and that’s what drew you into tech sales in the first place. It may be the traits and behaviors you see in people closing deals and achieving financial success. It may be more of a social thing, when you see people building and leveraging strong networks. Or it may be seeing styles and behaviors and characteristics and traits you want to avoid.

(Side note here if you’re looking/hoping for remote work: when you’re starting out in tech sales, being in an office surrounded by people focused on selling your company’s product(s) is an invaluable experience. You really will learn “by osmosis.” Listening and watching in 3D will teach you more than any Zoom or Teams meeting ever will. Being in person, being watched and seen, may help you learn to be more accountable, and it may help you avoid subconsciously and unknowingly developing bad habits. Find the right company for you, which may mean you have to be in person at first but that you’ll have the opportunity to “earn” flexibility. It’s worth considering. Don’t rule a job out solely on the grounds of whether it is in person, hybrid, or fully remote.)

While it is important to model yourself after the behaviors you admire, it’s critical that you find your own style and your own voice. Align yourself closely with your AEs. Work on communicating with them and building a partnership. Take deals as far as you can for them—pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Adjust and try again. This will help you uncover your best sales self.

Making your pitch in your “best sportscaster voice” won’t make you any more credible than someone who’s “on the level.” It’s far more important to show that you know your product, that you understand the customer’s needs, that you can demonstrate how your product will help them, and that they trust that you will act as a true partner. Sales is hard. If you’re spending precious time and energy on being something you’re not, you’re taking time away from the value-added activities that can have the most impact on single deals and on long-term relationships with customers. When you know your stuff, when you know who you are, and when you have a genuine interest in solving customers’ problems, doing the hard work you’re used to as a former athlete will feel more relaxed and more natural. Then, when the opportunities present themselves, you’ll be much better prepared to take advantage of them. Don’t waste time doing stuff that doesn’t add value—don’t waste time being an impostor.

As you develop and as your career progresses, you’ll be the one people are watching. You’ll be the one demonstrating those admirable behaviors and traits, and you’ll be the one acting in a way that engages and excites and motivates others. You’ll be the one defining the future for who knows how many athletes who are looking to succeed in tech sales. That would be pretty awesome, wouldn’t it be?

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Episode 7: It’s All About Networking | Victor Karpenko

Episode 7: It’s All About Networking | Victor Karpenko

In this episode, we sit down with the multi-talented Victor Karpenko, and this conversation takes a slightly different look at sales from an athlete’s perspective. Read JR’s takeaways from this discussion, and tune into the podcast for all the details. Victor Karpenko is the Channel Sales Manager at Five9, a cloud-based contact center software solutions provider. Before that, he played football and ran track in high school before going on to Cal State-Chico where he excelled as a sprinter and in rugby. He’s also an accomplished powerlifter. The words “strong” and “fast” barely begin to describe Victor.

Subjective vs. Objective

Victor’s a humble guy, but you can’t debate “strong” and “fast.” Numbers don’t lie. Victor’s background in both team and individual sports gives him a unique perspective on both sports and sales. He remembers being told he was fast in high school, being asked to join some relay teams. At that point, he believed he was strong and fast because that’s what people told him. But numbers don’t lie. Individual sports are far more objective than team sports. The clock doesn’t lie. The fastest person is the fastest person, and the fastest person wins. In team sports, it’s a different dynamic. Everyone has an opportunity to play, but not everyone gets the opportunity—in other words, subjectivity (opinion and bias) plays into who is on the field, ice, or court. Being involved in both has shown Victor the best and worst of each, lessons that he carries to this day.

You vs. You

I had to ask. Which did he like better, team or individual sports? While Victor is still involved in both to this day, Victor prefers the black-and-white, cut-and-dried nature of individual sports. Instead of dealing with distractions that can creep into team sports (things like favoritism), in individual sports, you have ownership and accountability—it’s all on you to put yourself in a position to succeed. In individual sports, it’s you v you, and Victor thrives in that environment. In sprint events, the race is so short that there’s little time for course correction if something goes wrong. One-tenth of one second is 10 feet of track—relinquish it and the race is over for you. In team sports, you have a whole game to adjust, re-group, adjust your game plan, make subs, or whatever else you need to do. It takes a different kind of discipline and regimen to be successful in individual sports—one that Victor will tell you is not as fun. Team sports win in the “fun” category hands down mainly due to the sheer variety of people and training and social activity involved. Track offers a sense of “team,” but it’s different when you compete individually.

Eyes on the Prize

As a senior in high school, Victor made it to the conference finals and the state meet. There are a lot of people and hence a lot of athletes in the Bay Area, so standing out in that pool of talent was a huge accomplishment in and of itself. But what really made it special for Victor was that qualifying for these meets was the goal he set as his target, the thing he strove for continuously. Seeing his goals play out the way he planned was extremely gratifying to Victor—and thus why he views this as his biggest athletic accomplishment.

Professional Goals

Victor will be the first to tell you how hard transitioning from student-athlete to working professional is. First of all, you have to get from one place to another. This is where a mentor and/or a network comes in handy. Set yourself up for success when you’re still in school. Lay down some stepping stones. Ultimately, networking Victor landed a job at a gym—and this was where he learned to sell. He was continually selling memberships, personal training, and supplements…and he was successful. But he didn’t see himself and his future in the gym world, so he set his sights elsewhere. Despite some initial challenges upon being labeled a “retail guy,” Victor kept pushing for the sole reason that he knew he could do it. And he did.

3 Tips for Making the Transition

  1. Talk about yourself. Athletes are trained to be humble. Forget that. Talk about your athletic accomplishments. Tell the hiring manager what you did and how you made it. Show that you are driven, organized, and capable of meeting goals. Don’t minimize your experience and accomplishments.
  2. Sell them on you, on why you. Tell a compelling story about how you can help them and their customers solve problems. Highlight your coachability, your commitment outside of practice, and your willingness to assume responsibility. Translate your experience into outcomes.
  3. Close on the interviews. Push a little. Ask what’s next.
Listen to the podcast to hear more about Victor’s transition, what makes him elite, and what qualities he thinks makes someone a true sales pro.

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Episode 6: Once an Athlete, Always an Athlete | Melissa Puleo

Episode 6: Once an Athlete, Always an Athlete | Melissa Puleo

Once an athlete, always an athlete. And these words ring so true for Melissa Puleo, a three-sport athlete at Lawrence Academy, a softball player at Trinity College, and Enterprise Account Director at Talon.one, a platform for seamless integration of all customer data. The full scoop is in the pod, and my take on it is available here.

While Melissa fits the classic profile of a successful athlete turned successful salesperson, there’s plenty about how she works and how she thinks that sets her apart. John and I had the chance to talk to her about how her background in athletics has fueled her success in tech sales.

An Athlete’s Mindset

As an athlete, Melissa was the consummate team player—as she describes it, “never the MVP, always the Coach’s Award.” But really, isn’t “Coach’s Award” just a different kind of MVP? I think so, and when I hear “Coach’s Award,” I think “backbone.” “Heart and soul.” And I also think “Melissa Puleo.” And it’s probably no surprise that the positions Melissa played in her three sports were goalie, goalie, and catcher—definitely the backbone positions of every team!

While some athletes like the limelight, Melissa knew that what set her apart is what she did before and after practice. Arrive early. Stay late. Be tenacious. Believe in yourself. Persevere. And most importantly, stay tough when times get hard.

An Accidental Salesperson

You read that right. Melissa became a salesperson by accident. There was an on-campus recruiting event where NetSuite was looking to hire for some business development roles. Melissa wanted to get into business, was interested in marketing, and figured this would get her foot in the door. She had no idea it was a sales job! But when NetSuite started her in a training class of 10 new BDRs, she liked what she saw. The competitive nature of sales was perfect for her—and while the money is nice, she loves the thrill of winning.

Deliberate Decisions

Unlike Melissa, most of you have made a conscious choice to go into tech sales. As a sales leader, Melissa has some advice for when you’re trying to break in. She believes that being an athlete gives you an automatic edge. You went to school AND managed all the additional commitments you had as an athlete and as a teammate. So tell your story as an athlete—talk about your dedication, mental training, and how sports drills you to operate at a higher level.

In the end, many of you will get multiple offers from multiple companies. When you’re evaluating those, Melissa suggests asking yourself whether you’ll be working for someone who you want to work for and who will help you advance your career. Melissa is certain that if she hadn’t had a good first leader, she would not have stayed in sales.

Win the Day

Whether you get into sales by accident or on purpose, once you’re there, you’re all in the same boat. It’s really hard. Melissa relied on her sports mindset and skill-building, and quickly came to appreciate small wins.

Take the time to figure out your own sales style—what works for one person might not work for you. Find people you want to be like and emulate them. Find what fits and you’ll come into your own, and you’ll be ready to take the next step into the AE role when one is available.

Probably the best advice Melissa ever got as a BDR was to “win the day.” Keep it manageable. Focus on the tasks at hand. Win the day. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Clearly, that advice has served her well.

Moving on Up

Now that Melissa is in a leadership role, she sees things from a very different vantage point. To new leaders, she counsels how important it is to understand your team—your whole team. Sales are both an art and a science, and everyone is different. Therefore it is important to be aware of differences and coach everyone—not just people whose styles are similar to yours.

For the women out there, Melissa wants you to know this: you’re not anywhere just to listen. Speak up and promote the work you do. If you don’t, you risk a lack of awareness of your accomplishments, and that may hold you back. Being an athlete takes confidence—remember that and speak up for yourself and for your team.

Tune in to the podcast to hear Melissa talk about all this, tell the amazing story of the XXXL green jacket, and explain what it’s like to be a BDR in a large established company vs a startup.

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Episode 5: Charge at Change Fast | Jim Fahey

Episode 5: Charge at Change Fast | Jim Fahey

“Born Leader”

If you look up “born leader” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of Jim Fahey. In almost every syllable of his conversation with JR and John, you can feel what a great leader he is and how he uses this trait to help himself and others. To Jim, leading comes as naturally as breathing, but it isn’t as easy as he makes it look. In our conversation, we cover what’s fueled Jim’s path from high school through college to the NHL on to Europe, and ultimately to a professional tech sales career.

Legit Credentials

Most high school athletes dream of winning a state title, but few ever do. Jim won four, two as team captain. At Northeastern, Jim achieved some other dream-worthy feats—namely serving as a 3-time captain, finishing his career with the single-season defense scoring record, being named a First Team All-American, and being nominated as a Hobey Baker Award finalist. When he went on to the NHL, Jim was honored as San Jose Sharks Rookie of the Year—where he led all rookie NHL defensemen in scoring, despite spending half the season in the minors. What explains all this success? Jim was quick to answer that he was on great teams with great leaders and that it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people. But Jim himself was a great leader, a 5-time captain between high school and college, so what is his secret? It’s simple, as Jim tells it. He leads by example. We dug in a little deeper and gained some sharp insights, some of which I’ll talk about here. But you’re going to have to listen to the podcast to hear all of Jim’s gems. Also, I know that a few things are repeated in different places in this post—I think the repetition is important because it highlights some of the critical traits that have been consistent no matter where or how Jim was finding success.

Why NU?

In New England, there’s no shortage of amazing college hockey programs. Despite interest from and being interested in several fantastic schools with great hockey, Jim was Northeastern’s #1 recruit and Jim jumped at the chance. When Jim looks back, he characterizes his success at NU as being in the right place at the right time—and then doing the right thing. That last part is critical. You might get a good opportunity as the result of dumb luck, but you have to work hard to seize the moment and get as much out of it as you can.

The NHL: Next Level

Jim had a good work ethic, knew that success was related to the people around him, and was a great leader, all of which served him well when he transitioned to the NHL. He quickly identified that what he had relied on in the past guaranteed him nothing in the future. He had to find gaps and adapt his skillset to fit them. As an 8th-round draft pick, this meant finding ways to become a reliable role player. When a teammate got a concussion, Jim got his chance and he was ready to step in. He asked himself “Why am I here?” and then focused on delivering on and being exactly those things. He needed to do the job he was being asked to do.

Learning to Learn All Over Again

EMC, like NU all those years before, gave Jim an opportunity. He appreciated other people opening doors for him, and once he was sure it was the right place and the right team for him, he took full ownership and accountability for his success. Fortunately, tech sales is just like hockey, with success relying on:
  • Sacrifice
  • Doing the simple things
  • Teamwork
  • Execution
  • Hard work
  • Coaching
  • Curiosity

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Jim’s now Head of Sales at Miro, the best online whiteboard tool. What does he think it took to elevate his career, and what makes him successful as a leader?
  • Sacrifice
  • Investing time in learning
  • Setting quantifiable goals with tight timelines
  • Staying on track and being accountable
  • Leading by example
  • Being transparent

Hockey Pro to Sales Pro

What makes Jim an elite salesperson is his skill with time management. He knows when to say no and has the courage to do so. He knows how to prioritize. Beyond that, what makes Jim a true sales pro? It’s “simple”:
  • He knows what he’s talking about.
  • He leads by example.
Jim is such a steady, consistent, and authentic professional, it’s no wonder he creates success wherever he goes. Listen to the podcast to hear Jim’s thoughts on all of this plus the importance of mentors, why it’s important to emulate and simplify, how to hire new leaders, and how to be an influential force multiplier.

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Episode 4: Versatility | Jessie Bryant

Episode 4: Versatility | Jessie Bryant

Jessie Bryant, longtime friend of JR and the Butlers, three-sport high school athlete, softball standout (and captain) at Providence College, college coach, and sales professional extraordinaire talks to JR about her road from playing to coaching to selling.

Born into a family of athletes, Jessie was destined to be an athlete. She likes to say that growing up around me and my brothers and in