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EPISODE 042: Sales Leader Sean Ryan is on a Mission to Fuel the Quality of Education with World-Class Technologies
Sean Patrick Ryan is the senior vice president and general manager of Fuel Education which is a part of K-12 Inc., a pioneer of online learning based in Herndon, Virginia. Fuel Education works with schools across the country to bring state of the art learning tools into the classroom in order to drive high level student performance across nearly all grade levels and subjects.
A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Sean began his career as a military intelligence officer just before the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. These events profoundly altered the initial course of his career. Post business school at Stanford, his move into the education technology space was driven by a strong desire to leverage new learning tools to deliver better student outcomes. He was exposed to an early version of these learning tools when learning Japanese while living and working in Tokyo.
Prior to joining Fuel Education earlier this year, Sean served as the SVP of Sales for McGraw-Hill Education where he also managed the strategic planning process for the entire organization. During his four years at the helm of this 500 person sales organization, his group consistently took market share and increased sales from about $600 million to $800 million in four years.
Find Sean on LinkedIN!
Fred Diamond: Sean, what do you sell today and tell us specifically what excites you about that.
Sean Ryan: Our (Fuel Education) portfolio consists of a wide variety of digital instructional materials and the reason I’m excited about it is not because it’s going to take cost out of the equation for educating 50 million students across the United States, but rather because it’s going to improve the quality of education across the United States. We’re talking about improving student engagement, increasing student performance, easing the teacher burden and providing greater insight to school administrators. And this is important work, I think that education is nothing less – and these are the words of someone more famous than me – nothing less than the transmission of civilization from one generation to the next. Leveraging technology to do that is what I consider to be my life’s work.
Fred Diamond: Tell us specifically what Fuel Education is doing and what are the deliverables that you provide to your customers.
Sean Ryan: Fuel Education provides full online courses, and in some cases we provide the instructor of record as well. We provide supplemental solutions, we apply adaptive technologies to our learning materials, all with the idea that we can improve the quality of education with our target clients.
Fred Diamond: You said you started here earlier this year. What was it exactly that brought you here? You said you originally were in Columbus and you moved over here to Northern Virginia. What was it that really triggered your move here?
Sean Ryan: There were a couple different factors that went into that decision making process. Obviously I believe in the core mission of K-12, I saw the opportunity to take those assets of K-12 and make them available to 15,000 school districts across the United States as a tremendous opportunity. We have 17 years of online teaching and learning experience in K-12. Public school districts are starting to embrace that little by little and they need guides, and who better to guide them than the pioneers than went out and staked that territory for the first time?
The other reason that I made this move is because of personal relationships. Individuals that I met more than 10 years ago are still in this space. We have trusted relationships and the chance to work with this team, this highly motivated and passionate team for education improvement is something I couldn’t pass up.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about your career in sales. How did you first get into sales as a career?
Sean Ryan: Like a lot of people, by accident. I think in many cases you don’t grow up thinking, “Oh, I want to go into sales, I want to be a sales leader”. In fact, I was doing other things after graduating from business school. I was responsible for strategic business development and product management for Scantron. Scantron was facing an existential threat at that time in the early 2000’s. They were relying on optical mechanical technology for the most part and then we had the advent of the web, of a better way to collect and disseminate information. And so after we wrote the strategy and we started building products, we were having trouble actually transforming the sales team.
After a series of failed attempts, the president of the division asked me if I would consider taking over the sales organization. Me, someone who had no sales experience whatsoever, so I turned him down. Six months later he asked me again, I turned him down again. Third time he asked me I was like, “Alright, he’s probably pretty serious, I should consider this.” Fortunately, he was an experienced sales veteran, he got the general management position after having been a sales leader within that organization, so he was my initial guide, and I know we’ll talk a little bit about that in future questions.
Fred Diamond: That’s great, so you made the shift. What were some of the key lessons you learned when you took over that job that have stuck with you today?
Sean Ryan: There are 3 key lessons I’d like to share with you. First of all, heroic efforts do not scale very well. The team as a whole must develop and foster better habits. You do have these big sales that are essentially not duplicable and they tend to garner a lot of the headlines but it’s the routine things that you’re doing every single day, those simple habits that I think actually raise the level of the overall team over time.
Also, the effort well in advance of every opportunity is where the best sales people establish their excellence compared to their peers. Eventually that does lead to more opportunity and higher sales performance. But again, going back to the first issue it’s those small habits before you even have that visible opportunity.
Then the last thing – and this is actually something I think I learned in my military career when I was an intelligence officer working with fighter pilots – and that is domain knowledge is an equalizer. If you’re going to sit down with somebody who is an expert in their field, you better understand the charge and you better understand the performance of their organization, maybe even the performance of their own individual careers. You have to have a peer to peer ability to converse with these individuals if they’re going to trust you to help build that mutual future together.
Fred Diamond: That is a great point, all three are great points but number three particularly. One of the themes that continues to emerge (on the Sales Game Changers Podcast) is because the customer has so much information now, they probably know a good amount of your product and your service so how do you as the sales professional provide value to them. And you need to have a deep, intimate knowledge of their business and the challenges that they’re facing in their industry.
Sean Ryan: Absolutely true, and I think if it was going to be one thing, if I had to wrap it all up, it would be – You have to be able to build trust. That’s ultimately what you’re selling, no matter what domain you’re operating in. Trust that they’re going to have a greater likelihood of achieving what it is they want to achieve, because they’ve chosen to work with you.
Fred Diamond: What exactly are you an expert in? What is your specific area of brilliance?
Sean Ryan: That question, Fred, is an arrogance trap.
Fred Diamond: [Laughs]
Sean Ryan: And I’m not going to fall into it. You know what I’m an expert in? I’m an expert in my ignorance, my biases, my limitations and my fears. So I know those things inside and out.
But if I had to give you an answer, and you’re looking at me like I really have to give you an answer, I would say it is working with school districts across the United States to help them translate their mission, their vision, their strategic plan into an operating plan where they bring in the next generation of digital instructional materials as well as introduce modern professional development for their teacher cadre so that they can teach differently in the classroom. Things that are made important and vital because of these new tools that we bring into the classroom.
Fred Diamond: One of the reasons why we ask that question is we want to impart some of the knowledge that our Sales Game Changers have. I’m going to ask you a question that’s a little bit off-script, but you just mentioned that you were truly an expert in working with school districts. Give us a little bit of a summary on the challenges that you see facing school districts today that you or Fuel Education is able to help them solve.
Sean Ryan: They’re complex pseudo-governmental organizations. They have a vast and varied constituency. The first constituency that we all think of is the students themselves, but then you have the local community. You have the parents, you have the teaching cadre, you have the administrators, you have the board, you have local politicians, you have local businesses. All of those things come together in a variety of opinions that dictate how the school should be making choices, what investment decisions they should make and how accountable they’re going to be to the various constituency. It’s a highly complex environment.
Also, you have disciplines within the school district that need to work in synchrony with one another and sometimes the communication doesn’t flow laterally. The best sales people that I’ve worked with in this domain are able to take that information and make sure that’s shared laterally throughout the organization that they’re working with.
Fred Diamond: Sean, who was an impactful sales career mentor and how did they specifically impact your career?
Sean Ryan: Fred, first of all, I’m always seeking mentors. There’s always something to learn from people who have been there before you, who’ve done it, who’ve done it better. At this time when I stepped into that new role that we talked about earlier that I resisted for so long, it was the president of Scantron, and it was Tim Loomer, someone I had gone to business school with. He was a veteran sales leader, was then thrust into the general management role so he absolutely understood the quantitative nature and the mechanical nature of being a sales leader in our industry.
But I think the key was putting this together with the expertise of someone named Bill Tudor. Bill Tudor owned a company in San Diego that we had acquired that had some of the more modern learning technologies that we were bringing into Scantron, so I got the artful aspect of working with educators and the passion for the space, and the appreciation for what educators do every single day from Bill Tudor. So I thought together, that combination of Tim Loomer and Bill Tudor gave me a complete picture of what it would take to lead individuals who are selling into that environment.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. We often talk about the art and science of professional sales and I liked what you answered before in a previous question where you talked about the simple habits. It’s not just about the home runs, it’s continuing to do things right over and over again, so that’s a great lesson from some of the two mentors. Sean, what are the two biggest challenges you’ve faced today as a sales leader?
Sean Ryan: Number one is finding people that have that innate talent and passion for the space in which we operate. I do think that in some ways the Wizard of Oz has summed it up. I want people who have courage, who have a brain and have a heart. So you have to run a little bit faster than the average professional in the space, you have to have a superior intellect, you have to have the courage to go into an environment that is maybe unfamiliar, but when you combine that with zealotry, with a passion for the mission of education, those individuals are unstoppable and they show the others who are part of this team how to get things done.
Fred Diamond: Recruiting is something that comes up not infrequently.
Sean Ryan: I believe it.
Fred Diamond: Especially for companies that are doing really well, because if you’re looking for that A+ talent, those people are in pretty high demand and can write their own checks, that is a great answer. Let’s go back and think about your career, Sean. What is the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Sean Ryan: I’ve been asked this question before and I’ve had a chance to think about it. I was the sales leader in Scantron but every so often, the sales leader like King Leonidas in 300 has to pick up the shield and the sword himself and stand of the front of his 300 and show them how it’s done.
In one particular case we had the opportunity to go into the New York City department of education to try and go and win something that we had no business winning. We were not the incumbent and we did not have a big brand name presence in the assessment space. Yet somehow our proposal advanced to the final stage where we had to present in front of the leadership of the New York City department of education. Unfortunately, we were based on the West Coast and hurricanes were battering the East Coast so all flights into New York City that Monday morning were cancelled. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world to not show up and say, “Well this is just a perfunctory exercise, we’re there to be Column Fodder”.
But we figured if you don’t paddle out there, you’re not going to catch the wave. That was our metaphor since we were living very close to Newport Beach. So I ended up taking a red eye and then taking a cab to the train station in DC, then taking the train up to New York, then finally taking a cab into New York City and meeting with their leadership in Tweed.
During the course of the presentation where we talked about what we were doing for other school districts in the United States, none at the scale of 1.2 million students in New York City, I actually got into a little bit of an exchange, a disagreement, with the head of the accountability program in New York City department of education. And I simply restated our philosophy, restated our track record. We ended our session and I apologized to everyone for wasting their time and having them come out and support me in this presentation. Four days later we were invited back, two weeks later we were contractor for New York City Department of Ed.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to that specific deal. What was it that got the New York City Department of Education to select your company with all of those things going against you?
Sean Ryan: I think the main thing is we had an outstanding product. I have to give credit to our engineering team and our product management team. There weren’t too many out there, too many alternatives that could do exactly what we could do and I also think that we showed a degree of professional courage in that room where we stood our ground and we talked about why an adaptive assessment methodology was better than an fixed form assessment methodology where every student at a certain grade level sees exactly the same questions regardless of how much you know about those students, and I think it was a persuasive argument, and I think they were willing to take a chance with a group that was hungry and energetic and willing to do things a little bit differently.
Fred Diamond: Sean Ryan, it sounds like you’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Sean Ryan: Not one time, and I don’t think it’s that hard. You know what’s hard? War is hard, cancer is hard, poverty is hard. Getting turned down, having people not returning your calls, being rejected, a low win rate, those things are not hard if you have that perspective. In fact, I think I was a little bit naive and ignorant before I went into the role not understanding what it was really all about.
One of the things that I picked up somewhere along the line is that the market is the arbiter of fitness. In other words, it knows what solutions are best and where it wants to make investments, and I think I was deaf to that for so long in my career while we were trying to build product, while we were trying to enhance our products, and the chance to hear directly from our end users, the chance to solicit feedback directly from the marketplace is something I never want to give up. I want to have that market facing relationship and I do believe all the way to the top of the organization to a certain degree you’re all in the selling business because you’re all trying to paint that picture of what you can accomplish together.
Fred Diamond: Sean, what is the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Sean Ryan: One of the things that I’ve come to believe is that you want to be someone of depth, someone who actually has a sense of meaning and purpose in their professional career, hopefully it lines up with what you find to be individually satisfying and important. I think a lot of times people look at the sales profession as being transactional, as being something that is driven by the next opportunity or the next sale. Well, I want us to come in not just for that handshake but for the real hug that never lets go, and I think every time you have the opportunity to sell something to someone, what you should also be doing is building up the store of good will, building up your own professional network, because that can make you a mighty force over time the longer you spend in that particular industry.
Fred Diamond: Sean, what are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Sean Ryan: This is kind of a continuation of the question that you just asked me, Fred, I’m going to elaborate upon that. I think you have to understand the underlying technology. You have to understand the user experience and you have to constantly invest in that because hopefully you work for a dynamic organization and the offering is changing all the time and you’re soliciting feedback from your user community. In essence, I don’t ever want a sales person to act as though they’re an unthinking dollar-chasing troglodyte. Be someone who’s actually trying to reform the organizations that you’re serving, and one of the ways that you can do that is to continue to strengthen yourself.
One of the mantras that I’ve had in my family – and I’ve shared it professionally as well, very simple – mind, body, work, play. I think you have to pay attention to all those things. I think our physical well-being and our mental capacities, at least scientists and physicians tell us this, it enters into a state of decline after you hit your early twenties unless you put forth a superior effort compared to that twenty year old. And so we’re not faded like professional athletes to peak in our early 20’s if we do these things, if we pay attention to mind, body, work and play, and we continue to expand our network and deliver on those promises to our clients earlier in our career, mid-career and later career, you can actually be formidable towards the end of your career.
You should be the most impactful you’re ever going to be in this profession the day before you retire and most professions can’t say that.
Fred Diamond: That is true. Sean, what’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Sean Ryan: One of the things that I would like to see us do is to look for opportunities to bring in like-minded individuals in mass through acquisition so that we can impact at greater scale the US education system.
Fred Diamond: Couple last questions here, Sean, and you’ve given us some great insights. I really appreciate having you on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Now, I usually start this question by saying sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails and you just told us about two minutes ago that sales itself really isn’t hard, but I’m still going to ask the question the same way. Sean Ryan, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Sean Ryan: That is a relatively easy question and that is it’s the people I get to work with. It’s the tireless, fearless, articulate, intelligent professionals who all have a shared vision of a more effective US education system. That’s our unifying principle. Some of these people I’ve been working with for more than 10 years.
My new head of the sales organization is someone I’ve hired now four times, I can’t wait for her to start on the 27th of November, and it’s working with those people whom I trust so that we together can accomplish far more than we ever would independently is what keeps me going. It’s the social aspect and the learning aspect of this job.
Fred Diamond: Sean Ryan, why don’t you give us one final thought to share with our listeners today to inspire them?
Sean Ryan: It’s an elaboration of an earlier thought in this conversation. In some way sales is about creating a shared vision of a better joint future for your clients and for your firm, but the unit of measure is not the firm, is not the organization. In life, it’s the individual human being, so therefore arguably your most important obligation in my mind is to your future self. So ask yourself who do you want to be, what do you want, how do you want to impact others, what kind of impact do you want to have on this world?
These are big, big questions and we continuously answer them with a series of tiny choices that we make every single day. Those choices add up. I want to remind everyone that even when you make a mistake, even when you fall short of your expectation you have time to recover, to regroup and to reset yourself on that path so continuously keep that promise to your future self.