Not knowing who you are will hinder your growth. But when you focus on your purpose, amazing things start to happen. Paul Epstein is the bestselling author of The Power of Playing Offense and the Chief Impact Officer of PurposePoint. A consultancy company focusing on leadership and culture development. Join in the conversation as Paul shares with Dr. Gary Sanchez how knowing his WHY of Contribute brings out the best in him. He believes that the most powerful things you can learn about yourself are who you are and who you’re being. When you identify your core values, something special happens, and you know your life will be different. Tune in!
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When You Focus On Your Purpose, Amazing Things Happen With Paul Epstein
We go beyond talking about your why, helping you discover and live your why. If you are a regular reader, you know that in every episode, we talk about 1 of the 9 whys, and we bring on somebody with that why. You can see how their why has played out in their life. In this episode, we are going to be talking about the Why of Contribute.
If this is your why, then you want to be part of a greater cause, something that is bigger than yourself. You do not necessarily want to be the face of the cause but you love to contribute in a meaningful way. You love to support others and relish the success that contributes to the greater good of the team. You see group victories as personal victories.
You are off and behind the scenes looking for ways to make the world better. You make a reliable and committed teammate and you often act as the glue that holds everyone else together. You use your time, money, energy, resources, and connections to add value to other people and organizations. I have got a great guest for you. His name is Paul Epstein.
Paul believes there are two types of people in this world, those who play defense and those who play offense. These insights are around purpose, performance, and impact were gathered over a fifteen-year run as a professional sports executive, where Paul successfully steered business teams that executed billion-dollar NFL campaigns, broke Super Bowl revenue records, and generated league-leading sales results for seller dweller NBA clubs.
Paul’s proudest moment was when he was internally known as the Why Coach at the San Francisco 49ers, coaching others to find their why and act on it. Paul has curated the most actionable ways into leader’s playbooks of how he and his team produced this impact in these hypercompetitive environments. He calls it playing offense.
He is the Chief Impact Officer for PurposePoint and the Chief Purpose Advisor for the WHY Institute. Paul is a proud father of PJ, married his best friend on the field of Levi’s Stadium, and has a slight obsession with bacon, just do not make it too crispy. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Epstein. Thanks for being here.
I’m fired up to be here. If you have any bacon, it is going to be an even better conversation.
Tell me about that. I can’t bypass that one. What is the story with the bacon?
I had some early childhood holidays down in Mexico. My mom is a proud Mexican descent, so we would normally cruise down there and spend some time with the grand folks. For my fourth Christmas, I’ve got a box. When they handed it to me, it was shaking and I see a little black wet nose coming out of it. In there are two puppies.
As a youngster, you think this is a normal Christmas. You get animals. You get pets. When the time came around before my fifth Christmas, they said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want a pig.” Of course, I’ve never got the pig. They looked at me like I was crazy and that is only half true but needless to say, I have been a massive fan. As much as I’m a 49ers fan, I am a bacon fan. Those two things have stood, tried, and true.
Paul, tell everybody where you are from. Take us through your journey. You have done some amazing things at a very young age. Where did you grow up? What were you like in high school? Let’s start back there.
I mentioned the roots in Mexico. That was very easy to take a four-hour drive because I’m from Los Angeles. My sports career had me visit a ton of different markets and spend years of my life outside of SoCal. The humidity, the cold, and the polar vortex, go West. We are going to come back to that because I have some fun stories about being in Angeleno in cold weather.
I will call myself the little softy there but I was born and raised in LA with my two amazing parents. I was an only child. My dad was an educator. My mom stayed at home to watch me like a hawk. She was one of those parents that were the president of the PTA, the Parent-Teacher Association. That was her way of making sure that I was doing the right thing and getting good grades.
Thank goodness because, A) Having a dad that is an educator, and B) Having a mom that I may not like at the moment but I now am a proud parent of a one-year-old, so we are very new in the journey but I get, see, feel and understand it. It took me three decades to get here. I kept my head on straight. I was an athlete throughout. Football, basketball, and baseball had my stints and I have always loved sports. I’m one of those classics go to the backyard, throw the ball with your pops kind of a guy.
If you want to talk about childhood, my childhood was amazing. Teenagers were amazing, but then something very tragic happened. This is very important in my story because it all connects to why I do what I do and who I am even now. I went to USC. I was not ready to fly too far away from the nest. I’ve got into some amazing schools but with the parents I have, I had to apply to fifteen schools.
Imagine how many essays that are. It was at Northwestern that I had to write four. Let’s say an average is 2, so 30 essays later, I’m at USC. It was the finals of my freshman year. I’m nineteen years old and I get a call that changed my life forever. It was a call that after decades of my dad struggling through diabetes, he finally had his final day.
It was a moment where instantly you feel you went from a boy to a man. You, as an only child, look at your one-standing parent being my mom. She goes from a parent to a partner. I drive home. It is a 10 to 15-minute drive. In some ways, I still remember like it was yesterday seeing my mom. We will get to my purpose, my why, my values, and how they have changed my life throughout this conversation.
One of the ways that I have been able to pull, reflect and apply a lot of those things in my life is because it all has an origin story, and one of my core values is courage. I’ve got that value of courage because of how I saw my mom that day and the next. She breathed courage into me. The Latin definition of inspire is to breathe life into. She breathed and inspired courage, and it is never left.
I will share a story if you would like at a later point in the conversation about my dad and the way he has been able to impact my life even more after the day he passed than when he was alive. That is the early years through the college years. A couple of years later was when I broke into sports. I’m happy to go there if you would like but I will kick it back to you.
She breathed it into you. What do you mean by that? There are going to be people reading this who are having their own trauma and stuff going on. What was that like?
Oftentimes, when fear or risk is highest, you could think of it on a small level. It is a setback, hurdle or obstacle. There is another level like a global pandemic and maybe a loss that happened, whether a person, place, job, or industry. It is the loss of being able to build a community and hang out with the people you want to hang out with whenever you want, those types of things.
At the highest level, maybe there is something that is terminal on a medical front. There is something where you lose 1 of the 2 most important people in your life at an age that you are not ready to lose them. I was nineteen. I had this thought in my head that this was supposed to be the end of the world. My dad died and I’m not even twenty years. I not only saw her strength. More importantly, I felt her strength.
When I wanted to crumble, she did not let me. She is the rock star in my life, the rock in my life if you will, so when you ask the question of, “How did she breathe life into me?” it is the same way that I measure people, action. She could have told me, “Stay strong, be strong.” If I saw weakness, if she did not show up strong or say the right things but did not do the right things, I do not know how I would have processed that experience. That is what I mean. Life is about how you show up. If it is not in action, it does not count.
You were at USC. What did you major in and how did you get into the whole sports world?
I was a business guy. Interestingly, in some of the other conversations that we have had, you always talk about the way you were raised. My family always told me growing up, “This kid can talk.” I would not shut up. They said, “You are going to be a lawyer or in sales. There are only two options.” That is not exactly why I’ve got into business school but I knew that I had a passion for not only speaking but more importantly, connecting with people.
I am not the cubicle guy. I am the guy that needs to feel there is a partnership. In my playing offense terminology, I say, “Meet me at the 50.” That is when two people have the same amount of energy and level of resources that they are bringing to the table. You are meeting at the 50 as partners. The way I like to think about it is, “I’m not just going to run through the wall for you. I do not want you to run through the wall for me. Let’s lock arms and run through the wall together.”
That is my philosophy on life, business, and partnership. That is why I’ve got into sales because I saw an opportunity to do that, so I go to school. Business, sales, and marketing were the background. I did not get into sports until a year after. I worked for Philip Morris. Now they are called Altria. For those that do not know, that is the pairing company of Marlboro cigarettes amongst other brands.
I had friends that worked at the company and they recruited me. I was like, “This is pretty badass. I’m 19 to 20 years old working for a Fortune 10 company. I do not even care what the product or service is. Do you know how amazing that is on a resume? That is how we think at a certain point. I’m a summer sales intern. I end up being a recruiting ambassador, meeting those tents in the middle of campus at a career fair.To inspire is to breathe life into others. Click To Tweet
I’m the guy representing Philip Morris under one of those tents. I’m trying to tell people to join me in this army of Philip Morris folks. It went fine at USC and it was very pleasant in LA, then they sent me to the Bay Area at a school called Berkeley. For those that know the brand of Berkeley, there are some different cats up there. By the way, my wife went there as an undergrad. I’ve got to say, “Go, Bears!” just to stay married. Let me put that out there.
I’m at a Berkeley career fair. As I’m approaching with all of my materials, I see a flock of people that is a couple of hundred feet in front of me. I’m thinking, “What is going on? Is it a protest or what is this?” I creep up and they are right in front of the Philip Morris booth. Within five minutes to the start of the career fair, I had security on both sides of me. People are holding up signs in front of me. There were two signs that I will never forget. One said, “You work for the devil.” Another one said, “You sell cancer.”
You want to talk about putting things in perspective. All of a sudden, that Fortune 10, the brand, and the resume did not matter. You’ve got to think about tribes and values that you stand for, that are attracted to, and what repels you. That moment taught me that there are many superficial reasons to do things in life. Work for the big brand or go for the supermodel but you can’t even have a conversation with them.
There are all these things or places that we engage with for reflecting back on the wrong reasons but you’ve got to go through some life experience for it. That was my Berkeley experience. This is the break into the sport, and then I will kick it back to you. For those sports fans, there is a guy named Mel Kiper. He is a college football draft guru. He is a high-energy guy like the fire, the burn, and all that good stuff.
I’m driving in my Philip Morris van and I’m graduated. It is not too far from that Berkeley Career Fair. I’m on ESPN Radio. All of a sudden, Mel comes on, “Have you ever wanted to work in sports? Have you ever dreamt of working for your favorite MLB and NBA team?” I’m speeding down the road like, “Yes.” His call to action was, “Call 1877-SMWW.” SMWW stands for Sports Management Worldwide. Eight weeks later, I graduated from an online program. The deal was if you are a good student and can turn some heads with the professors, they will plug you into their network. That was my break-in.
They said, “Where do you want to be?” I said, “LA.” They said, “We have an opportunity at the Clippers.” The Clippers, at that time, were Lakers with Kobe and Shaq. Clippers were the redheaded stepchild here from a brand perspective. When I first started with them, ESPN called us the worst brand in sports. Sports Illustrated doubled down a year later and said, “You are the worst franchise in sports history,” so I had to sell that. That is my break into sports.
What was it like working for the Clippers in those days? I remember living out in LA. It was hard to get anybody to go to a Clipper game and it is almost embarrassing to show up at a Clipper game. You do not want to go to that.
Imagine you are entertaining clients. You are trying to paint this facade that it is a sold-out arena, push urgency that they are the last seats in the house, and there are 10,000 open seats around them. You say, “Maybe they are a little late to the game.” That’s what it was like. Here is the reality and this is good advice for life and something that I learned at a very young career stage.
You’ve got to control the controllable. I know it sounds a cliché. We have all heard it but, do you actually do that? There is a very short list of things that both, you either fully control or do not control. The majority of things fall in the middle. I call it the land of influence. Most things in life are gray. You influence them. The things you do not control are things like the weather or the economy if adversity enters your life.
I already shared a few of my stories and will flip the script. What do you control? It is all within you. It is things like your mindset, actions, attitude, and energy level, my actions, my attitudes, my reactions, my energy level, and not the selfish my but the self-awareness my or the perspective my. Working at the Clippers, if you listen to all of the outside noise that is so uncontrollable, whether the media, an annoyed fan or whatever it is, you are going to lose.
I was in a twelve-person recruiting class. I was the only person to make it to the second month on the job because they only wanted the glitz and glamor of getting into sports. I was doing it because I was on a mission to sell as much of the unsellable as possible. I would argue that early in my career, I do not want to work for the market leader. I want to work for the underdog.
What was that like trying to sell the Clippers and how did you eventually sell the Clippers?
I know we will get to the why process in a bit but it is not too different where there is a why and sometimes there is a why under the why. We would always call it single-game buyers. I would call folks that came to a Clipper versus Lakers game because they are locals. You remove a lot of the barriers and objections are out. Lakers’ seats are so tough to get and they are expensive. I’m already winning some of those battles before I even pick up the phone.
I start to understand why they come to games. I know they are Laker games but why and who do you come with? What is that memory and event that you are never going to forget and how have sports been a part of your life? You like coming with your son, daughter or better half. What is the coolest event that you have ever been to? What transpired because of that moment? It’s because of that, it forged a greater relationship.
I get very deep under the surface and into why they love the game itself, who their favorite players are, and all of these different logistics and details. I say, “What if you could be a handful of rows off the court, which does not exist with the Lakers, and you could have these amazing experiences with your family?” You hear them incremental yes. Let’s get this done. It is almost like they said yes to so many things that were important to them, they forgot that it was Clippers. I sold the NBA, family, and what I could control because I can’t control if the Clippers win games or not.
How did you learn to do that?
I will be humble when I say this. Some of this is a gift. I do know that but that is not all it is. I refuse to answer in a way that, “Some of us are gifted at whatever.” I’m humbled to say I know a lot of great performers, whether professional athletes or folks that are in the entertainment world. They did not get there overnight, and just because of their gifts.
I know for a fact spending fifteen years in sports, countless people have gifts, very few apply them. That is my fundamental belief because I was not the most talented. I believe I was talented. I am too humble to ever say I was the most talented but I had this hard hat mentality. When I say control the controllables and even when I became the sales manager a few years later, I managed the room that I once started in as an entry-level sales guy.
I always told folks when I was recruiting that my job as a hiring manager is to hire the best talent. Do not worry about whether you think you are amazing at sales. That is my judgment to make in this interview process. What I need you to do in our contract is I need three things. I need your work ethic, positivity, and coachability. That’s the lunch pill. Those are the non-negotiables. You give me those three things. I will take care of you for the rest of your career.
That is how I inspired and motivated teams to forget about the noise and the negativity of the market and start focusing on what they truly wanted and that deeper burn, that igniting of passion. I found that when you can understand what is important to other people, it is that Zig Ziglar thing. You help enough people get what they want and life tends to reward you, too.
I do not do that strategically. I do not take score or give with the expectation of getting. I just give. I’m a contributor. I always have been. I didn’t always know that because I did not take this wonderful assessment but reflecting back, that is how I inspired others and that is the same pep talk that I had to have with myself when I was on the front lines in a producing role.
You were in the Clippers for how long and what was the next step?
I was selling for about a year and change, and then I ended up managing the team. That was about a two-year run. In my two years as a Manager, the first year, we finished 28th in revenue. In the second year, we finished second in revenue. How did we do that? The Clippers won no more games in that second year than the first. When you said seller-dwelling MBA clubs when you were introducing me, this is what we are referring to.
How do you take bottom and league revenue to second next to the top? It was a partnership agreement that I figured out. Let me back up. I’m going to give tremendous credit to one of my guys. His name is Eddie. Eddie was the only person in the room that by age was older than me. Technically, he reported to me but I never viewed it that way. I believed that I learned more from Eddie than he could have ever learned from me.
He had already run his own real estate businesses. His family has given him the blessing to come in at a $7 an hour entry-level job with no other benefits and no bonus potential. He got that blessing and ended up being one of the biggest blessings in my life. Six months into that two-year run at the Clippers, Eddie and I go out for a bite. I say, “Eddie, I look around the room and I feel we have got this amazing locker room. There is such good talent. I’m so fired up but the scoreboard does not reflect that. Our sales revenue sucks. What is going on?”
He said, “Paul, what are we doing?” I said, “I do not know. We are hanging out and having lunch.” He goes, “Is it fair to say we are breaking bread?” I said, “Sure.” He hit me. He said, “When was the last time you did this with anybody else on the team?“ It was a very simple, yet profound message that I needed to hear because I basically was managing people the way I was managed, not leading because there is a difference.
I’m not going to claim that early in my sales career, I had amazing coaching or mentorship. I’m not knocking the guys. In the sports industry, there was a little bit of a transactional feel inside the front office. That is how it was. I’m not going to BS about it. You asked how I became a lot of it. I could probably owe 2 people like my parents and 2 others. Sometimes you need to extract life lessons and apply them to your business if you do not have all the right resources in your business roof. That is a reality of life.
Eddie woke me up. Relationships are the secret sauce of life and the currency of business. Trust is one of those things that you need to form within a team. Those sounds are so simple and fundamental but I was blind as an entry-level manager. Thanks to Eddie, I woke up. That is how you go from number 28 to number 2 in revenue. I know the people, the culture, and the leadership game. When I started to realize that that should be put ahead of goals, metrics, key performance indicators, and all this quantitative stuff, that is when the game changed.Forget about the noise and negativity and focus on igniting your passion. Click To Tweet
Was it about the team or the culture? What made the biggest difference to take you from 28th to 2nd?
We had something called the constitution. It was a whiteboard in the room and this program of sales was called inside sales. It was designed to be 6 to 9 months. Let’s say you were hired on January 1st. That means that between July 1st and September, that is your window of getting promoted if you are a top producer. That is the environment.
Remember those three non-negotiables, work ethic, positivity, and coachability. I connected with everybody and I said, “You give me those three things. I do not care how poor your sales performance is because that’s on me. That means I did not see a lack of a gift, talent, skill or ability in the recruiting process. I will own that. You will not be fired for lack of revenue but you will lose your seats if you do not have the work ethic, positivity, and coachability, and not most of the time, all of the time. This is not a 90% Rule. It is a 100% Rule.”
I created a constitution, made it sound very formal and said, “I will hereby,” and I put the three elements of the constitution, work ethic, positivity, and coachability. I would write the dates of their 6 to 9-month window next to their name. I would sign it and have them sign it. Let’s say, Susie, I would say, “Susie, you do these three things. In this three-month window, I will not only take care of you then. I will take care of you for the rest of your life.” That is what got people.
I treated them not as an employee or even as a team member but as a family member. That family workaround in business is way too much. Ninety percent of the time, you do coaching and consulting, Gary. Do you go in and you are like, “This does not feel like a family but you all say you are a family.” It is situations like that. Some would say, “Paul, you are overcommitting yourself. Why would you ever put yourself on the line?” I’m like, “How could I not?” It is because I essentially had to become the leader that I never had.
Amazingly, you were able to do that at a young age. You were in your early twenties, right?
Yes, probably at that time mid-ish twenties.
Where did you go next? Keep us going on the journey.
I had to fly away from the nest. The way it works in sports is you either wait for your boss to leave or you’ve got to go external. For me, at this time, you are feeling yourself because you are riding some mojo and you get second in the league in the NBA. I had a lot of opportunities but the one that I ended up landing and that felt right was going out to New Orleans, from Hollywood Boulevard to Bourbon Street, if you will.
That was crazy. Mardi Gras is a real thing. What was even scarier is that it is almost 365 but it was a heck of a time. Here is what I learned in New Orleans. I’m not knocking the folks I was working with. I’m simply saying that a void in my life to that point was, I was still looking for that business leader that I would do anything for. I was still looking for the mentor that I would dedicate my life. I wanted it but I was not going to force it. You can’t force anybody’s leadership style.
I went to New Orleans because I fell in love with my fellow leaders. When I look to my left and right, I’m like, “This is thunder buddies for life. This is awesome.” What made it even more interesting was that eventually, there is a little bit of sadness and tragedy in this story too but it leads to purpose. The NBA team in New Orleans is called the Pelicans but they are called the Hornets at that time. Their Owner, Mr. Shinn, became very ill with cancer. He had to give up the operations of the team, so the late Commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, comes in.
He has a group of people, which still exists in the NBA. They are called TMBO, which is Team Marketing & Business Operations. Think of them as the superwomen and supermen of the teams that get promoted to the league. They fly in with capes and fix things, whether it is your sales, marketing, game day or operation.
Whatever gaps you have, they accumulate best practices throughout the league and give you the playbook. In a case like this, because they took stewardship of the franchise, it was not giving us a playbook. They were locking arms and executing with us. If you want to talk about that void I had of working for amazing people with amazing gifts and talents, I stumbled into it by being in New Orleans at the right place at the right time.
Commissioner Stern was a little bit of a bulldog. He studied the books of the franchise and we were the worst. We were the least viable, in economic terms, franchise in the NBA. On the books, there is no team that you would rather own less for finance reasons than the Hornets. He gave us an ultimatum. “Sell 10,000 season tickets, which is the gold standard in the NBA or you are going to lose the franchise.”
We had a buckle down. Thankfully, we had a lot of support but it was a scary proposition because if I could be real with you and everybody reading, the South is a football part of the country. Basketball was an afterthought. I can take it at the Clippers. I love you. I hate you. I can have those conversations. What I can’t do anything about is apathy.
What do you do when somebody does not care? I can’t make you care. If you do not care about basketball, how do I inspire you to join this movement that is going to save the franchise? What if you do not care about that franchise? We went back to the drawing board. We said, “If they do not care about basketball, what do they care about?”
For those that are either in New Orleans, from New Orleans or have been in New Orleans, Nolans as they say, you know that people are passionate. They have pride, whether it is the jazz, the food, the drinks, or the parades, they love themselves some knowledge. That is what they love. There is a tremendous amount of identity, whereas where I’m from, LA, there are not a lot of identities. There are a lot of transplants, a melting pot or whatever but not the best identity. Identity lives in New Orleans.
We captured that magic and said, “Let’s build a case around what it would mean if we lost the franchise and how it would be the scarlet letter on the identity of your city.” We started this campaign called “I’m In.” We pulled in all these influencers from the World’s Top Chefs and politicians, people that call New Orleans home. We said, “Host events in your home because that is authentic. Pull people into your living rooms. Invite them in and rally them to be in. If they are in, here are the benefits to the city that you care so much about.“
We made it bigger than basketball. That was my first lesson about organizational purpose. Even if you do not love the product or service, if you love the purpose, why you do what you do, and you feel you are a part of something bigger than yourself, whether as an employee or as a customer, the power of purpose is real. Thankfully, there is a happy ending to the story. We’ve got to the number without purpose. I 100% know we do not even come close.
You were there for a couple of years. Where did you go next?
I was in Sacramento Kings, and that was my quick one-year-ish stop. There was an NBA lockout. I was in charge of company culture during an NBA lockout. I do not think anything in life is impossible but that is pretty close to it because your livelihood is taken away. I can laugh about it but that was a tough chapter. My next up is New York and we will go there in a second. Remember that relationship lesson from Eddie.
In New Orleans, I befriended in a very human and authentic way, not because I wanted them to take care of me. I fell in love with that NBA crew that I referenced earlier. Some lifelong friendships organically came out of it. How did I end up in Sacramento? One of those NBA folks was helping the Kings and said, “Paul, can you come help?”
How did I end up in New York? The same guy said, “I’m with an agency, Legends, owned by Yankees and Cowboys. We are based in New York. We’ve got some clubs out. There is a little soccer, football, baseball. We would love to plugin. Do you want to join us?” “I do.” I was not following the place. I was following the people because I finally found my people. I found folks that I could align with on a deeper level, bigger than a career. I genuinely felt we synced.
That is what led me to New York. It was not that I ran away from the Sacramento adversity. We were throwing paper airplanes in an office, which for somebody that wants to contribute and make an impact, throwing paper airplanes, while it sounds fun, gets old after about a day. You want to go back and make a difference in the world. That is what took me to New York and how I’ve got into the sports consulting space. That is what led me to the NFL League Office where I ran a national sales campaign.
We ended up breaking an all-time revenue record for that game, which was a tremendous accomplishment. My heart was always in football. I loved all these pit stops in the NBA but I always wished that I could get into that granddaddy of them, the NFL. My agency had some connects at the NFL League Office. I’ve got to have strategy sessions with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It was a tremendous experience and one I wouldn’t trade for the world.
You went into the NFL League. Did you end up with the 49ers?
Yes. You will notice the trend here. I say this from a very humble place but out of fifteen years, I will give you two stats and they are almost oxymorons of each other. For anybody reading, if you are a sports fan, let’s say you root for the “fill in the blank” team for fifteen years, what are the odds that they are going to make the playoffs?
You would say 1/3 of the time, 1/2 of the time or 2/3 of the time. You are not going to be it every year but you are also going to make it sometimes. I worked fifteen years in sports. The teams I worked for made it to the playoffs once, 1 out of 15 years. Here is the second step. Out of the fifteen years, we hit goal 14 out of 15 times. This is not necessarily your job on the line but more about, this is how you get rewarded, recognized and how your career grows.If you love why you do what you do, you’ll feel you're a part of something bigger than yourself. Click To Tweet
Imagine you are consistently achieving success. We break a revenue record in the NFL. The Super Bowl was a project. It was full-time at the moment but it was a nine-month sprint. My agency was brought in. I was the point guard and the leader of that national sales campaign. There were 50 people spread throughout the country but I was the only person with boots on the ground in headquarters in 345 Park Ave.
We did the impossible and it turned a lot of heads. One of those heads was then the COO, now President of the San Francisco 49ers, Al Guido, who is a dear friend and an amazing leader. Al comes calling and says, “How would you like to come back to Cali? We are opening up Levi stadium.” Essentially, they created a role for me. They were doing well. They were on pace but they wanted to level it up. I had some relationships in common with Al. He believed in me through the people that he referenced. All of a sudden, I’ve got out of the polar vortex world and I made it back to California.
What was your position with the 49ers and what was that working for them?
It was the best job I have ever had, the best place I have ever worked, and the best leaders I have ever worked with and for. Had I not found my why? I would hope that I would still be at the 49ers. It was like a family to me. The magic question is, “Why would you ever leave a place that you describe like that?” My role was Head of Sales and Biz Dev.
Think of 70,000 people in the stadium. The sales team is responsible for putting the butts in the seats. Who calls Levi’s to eventually become Levi’s Stadium and all those corporate sponsors? Who sells all those luxury boxes and the premium hospitality? You need a sales team. There is a lot of outbound effort that needs to happen to monetize what this sport is.
Do not get me wrong. There is a lot of incoming interest as well. To close the gap, fill the place, and maximize revenue, that is where the sales team comes in. It is not because sports can’t sell themselves but if you price it aggressively, you are going to need some muscle for that. We were the muscle. My role there was to recreate what was an old revenue model of, “You have ten games and maybe we have some concerts and a soccer match here and there.”
At 365, we light up the building 20 times and the other 345 are dark, AKA you do not make money versus our president and our owner wanted to monetize it year-round. To do that, from things having restaurants on-site, to stay stadium tours year-round, to private banquet events, Facebook did a holiday party for 20,000 people in the stadium. There were weddings. One might have been mine, full disclosure. We had weddings at Levi’s Stadium. You are not going to believe this, Gary. It was her idea, not mine.
You married, right?
I did. I converted to a Raider fan. That is even better.
It is not easy.
That was my role there. It was awesome. There was a retreat in year 3 of 4 of my journey with the 49ers that eventually led to my Jerry Maguire leap from them.
It seems like being in a great spot is going to take something big for you to want to leave. What happened?
What happened is, in August 2016, there was a two-day offsite retreat that changed my life. I found my why. It was led by Simon Sinek. I know you know him and you have been very kind about your relationship with him and his team. They led the experience. This was after he had done a keynote. The message of why was permeating throughout the organization, even ahead of that.
A small group of us got offsite and tapped into our why. We all walk away with a why statement and identifying our core values. I knew that something special had happened. I did not know what was going to come and what was going to follow but I knew that life was different. Fast forward, I get back in the office. I’m radiating this extra level of energy.
Folks are like, “What was in the punch? What did you drink at that retreat? Paul, you have already got too much juice. You are at another level. You are at a ten. We need you at a two.” That is how I shot out of a cannon back into the front office. I shared what happened at the retreat, and that was the end of that conversation.
The next day, one person that I shared it with came up to me on the side and said, “Paul, that thing you did at the retreat, do you think you could coach me through the same process?“ The next day, another person. 1, 2, 5, 10 to nearly 50 led, and all water-cooler buzz that started on the business side eventually made its way to the football side of the organization. That is how I became known as the Why Coach of the San Francisco 49ers. It was a passion project that I was paying the gift of purpose forward. I found why. It felt like a special thing and I could not contain it to keep it inside of me.
That is very much my story as well. Did you get to work with many of the players?
Toward the tail end of that 50, yes. It started almost exclusively on the business side because those are the folks who I knew best and was around with every day. It happened in the offseason but we’ve got into the season and they were around. We share a cafeteria. If you ask what the number one thing I miss about sports is, I miss the freaking 49ers player cafeteria. It is a tremendous place.
When you share a cafeteria, you are going to be sitting at the table with the who’s who of the NFL and the 49ers. You drum up some relationships. I do not say it lightly but there was a water-cooler buzz. There was, “This guy has got a little bit of the potion. This guy can get you to your why. I was probably having 2 to 3 hours of sit-downs and that is about the time it was taking me to get them from start to finish. At 6:00 AM, we were showing up, in the evenings, and on weekends. This is a side hustle.
This was not a part of the day job but what is interesting is that HR caught wind of it. I get a cryptic email that you never want from HR. They say into the head of the HR’s office. I’m like, “Is this my last day? What is going on?” It is quite the opposite. They said, “Paul, we heard through the grapevine what you are doing. We think it is phenomenal and tremendous. What are your thoughts on integrating it into the recruiting or onboarding process here at the 49ers?”
I’m not a list guy. I do not know if that is a top 5 or top 10 but if you could say the proudest moments in life, that has got to be close to the top. It was having that resonates deeply in a community I cared so much about, they saw the value in it, and they wanted the why to become a part of the fabric of the company.
You are at an amazing team and culture. You love everybody there. You are getting to do what you want to do, and then you leave.
Part of the challenge of finding your Why is when it inspires you, it becomes an obsession, and you almost need to follow it. Forget almost. In my case, I had to follow it. I felt called to do this work. I then started to do internal introspection. My why is the start of it. That has my North Star elements and what gets me out of bed.
The parts I was able to apply more actively in my life on Monday morning were my core values. My core values, in no particular order, are belief, growth, authenticity, impact, and courage. Those are my five core values. I started to assess how I made decisions in life. Am I being congruent with those values in my why? Am I aligned? Is how I show up connected to what I believe and to who I am? Is there alignment there? When I train this, those are the three layers of our identity from the inside out, who we are, what we stand for, and how we show up. Are those connected?
If you are not in alignment, you are not being true to your purpose and you are not living your why. When I gave myself that stress test, I realized that I was not living true to my purpose. I was doing a good job, not a great job. I had some gaps. I started to tear through the muscle. I still order to implement. I found that when you apply one value, it can help you overcome a deficiency in another area. I leveraged my value of courage to make tough decisions.
When I was afraid and knew there was a risk, I’m like, “Paul, are you a man of courage or not?” I would almost have that locker room talk with myself. When I was like, “Express courage.” It helped me make other decisions. I told myself, “Paul, think of something you said you would never do but maybe you would reconsider.”
One of those things was going back to school. The school was fine. I took high school seriously because of my folks. College was a party, I passed and did not see the need. In business and sports, you do not need the three letters, MBA. In some industries, you need it. In that one, you do not. I tore through the muscle and I committed to the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. They had a Los Angeles cohort satellite program.
It was this perfect, once a month. I had no anticipation of leaving sports at the time but here is what it led to. This is the lineage and here is how I want to connect to the audience here. When you follow your why, these inexplicable connections start to happen. You reflect back and say, “If A) Did not happen, B) Does not happen, then C) Does not happen.”When you stay true to your purpose, amazing things happen. Click To Tweet
You do not know that if you forecast forward. You need to take action. If you are being true to your purpose and letting your why to be your operating system, in this case, that is when the amazing things happen. I went back to school. The best ROI on the school was not in the classroom. For the first time in my life, I had an executive coach.
I remembered going back to my sports days. I always wanted that leader. Sometimes it is different when they work in your industry. What if they know your boss better than you? It is a weird thing but an executive coach is an executive coach. They are neutral, unbiased, and just there to serve you, with no outside agenda. Her name was Sue Ann. I talk about her tremendously in my book, The Power of Playing Offense. She was a life changer.
Sue Ann said, “Paul, I know what you do. You are the Head of Sales for the 49ers. What do you love and hate about it? What do you tolerate?” I answered all three, and she said, “Go deeper on that love bucket.” I said, “I love the people side of the business. I love building a culture, rallying a team, motivating, inspiring, and coaching.” She said, “On a good day, what percentage of your time do you do that?” I started to slouch in my chair because I knew I would not love the answer. I plus it up.
The truth was probably 10%. I told her 20%, so I would feel better about myself. She said, “Paul, if I was to wave a wand and you become your boss, does that number 20% go up, down or sideways?” I said, “More strategy, fewer people, so down.” She said, “What about your boss’s boss?” I said, “The same.” This was the question. She said, “What are you after?”
It is so simple, Gary. There is nothing magical about the question, “What are you after?” Shame on me that I had never thought about that. My NFL boss told me, and apparently, I did not listen. He said, “In life, the easiest thing to do is to stay on the treadmill you are on.” He told me that, and it did not register but now I can connect the dots and say, “That was tremendous advice.” That is where she was bringing me.
The easy thing to do was stay on the treadmill I was on. As I realized how I felt about my day-to-day, I loved the industry and the organization. I fell out of love with what I did every day. That is the juice and the fuel. Mentally, as I processed the answer to that question, I knew I was going to leave. It took about 2 to 3 months to make the call because I had to figure out what I was going to do and where I was going to go. I knew mentally that I had to follow my calling and passion. I based it on a value, which is impact. That is my number one value by far. I asked myself, “Can I create more effect inside the walls of this industry or beyond?” When I framed it like that, it was one of the easiest decisions I ever made.
Tell everybody a little bit about PurposePoint.
That is a new partnership and a new family for me. I will give a quick backstory. I was in sports until the end of 2017. I joined the same company that helped and facilitate Simon’s team, and facilitate my why discovery at the 49ers. I joined that Leadership Institute and spent 2018 and 2019 with him. I treated it like a leadership laboratory. I was such a geek of the space, the people side of the business. I just fell in love and wanted a stress test. It is the things that I thought to be true after fifteen years in sports. Are they industry-agnostic?
It became an experiment for me. I’m coaching C-Suite at one of the top airlines and I’m coaching Navy SEALs. I’m in these environments I never would have been in had I stayed in sports. It is exercising my core values of growth and belief. How much do I believe in what I do? All of these core values are this wonderful melting pot.
I’ve got to fully express them over a two-year journey with this Leadership Institute. That took me to 2019. I started to realize this ecosystem of thought leadership. It is one that you are and it is one that I’m in. A lot of your coaches are in as well. I thought, “What if I could permanently change industries from the sports industry to the leadership development industry to the people industry? How does that feel to me?
It started to excite me more by the day. I started to think about the how. How do I execute this? I know the why behind the spirit, mission, calling, and cause. How do I want to show up and what differentiates me? I’ve got to wrestle with that. I said, “What do I do? How do I express this?” The answer and the one gap I had was my old company was not massively into keynote speaking, and I love keynote speaking. I have been doing it since I was in sports.
If there are 5,000 people I speak to and 50 ways to talk to you after, those 50 people prove to you that there is impact. They prove to you that it was the right message at the right time and they were transformed. You feel like, “What if they pay this forward?” How tremendous of a scalable impact of genuine, compassionate reasons do you have?
Keynoting was this portal for a contribution for me. That is when I bet on myself. I do not have a great crystal ball because I started my own live event/speaking company in January of 2020. It was a fantastic two and a half months but everything that has happened since March of 2020 while it was certainly not easy in the beginning, I will not sugarcoat it.
I probably am not an author if I did not have months in quarantine or would not have been a proud member of PurposePoint. The way PurposePoint came to me was when I started my own company. It almost reminds me of the WHY Institute’s mantra of getting clear and playing bigger. I thought about it like, “Is there a bigger, faster, stronger version of Purpose Labs out there?” I met them in 2021 and they became PurposePoint. I’m Chief Impact Officer. Again, that core value, my number one value is impact. I’m there to make a difference. This is a beautiful message. It is why I was so drawn to it, why I was drawn to them as people, and equally as important, their mission.
Every company starts with a point of purpose. They invite people to join them on the journey. As the journey evolves, you start to create a process, measure performance, and eventually, calculate profits. There are a lot of Ps going on. I have seen that over time. The further away you get from that foundation, there is a drift away from that origin and purpose point. You start to care more about performance, profit, and process more than the people and the purpose. Those other three Ps are critical. They are necessary. Otherwise, there is no business to run but the order matters, and the harmony amongst all those Ps matters.
Most companies we see are over-flexing the performance, profit, and process. They are neglecting the people and the purpose. The outcome is you have this thing called a global pandemic, and voila, there is a Great Resignation. Why? It is because people fell out of touch with their why and purpose. They had a time-out forced by the world to look within themselves. I think of the Great Resignation as the Great Awakening. When I heard PurposePoint speak about this awakening, it drew me in and I decided to join a bigger, faster, and stronger tribe. That is why we are here.
I would love to finish with one last question for you because you have taken us on the journey. There’s a lot of great stuff in there, a lot of lessons you have learned, a lot of places you have been things, and things you have done. What is the best piece of advice you have ever given or gotten?
This one is going to hit close to home because it is right up the alley of what you are preaching every day. The best piece of advice that I have given is because I was not told this and it led to a lot of angst and maybe not loving the early stages of my career, even though it was very fun. It is because I was over-focused on the What.
I was solely focused on what I was doing. They would bring in trainers to try to help you how to do it but nobody ever told me to focus on why I do what I do. They never asked me questions about who I am, who I have been, and who I want to become. I was playing the doing game when there was a sequence to it. Doing is great but you must first know who you are being, who you are, and why.
Those two are the most powerful things you can know about yourself. The how, whether through a five-minute discovery or life experience, if you are passionate about something, you will figure out the how but you’ve got to first be a believer in the why, and the what you do becomes so much more of a blue ocean.
I used to think I had this singular purpose in life. If I do not do X, it puts so much pressure on you, and you feel like you have this one North Star. That is BS. I can do 20, 30 or 50 different things I should not because of bandwidth but I can. That was an empowering feeling. I’ve got my freedom back when I started to apply my why and live on purpose. That is what perspective I would share with everybody.
What is next for Paul? I know you are going to be doing some great stuff with us. We are looking forward to that. Let’s talk for a minute about that.
WHY Institute and Paul Epstein are meeting at the 50 to touch and inspire a billion lives. That is what’s next. The part I feel the most excited about is I’m in the earliest stages of writing my second book, which is called On Purpose. The big question I’m trying to tackle is, “Are you living your life on purpose or is life just happening to you?” My process, my how, and the system I will introduce in this playbook are when you can align your head to your heart to your hands, that is when you are living on purpose.
I have been ideating this thing that I’m calling the Triple H Equation, Head plus Heart equals Hands. If you are going to take action, make sure that your mindset and your heart are onboard because otherwise, you will fall out of purpose. You will still live but in six months, you wonder, “Why am I no longer fulfilled? Why do I feel stuck? Why do I not have a deeper burn?”
Maybe there is a self-limiting belief that is preventing you from taking action. That is the point. It is the green, yellow, red light philosophy. The Head is in, the heart is in, green light. If only 1 of the 2 is in, yellow light, then proceed with caution. If it is 0 for 2, your head and your heart are out, stop. That is a red light. This book is about living on purpose. The flip side is, it is to get people to stop running red lights in their life.
There is a company I’m going to introduce you to. That sparked something in me. I want to connect you with a girl named Liz Ellis because she was the CEO of a big production company, and she changed her position to Chief Heart Officer. It is right up your alley. She said, “I’m going to put somebody else as the CEO because I can find people to do the thinking or the head part. We do not have anybody to do the heart part, and that is my specialty. If we have got lots of hands and brains, we need the heart.” It is fascinating. You will love it.
That is the beauty of these types of conversations. We are all connecting and expanding our tribe. I would have never known a Chief Heart Officer if it was not for this conversation. When you are living your calling, and everything is coming from not only the heart but the head, and you are taking purposeful action, that is what life is all about.
If people want to get ahold of you, Paul, what is the best way for them to connect with you? How do they follow you and learn from you? What would be the best way to communicate with you?The most powerful things you can know about yourself are who you are and who you’re being. Click To Tweet
PaulEpsteinSpeaks.com is the best way. That is the home of all things. As far as, not only where to find me but I’m somebody that I get intimate with the folks in my community, in the sense of it is me engaging and responding because that is a core value of mine. There is no pedestal here to me. I mean everything I have shared already but if you ask me why am I writing the second book, it is to democratize purpose because we all deserve to be in that space. Find me at Paul Epstein Speaks and shoot me a note. Follow me on LinkedIn and Instagram at @PaulEpsteinSpeaks. You can find me very easily and know that it is 100% me connecting with you to meet you at the 50.
Paul, thank you so much for being here. I loved our conversation, more listening for me, which is exactly what I wanted, so you did awesome.
Thanks, Gary. I’m fired up for the journey ahead.
It is going to be fun. Thank you so much for being here.
It is time for our last segment, which is Guess Their Why. Since we talk sports, I want to use Aaron Rodgers. He is the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He is one of the most successful. He has won MVP awards and is also very controversial. He had that whole thing around the COVID being immunized versus having the vaccine. I would love to know what do you think Aaron Rodgers’s why is?
I have a really good sense. I happened to listen to him a little bit more. He has been on different podcasts and various television shows. I believe that Aaron Rodgers’s why is to challenge the status quo and think differently. He is not somebody that wants to follow the rules and draw inside the lines. He wants to do it his way. He has his whole life. He has got his little man bun now. He didn’t talk about following traditional medicine. He wanted to do it his own way and get “immunized.”
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About Paul Epstein
Paul Epstein became the go-to fixer for NBA teams, NFL franchises, and league executive offices because he’s mastered the come-from-behind win. He recognizes that victory comes from the inside, and requires an All-In culture empowered by a growth mindset and a belief that we all have unlimited potential – when we double down on our strengths, gifts, talents, and passions.
Today, people and organizations everywhere are struggling. Maybe you’ve lost sight of the fuel that motivates, inspires, and pushes you forward— or maybe you never found it. It’s purpose, and the feeling of leading with purpose is more thrilling than you can imagine.
Maybe your lack of purpose is manifesting in terms of traditional achievement— you’ve fallen behind in sales, your culture is a mess, or your growth has stalled out. Maybe you just can’t seem to turn your vision and goals into momentum and purpose. You know the What, but you just can’t seem to find the Why.