Melissa Rosenthal Brenner on working hard and being kind

Melissa Rosenthal Brenner is SVP of Digital Media at the NBA where she has been employed for over 17 years. Her belief in work-life balance has enabled her to juggle the complexities of raising two children while simultaneously promoting one of the world's most popular sporting leagues. I spoke to her in October – just prior to the beginning of the season – and was inspired by her passion and perseverance.

Melissa at her office at the NBA 2014.

Melissa at her office at the NBA 2014.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An ophthalmologist. I was consumed with being a doctor and my eye doctor, who was a woman, told me that the profession enabled a good lifestyle and a healthy work-family balance.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I lost my mom three years ago, so it would be her.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s my earliest memory of reading a literary novel in school. I must have been in 7th or 8th grade and it was the first novel that we were assigned to read. I remember thinking, if this is what literature is then I am hooked. 

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed sometime between 10pm and 11pm. My husband and I have this routine where I usually fall asleep on the couch and he has to wake me up to get to bed. I have two young kids who wake me up between 6am and 6.30am.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
Because of the rhythm of how my job works, no day is ever the same and I think that’s why I’ve been able to stay in the same job for so long. My days are so unpredictable because of what happens on and off the court, but this unpredictability is what makes my job so exciting.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I thought I was going to be a doctor and then one semester into college I realized it wasn’t for me.

My dad had an interesting story where he wanted to be a lawyer. His father owned the family furniture business and sadly got very sick around the time my dad graduated. My grandfather wasn’t able to maintain the business so my dad had to go and help. He never became a lawyer and a lot of his working life was spent questioning, What if? He was extremely successful in the family business, but I think he always thought of the path he didn’t take.

As a kid I distinctly remember him telling me about finding my passion. Finding something that I really enjoy and love doing, so when I realized it wasn’t going to be an eye doctor, I started thinking about sports. I was a klutzy athlete but a really passionate fan and I associate a lot of my childhood with sporting events. I remember where I was when the 76ers won their first World Championship and I remember where I was when they drafted Charles Barkley. So that’s how I got into sports.

Like most college students, I sent out tons of resumes for internships and by chance one of the companies I had papered, the person hiring internships had gone to Penn and my Alma Mater. He interviewed and hired me. So I worked at Scoreboard for a year and a half.

Then through a friend of a friend I heard about an opening at the NBA. I interviewed, got the job and that was seventeen years ago.

I started working in Consumer Products Marketing and did that for about three years. Then I moved to an internal advertising agency on the account side and did that for a few years. Soon after, we started a marketing department and I worked there. This past February I switched again and was assigned to run our digital business. 

The biggest thing about a career path is that no one has a linear professional story. I’ve had amazing times and I’ve had times when it wasn’t so great. But, on the whole, I think the consistent thing for me has been that I love the game, I love the brand and I love the people.

I will say that now I’m a mom, I think the term is “sweat equity”, I know my deal. I’m able to feel, for brief moments in time, that I’m successful at both work and family. But it’s a constant struggle and a constant juggling act. I’ve been lucky that my job at the NBA allows me to have quality time with my family.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
The worst point in my career was over two weeks in December 2010.  My father-in-law died suddenly, my mom passed away after a long illness and I wasn’t promoted to a position I thought I was going to receive.

I sat down with David Stern, who was our Commissioner at the time, and told him I was upset I didn’t get it. In retrospect, I understand the decision. My mom had been very ill and I’d been going back and forth to Philly. I had two kids under five and I physically couldn’t have done the job at that point in my life. David said to me, “It’ll be your time, just be patient,” and he was 100% right because two years later I was promoted to the position. 

The experience taught me that life gets messy and that’s what makes it most interesting. How we cope, manage and move on from these times demonstrates our strength of character and makes life compelling.

What motivates you?
Before I had kids, it was a sense of achievement. My whole life I’ve always been motivated to work hard and achieve things. I think that comes from my parents. They didn’t force me to get good grades, but it was an expectation. I remember my mom saying, “Your job is school.” So I took my job very seriously. 

Everything changed after I had kids. Now it’s about being a good role model, being a good mom and making sure my professional life, as important as it is to me, fits in with their life. Not the other way around.

What advice would you give to your daughter/son at the start of their career?
The same my dad gave to me: Find something you’re passionate about. In doing so, it’ll make waking up every morning to go to work that much easier.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My kids.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Unbelievably hard work. This business is 24-7, 365. I feel like you have to live and breathe the brand. I have a passion for it and a willingness to roll up my sleeves and work hard.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
The first thing that comes to my mind is something that my son said recently. He’s a kindergartener at a new school. He had a couple of bad days, but when I inquired about how he was coping he said to me, “Every day’s a new day.” I laughed when he said it, but I think it’s a really great way to go through life. Don’t hold onto stuff. Let it go and move on.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
They are visionary and able to see three steps ahead of what other executives can see. They are great communicators and have a compassionate bedside manner. Great leaders aren’t just meticulous about business, but also care about the people who work with them.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
When Conan O’Brien left the Tonight Show he said that if you’re really kind to people and work really hard, harder than you ever imagine, then things will happen. In that simplicity I think there’s a lot of truth. 

What's next?
I need to start the season on the 28th of October!

I’m so passionate about the NBA and through digital we have this incredible opportunity to bring the world courtside. The way our Commissioner, Adam Silver, talks about it is that we have 30 teams with 29 arenas and millions of NBA fans around the world. That means only a small percentage of them, determined by geography, will have the chance to see a game live. Now, through digital technology, through mobile phones, tablets and through your television, you’re able to experience the game in a way you never could. 

So our job everyday is figuring out how we can use digital technology to simulate the incredible experience of being courtside at a game to fans around the world.

As told to Caroline Hugall at the NBA Offices, New York City on Wednesday 15th October 2014.