Ellen Saul, vice president of Premium Services at IMS, shares her thoughts on building team culture, working in a male-dominated field, starting a career in sports and more.
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

As part of our Culture Playbook Q&A Series, we're talking to individuals in the sports and entertainment industry about the importance of shared values, what shared values mean to them and how those values have helped shape their careers.

Here, we talk to Ellen Saul, vice president of Premium Services at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).

How would you describe the culture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

At Penske Entertainment (owner of IMS), we've embraced Roger Penske's mantra, "Effort equals results." We're results driven and strive to go above and beyond the status quo. We're a heavily matrixed organization with individuals relying on multiple departments to get jobs accomplished. We rely on strong communication between teams and do our best to collaborate across departments. In 2016, my team adopted the hashtag #oneteamBIGdream which essentially means "Let's all work together to pull off the biggest bucket list event of the year." This hashtag survived Covid and lasted through multiple iterations of our team.

Where did you start out and how did you get to be where you are today?

As a senior at Indiana University, I belonged to a student group that promoted and supported varsity athletics. As a Student Athletic Board (SAB) director, I was exposed to sports and event management. I loved the experience and knew I wanted to do professional SAB when I grew up.

After two years of working in retail for Macy's in New York City — the first job offer I received — I moved back to Indianapolis to pursue my real career interest. My first opportunity was an internship with the Indiana Convention Center and Hoosier Dome (ICCHD), after which the Dome offered me a job, and I ended up working for five years as the Special Services public information manager.

Through contacts made at the ICCHD, I met a prominent Indianapolis event planner who asked me to join her in forming a company that specialized in special events and project management. In 1994, I joined Maribeth Smith & Associates, Inc. (MBSA). I spent 19 years there, serving as president from 2003 to 2014. At MBSA, we organized and oversaw various aspects of large-scale events, including national and international conventions; National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) events including the 1997, 2000 and 2006 NCAA Men's Final Four Men's Basketball Championship host committee activities; and nonprofit galas, fundraising events and corporate meetings. For the 2012 Super Bowl, as a member of the host committee chaired by Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, I coordinated The Huddle, one of the premier fan-engagement experiences.

By 2014, it was time for something different, and I jumped at the opportunity to head the Premium Services team at IMS. I've been at IMS since March 2014. I'm now vice president for Premium Services and am embarking on my eleventh May.

How do you strive to ensure that your team is the best in the industry?

Office culture is the most critical component of success, in my opinion. We can teach operational responsibilities but, in most cases, you either fit a culture or you don't; therefore, the interview and hiring process is critical. We recruit candidates who want to be part of a larger team and responsible for something bigger than themselves, who understand the importance of excellent customer service, and who have strong communication skills.

During one of my first meetings at IMS, I talked about building a team that would trust each other in the worst of circumstances — venture into the trenches, take one for the team and have your back. My team members asked if they had done something wrong: it was clear we had a culture to build.

One of my first bosses told me that I should never eat lunch at my desk. Even if it means stepping away for 10 minutes, it's important to take some sort of break. I have heeded that advice ever since. In the Premium Services office, we have a table in our common space. Every day at noon, co-workers from multiple departments meet for lunch and conversation. I'm positive this simple habit has resulted in stronger bonds between teammates, the by-product of which is a culture of trust. The importance of getting to know co-workers as people with vulnerabilities and outside lives cannot be underestimated in building strong culture.

We have a Premium Services culture map that includes five foundational pillars: Growth, Family, Excellence, Service and Transparency. There are also antithetical no-go behaviors: Entitled, negativity, status quo, unaccountable, unethical, unsupportive and unwilling. The map is prominently displayed, and we refer to it often.

Consistent bi-weekly one-on-one meetings with direct reports and weekly cross-departmental meetings with pre-determined topics and agendas result in constant sharing of information, proactive problem solving and brainstorming.

As a team, we take the post-event process seriously. After each race —Indianapolis 500, Brickyard, Weekend, GT Challenge, International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), etc. — we compile a report that details what went well, what didn't go so well, what was confusing to us or the client and opportunities for the next time. We compile a list of what we hope to fix before the next event — the spreadsheet usually consists of 100+ areas of opportunity. A point person is identified for each line. As a leader, my role is to routinely check in on progress, help eliminate any roadblocks and foster communication where needed. As a result, we get better every year.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in the male-dominated sports industry?

I've spent a lot of time working in a predominantly male world. The facts prove this can be challenging. One in five women report being the only woman in the room at work and senior level women are twice as likely as male counterparts to be mistaken for someone more junior. Close to 50% of entry-level employees are women, but women hold only 18% of C-suite jobs. Given the high cost of childcare, center-based care is unrealistic. The result is that more and more women are choosing to stay home. In January 2021, 57% of women in the US were working or looking for work. Sadly, this rate is the lowest since 1988.

Given these statistics and others like them, it's clear that organizations that support women in the workplace are increasingly important. As a board member of Women in Sports and Events Indianapolis (WISE), it's been rewarding to see our membership grow to be the largest chapter in the country. The interest in WISE proves there's an appetite for mentorship, networking and collaborative opportunities. We'll only get smarter and stronger together.

Any advice for women looking to make a career for themselves in sports?

For those just starting out, don't underestimate the value of internships. While interning, take advantage of every opportunity offered, act interested even when you might not be and strive to make your co-workers lives easier. An internship is often a job interview — do your best to make a positive impression.

Find your allies — people who will listen and ask questions about who you are and what you want to do, and advocate on your behalf.

Take a seat at the table — sit front and center, not in the back or the end of the table away from "status" seats. Be bold in your self-advocacy, encourage women to take chances and know when to apologize (and don't apologize if you don't need to).

How has culture played a role in successfully executing the Final Four, Super Bowl and Indianapolis 500?

Successful large-scale events require an inordinate amount of teamwork. A strong team culture built on trust, experience, humor and shared expectations results in the most successful events. I've seen this culture cocktail work time and again.

How does Gallagher's philosophy of an inclusive culture work for your role?

An inclusive culture embraces differences in experiences, backgrounds and ways of thinking. A team can include people who represent these traits but don't celebrate them. Making time to respectfully listen, encouraging others to do the same and then fostering conversation that includes all team members is something I take seriously.

What gets you excited to go to work every day?

I'm an events person and love being part of our giant jigsaw puzzle. Watching the pieces fall into place as we head into May continues to fascinate me even after 10 years. I get my energy from people, and I love being part of a team that shares a vision for success. Additionally, I derive satisfaction from mentoring young people and that's been a big part of my career.

What is your hope for the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

I hope we will continue to build on the momentum we've created since we became Penske Entertainment and to provide first-class bucket list experiences for our fans.