Chris Mezzatesta (or as we call him, Mezz) joined Newsela in 2016 with a 25-year track record of explosive revenue growth in leadership positions at SaaS, startup, growth-stage, and public companies. He brings a powerful combination of leadership, team building, motivational, and mentoring skills, having built sales teams on six continents that have consistently been recognized by Gartner as leaders in their space.
What does your department do and why is that so important to the mission/vision of Newsela?
I have the honor of leading our Sales Team, which includes more than 100 Newselites (and counting) across research and sales development, field sales, account management, business development, sales training, and operations. We have the privilege of being the face of Newsela in the K-12 U.S. market. One of our key objectives is to support school and district administrators in solving their content challenges that have previously eluded them. It’s the Sales team’s responsibility to help administrators understand the value our platform can bring to district administrators, teachers, and students in support of the school or district’s curriculum and content needs. Newsela’s brand is well known and trusted in education, so that is instrumental in gaining access to key administrators within the districts and schools.
We’re an education company, so learning and development are central to everything we do at Newsela. How does this idea translate to your Sales team?
I’ve been a part of many companies that don’t really invest much in team member learning and development. Newsela’s commitment to education is apparent in every facet of our business. Since I joined the company three years ago, we’ve built a Sales learning and development department to educate our employees on our new and evolving products, in addition to sales techniques and best practices. We have instituted a Sales bootcamp, online training, and in-the-field programs. We have also launched a mentorship program which provides new hires support as they get acclimated. These mentors are there to answer questions, share learnings, and offer encouragement. As a result of these initiatives, our new reps are able to achieve their productivity goals (some even achieve 150%) within seven months of joining Newsela. That type of early success is unheard of in our industry. We are now starting to inject more tech-enabled learning into our programs, which has been an exciting new chapter in the growth of our team.
What’s one thing you’re most excited to be working on with your team?
At the school district level, we’ve been seeing a lot of excitement around our content. Over the years, Newsela has evolved from offering reading insights from news articles as a supplemental resource for teachers to now offering curriculum-aligned content that directly meets more of the core needs of teachers in the classroom across many subjects and grade levels. Working at the district level means we get to partner with administrators to truly understand and solve their unique content needs. Whether it’s to meet new state curriculum mandates, or to develop content aligned to new teaching methods, we’ve been working alongside educators and administrators to help deliver a new generation of educational content. This opportunity and collaboration is very exciting for our team.
What do you look for when hiring on your team?
There are three things that are most important to me when I’m building my team: situational awareness, coachability, and transparency. Situational awareness means you have the ability to understand where you are, and where you aren’t -- you take off the rose-colored glasses in favor of a realistic view. Once you understand where you are, you can do things that will affect where you’re going. We need to be able to understand where our customers are, what they’re thinking about, how they’re feeling towards our product, and the challenges they’re facing. My team spends a lot of time reflecting: on a deal, on a client, on ourselves. We need to understand what we are doing to ensure we’re emphatically winning.
This introspection and reflection gives way to coachability; you can’t have too big of an ego on my team. We love to say, “Don’t die alone. We’re not looking for a hero; let’s do this together.” No one is ever going to win all the time, but being open to coaching and sharing your learning helps all of us grow together.
Transparency is closely related to situational awareness and coachability; we want the truth. Every week we go through our pipeline and sales forecast. We use this weekly rhythm to look for opportunities, weaknesses, and to be situationally aware of our book of business. Going through everything together, we are able to help each other learn, see blindspots, and continuously improve as a team. This only works if we are open and honest with ourselves and with our teammates.
How do you think about career development on your team?
Newsela has grown dramatically over the last few years. With that growth comes great opportunities. A large percentage of our tenured team members have been promoted in the past three years. It’s a testament to our commitment to growing our people internally. They have to earn it, but at the end of the day, our company’s continued growth is a great opportunity to take on new skills and roles within the company.
Coaching is a huge part of your role at Newsela, and outside of work. Tell us a bit about what you do in your spare time.
I have an affinity towards coaching and helping people. I do it across my entire week. I coach three lacrosse teams, a baseball team, and I run the flag football league for my town, which means I organize 150 school-aged players. With coaching, I try to teach life through sports. It’s about interpersonal relationships, relying on others, preparing, and having situational awareness to better your opportunity to win. I try to help my teams hone the skills that will help bring us to a better outcome. I’ve been able to apply a lot of the same practices to business as I have to coaching: building a team, growing that team, bringing people together around a common cause, and figuring out how we can supplement each other’s weaknesses to support our common goal.
Everyone wants to be on a winning team. But winning doesn’t just happen. You have to be willing to put in the time, the practice, to improving yourself, to improving your teammates, to working together, and to learning from your mistakes. I work hard to build teams, both at Newsela and beyond, that have passion, determination, and respect – for ourselves, our teammates, and our goals.
From your point of view, what differentiates Newsela from a cultural perspective?
I have worked at many companies that say they care about diversity and inclusion, but Newsela truly does things to make a difference. And that emphasis on inclusion carries over into how we care about our customers. We’re very grounded in the fact that we are here for students, teachers, and administrators, to help build a better, more inclusive future of education.
What’s your most memorable Newsela moment?
In my first month here, I decided to teach a 5th grade Social Studies class in my town. I wanted to understand what it was like for teachers to use Newsela, and see firsthand how it worked in the classroom. During the class, I used one of our most read articles at the time, Fidget Toys are All the Rage Among Kids, to guide a debate about the pro’s and con’s of fidget spinners. Half of the class was assigned the side of doctors, the other half was assigned the side of teachers. A teacher that had been at the school for over 15 years said he had never seen students come alive as much as they had in that debate. It was this experience that solidified for me just how much of an impact Newsela could have on education. Relevant, exciting content has the power to ignite passion about learning that will permeate throughout a student’s life.
Education isn’t a typical space for an enterprise SaaS leader. Why are you here?
That’s exactly why I’m here. No one has been able to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish in education. I joined Newsela because I wanted to lead a company and a team that will achieve our goal of transforming teaching and learning in K-12 education.
Interested in joining our team? Check out our full list of openings here.