The landscape of leadership in the mountain resort industry is poised for upheaval as the old guard retires and the new generation of leaders moves up the ranks. To identify these future leaders and fuel a movement that fosters relationships between current execs and aspiring up-and-comers, SAM has embarked on a pilot program called the SAM Summit Series. The season-long program pairs 10 young managers—some plucked from past SAM 10 Under 30s—with a group of advisers comprised of ski industry heavy-hitters. They participate in six monthly calls, each with a particular focus on a management-related topic. At least two of the advisers share their expertise with participants on every call.
Organizational development expert Paul Thallner, CEO of High Peaks Group, facilitates the discussions. After each call, participants dive deeper into the topic with resources and exercises provided by Dr. Natalie Ooi, who leads Colorado State University’s graduate program in ski area management.
The program is off to an incredible start. Our first call was in November, led by advisers Bill Jensen, Telluride Resort CEO, and Jody Churich, EVP/COO at POWDR Corp/Woodward, who shared their knowledge on “management skills” with the participants.
Here is a sample of their conversation.
PAUL: Share a story from early in your career where you really learned your first lesson in management.
JODY: It started for me on day one as a general manager. I had a pretty significant decision to make related to capital planning. A previous GM had earmarked a few million dollars in capital against a lodge expansion. When I jumped into the GM seat, I felt that there was an opportunity to look outdoors rather than indoors. I was curious about how we could redefine the lift infrastructure and snowmaking, so I diverted the money from internal infrastructure to the on-snow product. The terror of making that pretty huge strategic decision was mind-boggling. The risk ended up paying off, but the lesson is really putting yourself out there and owning your decision making.
BILL: I think the critical path, particularly when you are in your early 20s and 30s, is building a track record of achievement within your organization or the industry. Before you get to general manager, you have to get to a point where you can influence outcomes. I was general manager at Northstar-at-Tahoe at 39. When I arrived, they had put in two brand-new Doppelmayer detachable lifts two years before. I had Ecosign come in and take a look to see where our future opportunities might be, and Paul Matthews says to me, “You know, Bill, one of those detachable lifts was put in on the wrong alignment. It needed to be over about 80 feet and go up the hill another 100 feet.” I made the decision to take out a brand-new lift and reposition it—a million-dollar-plus decision. I never thought we were influencing skier visits, but it changed the experience for people who were coming to ski the mountain. This is an example of a big decision that significantly influenced outcomes, but we all have to start with the smaller decisions. Being aware of the opportunities you have to really start influencing decision-making and outcomes is a key skill set that you need to develop.
PAUL: Is there a moment or piece or advice from a leader in your past that you have carried forward in your career?
JODY: I’ve been a big fan of people that are driven via purpose in what they do. John Cumming is POWDR’s founder and CEO, and his background was mountaineering. Mountain climbing, and really finding his soul in the outdoors, was his personal purpose behind creating POWDR. I’ve always admired the fact that our company is rooted in a deep love of the mountains, and inspiring great experiences in awesome places is our vision. When we are faced with tough decisions, it’s easy to ground yourself in what we do and why we do it.
BILL: I started my career at Mammoth. Bill Cockroft, my first boss, really built the foundation for my career. I learned from him that there are creative solutions to every problem, and to take a step back to think about all the solutions you have. Also, that you want to do every job to the best of your ability. As you finish that job, whether you’re writing a letter or building something, when you get to the point that it’s almost finished, take a step back and ask, “If I spent a couple more minutes on this, how could I make it better?” It’s what I call the “two percent rule”—no matter what task I am doing, professionally or personally, as I complete it I always look to find two percent more that I can do to make it better.
PAUL: Let’s talk more practical stuff. When you survey the landscape, not just currently, but over your careers, can you describe what a manager actually does, and how you know if you’ve spotted a good one?
JODY: To identify a good leader, I look at the individual themselves as well as four key hallmarks: their level of curiosity, determination, insight, and engagement. Then I look at the competencies. Are they results-oriented, strategic-oriented? How do they behave in team leadership? One I certainly struggle the most with is change leadership: Can people be flexible and nimble and make the hard changes that need to happen? Being in the number one seat is very different than the number two seat. It squarely rests on your shoulders when you’re making decisions to run lifts in storms and teams you’re putting out. Underestimating what it feels like to be the number one as opposed to the number two is where a lot of people can fail.
BILL: What I am looking for in my younger and mid-managers is consistency, because that is what this business requires, regardless of the obstacles that are thrown at us. I am also looking for execution. I like strong communication, but my leadership style is such that I don’t have to, nor do I want to, make every decision. The key to true leadership is to let decisions get made at the lowest level possible in the organization. As a leader, you have to have confidence that those individuals are going to make a thoughtful and appropriate decision.
PAUL: Sometimes managers will get into a role where they have some authority for the first time and want to prove themselves. What have you seen as it relates to evaluating the decision-making of managers? How do you define a quality decision, even if it was the wrong decision?
JODY: When I am evaluating potential leaders, I am looking to see if they have done their research. Have they thought through the resources? Fostered collaboration? I like a manager that will think out of the box and get a little creative and curious about new ways to do things. Managers become successful by really venturing out and doing their homework and even looking outside of our industry for solutions.
BILL: When I was 26, I was also on the Mammoth fire department, and I had a chance to take a leave and go to paramedic school. Then I did an internship with the LA county fire department. One day we went on a five-alarm warehouse fire. I was in the building, listening on the radio, and heard “Air One on scene,” which meant that the chief of the fire department came in a helicopter. What was interesting was that he landed two or three blocks away and went up to the top of a building so he could see the entire thing, the scope and challenges, and where people were positioned. That was an incredibly valuable lesson in decision-making and leadership: the bigger the problem, the farther away you need to get from it so that you can see the whole picture.
Some problems are easy and can be solved immediately, and others I need to sleep on. Sleeping on it could mean overnight, a few hours, or a few weeks. So what probably scares me most, especially with younger managers, is, “I’m just going to make decisions like a machine gun.” As a manager, you need to be conscious of your decision making.
PAUL: A big piece of leadership is getting clear on who you are. Would you both agree with that?
JODY: Absolutely. And I would add, it’s a real thing being a female in a male dominated industry. There is a shift happening, obviously, with new leadership at NSAA on the female side, but it’s important to understand how to navigate. It doesn’t mean anyone views you as different, but you need to have the confidence to get right in there and bring what you have to the table, regardless of whether you are male or female.
BILL: I’ve always believed that, ultimately, one of the skills of leadership is confidence. One of the hardest things about being a leader is making a decision, and then you get information later that shows whatever decision you made wasn’t the right one. To have the confidence to change the decision and explain it to your organization is really important. If you’re egotistical or arrogant about your decision when you make it, you’ll never go back and revisit it when you have more information.
PAUL: Managers are increasingly being asked to work with cross-functional teams, with other areas of the organization. Can you give insight into the expectations of managers on those leaders who have informal, not direct, authority but are required to serve as leaders?
JODY: You create that culture of collaboration and foster it to get a shared mindset around best practices and expertise. The ultimate goal is having the influence and leverage as a collective group. With cross-functional teams, it can get competitive, so if you don’t promote the right culture within the organization, you can end up with non-productive behavior. Find your highest points of leverage and how those teams can collectively get there together.
BILL: I agree. Success in the ski industry is a team sport. You have to look at your organization as a team and inside teams, everybody has a role to play. In my 20s and 30s in the ski industry, I like to say that I got to play quarterback. It’s heady and it’s fun, but when you become the top leader, whether it’s the GM, COO, or CEO, you have to become a coach. When you reach that level, you’re not playing the game anymore, you’re standing on the sidelines, but if you’ve cultivated your team well, you don’t even have to call the plays, they’re so good at their jobs it just happens.
PAUL: Our last question came from one of the participants. What one skill do you feel up-and-coming leaders are lacking?
JODY: Patience. I think it’s truly finding your mentors, getting the coaching, and really playing to your strengths. Everyone wants to solve the industry’s problems. It’s great to envision yourself as a CEO, but you also really need to enjoy the learning and the journey.
BILL: I agree. I was as guilty as anybody. Mark Twain said that the two best days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. I would tell you that you need to take the time to understand your own personal why. What are your goals? What are your objectives? Be patient, put your head down and learn from those around you. If you’re driven, and you know your why, you can make a difference. You don’t have to make it to the top, but the important question is: did you make a difference?
The Summit Series will be continuing throughout the season. Follow along and get to know our advisers and participants at: saminfo.com/summit-series.