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 Ski Area Management Program (SKAMP).
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/Woodward, who shared their knowledge on the subject of “decision-making” with the participants.
Here is the conversation, in its entirety:
Paul: Let’s start by asking our advisers to share a story from early in your career where you really learned your first lesson in management.
Jody: I can start. There is certainly a story that comes to mind as a pivotal moment early in my career. One of the mentees on the call will remember this moment. It started for me on day one as a general manager. So, going from a functional leader on the management or executive team of the resort group and heading into general management, I had a pretty significant decision to make as it relates to capital planning.
There had been a GM who had earmarked a few million dollars in capital against a lodge expansion. When I jumped into the GM seat, I had to really define what success looked like from my lens, and in doing so I really felt that there was a deficiency and an opportunity to look outdoors rather than indoors. I was really curious about how we could redefine the lift infrastructure and snowmaking, so I diverted the money from internal infrastructure to outdoor seating and really focused on the on-snow product.
The terror I felt going through making that pretty huge strategic decision, to put money in the outdoor product rather than the indoor experience, was mind-boggling. Looking back on that experience—wow, maybe 10 years ago now—had we not done that upgrade to the snowmaking and then having years of drought afterwards in California, it was critical that we did it at that time. That was literally my first day. The risk ended up paying off, but the lesson is really putting yourself out there and owning it when you do.
Paul: That’s great Jody. Bill, would you like to share an experience?
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 within the industry. You don’t necessarily have to stay at one resort or one job through that time period. In fact, I would argue that my success has been built on having very specific five-year goals as it related to where I wanted to be within the industry. So, before you get to general manager you have to get to a point where you can influence outcomes within your organization.
It’s fun speaking to the 10 of you that are on the phone, and I would ask you to think back on your own careers right now and where you are. Do you feel like you’re influencing outcomes in your organization? Generally speaking, they can be small decisions at first, but as Jody pointed out, you’re going to get to a point where you have to make a big decision. My story will be very much the same.
I was general manager at Northstar-at-Tahoe at 39. I came there from Sunday River, where I had been the VP of marketing. When I arrived in California, they had just put in two brand-new Doppelmayr detachable lifts two years before, and I had Ecosign come in and take a look at Northstar to see where our future opportunities might be. Paul Matthews [from Ecosign] does this and says to me, “You know, Bill, one of those detachable lifts is on the wrong alignment. It needed to be over about 80 feet and go up the hill another 100 feet and then the lift would be perfect.” I made the decision to take out a brand-new chairlift and reposition it—a million-dollar-plus decision.
In making that decision I never thought we were influencing skier visits, but it changed the experience for people who were coming to ski the mountain. As a general manager, those are big decisions that influence outcomes. But we all have to start with the smaller decisions. I think having some mindfulness or awareness of opportunities you have in your 20s and 30s to really start to influence decision-making and outcomes in the organization you work in is a key skill set that you have to develop.
Paul: Those are both tremendous stories and segue nicely into our next question about management. You’ve each gotten some pretty significant responsibility and had to put your hands on the steering wheel, knowing you were going to have to make big decisions. Tell me about what has stuck with you about managing people in those moments, or what has stuck with you about those moments.
Jody: I put the difference between management and leadership into the context of the forest and the trees. The difference became clear to me when I moved from a general manager position to a chief operating officer position, managing several different business units. When you’re a general manager, you’re a bit in the trees—very tactical, building teams, and you’re strategic planning is very much around a business and all of the points and perspectives that go along with that specific business unit.
When you level up to a larger leadership role, you really have to take an approach of looking at the whole forest. To me that was a huge eye-opener, in that those roles are more about leadership, developing strong leaders within your organization, rather than day-to-day management. You’re investing in your executive team, who are so crucial in tactical management, and building that team continues to be a focal point.
Paul: So if I were to summarize, would you say that this is the realization that there is tactical expertise and tactical expectations in certain roles, but there are points in an organization where you have to take on a more developmental stance? You have to empower others to get the work done in a way that aligns with the strategy of the business.
Jody: Absolutely. Leveling up your resources, which includes your team, is mission-critical to really elevate your company and take it to new levels of creative thinking. So I think key-leadership development is a really important thing to focus.
Paul: Bill, what stuck with you from those early days?
Bill: Well, I look at the difference between management and leadership in that management is your day-to-day tasks of operating your business, working with your team and your staff. I think, as Jody said, it’s the tactical decisions.
Like some of you on the phone, I started my career as a lift operator and was a lift supervisor and then a lift manager. In those roles you do training and you do payroll and scheduling, and those are all the tactical things in management that you deal with.
Then we have the transition from management to leadership. Most of us model our leadership style after people that we work with, or role models we are around and styles we observe. Observation is important, as no two leaders are alike, and you develop a leadership style that fits your style and works well for you.
I think the most important thing a leader can do is create a culture that allows us to succeed. The word I look for in the culture I create is “engaged.” You can look at an organization and you have some people who just need a job, particularly in our business that’s seasonal. You hire someone and all they’re trying to do is get a paycheck and a season pass. When you move people to management, my style is to give leaders as much autonomy in their management role, or their leadership role. I don’t set rules. We’ve all worked for very rules-focused organizations, and I don’t believe that is a style that will allow the organization to grow and prosper.
So what I try to do is set boundaries, and hire and promote individuals who will be engaged and let them feel comfortable with the idea that they have the opportunity to influence outcomes and the direction of the organization.
I once gave a talk to my management team about leadership and leadership styles. I pinpoint on six different styles of leadership and two types of leaders. There are listening leaders and there are talking leaders. Neither one is good or bad, but you have to decide what your leadership style is going to be.
The story I shared was one from when I worked at Vail Resorts for Adam Aron. Adam was the CEO and is a talking-style leader. The executive team met every Monday at 1 p.m. There was never an agenda, and Adam was always 15 minutes late, and would come in and talk for two hours. Nobody said a word, and in the last five minutes he would ask, “Ok, does anyone have anything for me?” That was the end of the meeting and it was like that every single week. That was his leadership style. Why it worked is because Adam would also say, “I trust you guys. You guys make the decisions, do what you think needs to get done based on the information I am giving you.”
This is where you have to decide what’s best for your organization. I joked and asked if our current President was a talking leader or a listening leader. And again, he’s a talking leader
I am a huge advocate of a listening style. When anyone walks into my office, the first thing I do is ask three questions before I give my opinion on something, and a lot of that is just so I can understand how much they have thought about it. You look at what they’re bringing you, you ask them the questions, and the third question is always, “So, what’s your recommendation?” I want people to own their areas of responsibility and I want them to feel like they are the decision maker. So as a leader, you try and create a culture or environment where you can be successful and thrive.
Paul: I think many of the folks on the phone will have had or will soon have the experience where people come to them with problems and have the expectation that you, as the manager, will solve it for them. I think a good manager and good leader seeks recommendations as well.
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 the founder and the CEO [of POWDR] and his background was mountaineering. Through mountain climbing and his experience in the outdoors, finding his soul in the outdoors was really what his personal purpose was, and also creating POWDR as a company. I find that to be an anchor point for me in the company, having worked with him for over 20 years now.
I’ve always really admired the fact that our company is rooted in a deep love of the mountains and inspiring great experiences in awesome places, which happens to be our vision. It’s grounded in everything we do. It’s an enduring company with core values about adventuring more, and taking those core values and weaving them through everything. So when we are faced with tough decisions, it’s easy to ground yourself in what we do and why we do it.
Paul: Bill do you want to share a story?
Bill: I started my career at Mammoth, and went back to Mammoth two or three weeks ago for the retirement party of my first boss, who also ended up being one of my best friends. I was given the opportunity to speak, and I reflected on the fact that Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth, was an inspiration for me, but also an inspiration for everyone who worked at Mammoth. But it was Bill Cockroft, my first boss, who 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, every job that you undertake you want to do to the best of your ability. As you finish that job, you step back and you take one more look at it. Whether you’re writing a letter or outside building something, when you get to the point that it’s almost finished, you take a step back and ask, “If I spent a couple more minutes on this, how could I make it better?” Or, “If I spent another hour on this, how could I make it better?”
The thing that I learned from this that I’ve carried throughout my career is 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. I do that constantly in every aspect my life.
The other thing that I’ve learned is that whatever we choose to do, always do it well. As you go through your career—and this is how I explain my career—first you learn how to juggle three balls, and as you get promoted you learn to juggle five. But when you get to a level where Jody is or where I am, sometimes you have to juggle seven or eight or 10 balls, and the rule is you can’t drop any of them. But at some point, you have to make a decision when you can’t juggle any more balls. You can’t just keep taking things on and fall short.
Paul: You know there’s one thing I’ve noticed being somewhat of an outsider to this industry, there seems to be a long legacy of management and leadership gifts that one generation gives to the next. Being in a position to share those gifts with a new generation of folks is fantastic. I’m sure you’ve done it with others and you’re doing it again today. Terrific stuff.
The other thing is, as you were talking, Bill, you were discussing setting a generally high expectation of your work. It reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
Paul: Jody and Bill, I want to turn the page a little bit and talk about a bit more hands-on and practical stuff. So when you survey the landscape, not just currently, but over your careers as you’ve seen other managers and leaders in their roles, can you describe first: what does a manager actually do; and then, how do you know if you have 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, the essential executive performance areas. Are they results-oriented, strategic-oriented? How do they behave in team leadership? And obviously organization capabilities.
One that we overlook—and one that I certainly struggle the most with—is change leadership: can people be flexible and nimble and make the hard changes that need to happen?
I think inclusiveness is also important. When Bill talked about leadership styles, I think I am very much team-oriented. I like to groupthink. That’s really the landscape that I thrive in as a leader.
When you think about leveling up and your career aspirations, what does success look like for you in this industry? One of the things that became very clear to me going from middle management to general management and above is that being in the number-one seat is very different than being in the number-two seat. When you’re making critical decisions, it squarely rests on your shoulders when you’re making decisions to run lifts in storms and teams you’re putting out. There are a million different anecdotes to things that happen in operations because there are so many variables that you have to take into account. Underestimating what it feels like to be the number one, as opposed to the number two, is where a lot of people can fail. The difference is so drastic.
Bill: I always joke that after 43 years in the industry I probably have the qualifications to have the job I do, because of my experiences and track record. But I don’t think I could transition over to, say, managing a nuclear power plant, because I don’t have those skill sets.
What I find interesting in the industry is that people walk in, having a midlife crisis, and decide that they wanted to work in the ski industry. But they have not worked in the business at all, and as the 10 people listening on the phone today know, every day is different in this business. There are so many nuances, and what it comes down to for me is that I am looking for a manager that is skilled in the area they work in, and that they have a track record of achievement in that area.
As I like to say, and Jody is probably at that point in her career, too, “I’ve seen the movie and I know how it’s going to turn out.” In 43 years of experiences, you’ve seen a lot, and that helps in decision-making. But what I am looking for in my younger and mid-managers—who haven’t had that level of experience yet—is consistency, because that is what this business requires, regardless of the obstacles that are thrown at us.
I am also looking for execution. You’ve got build some structure; you’ve got to do some things. Ultimately, as you watch people learn and grow, I am really looking for decision-making skills.
Early in my career when people came to me it was, “I’ve got the monkey, and I want to put it on your shoulder now.” You have to be very careful about taking the monkey.
So this brings us back to my question of, “So what do you think? What is your recommendation?” And when you ask that, it really gives you insight into how much time they’ve spent thinking about something.
Over time, the goal is to gain confidence in their ability to make decisions, both in the routine but also outside the routine. To Jody’s point, stuff happens in this business, and some decisions that we have to make are critical.
I like strong communication, but my leadership style is such that I don’t have to, nor do I want to, make every decision. In talks about leadership, the key to true leadership is to let decisions get made at the lowest level possible in the organization. As a leader you need 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 they want to prove themselves and they start making decisions. I would be interested to learn more about what you’ve seen as it relates to evaluating the decision-making of managers, especially new managers. What do you look for? 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? Have they fostered collaboration? I look for those types of decision-making elements. I like a manager that will think out of the box and get a little creative and curious about new ways to do things.
I am less excited when someone says, “Yes, well, we’ve always done it this way.” I find managers become successful by venturing out and doing their homework, and even looking outside of our industry for solutions.
Paul: Doing homework and looking outside the industry and being creative are all great things to look for. Bill, do you want to share how you evaluate decision-making?
Bill: I am going to tell a story instead of just giving a philosophy. When I was 26, I was at Mammoth and also on the Mammoth fire department, and I had a chance to take a leave of absence and go to paramedic school for six months. The first eight weeks were 40 hours a week of classroom, and then came five weeks of six days a week, twelve hour shifts in a hospital. It was amazing, I delivered babies and worked in cardiac care wards and IV teams and all that. Then I did an internship with LA county fire department for three months in east Los Angeles, which is a bit gang-related, gunshots and drug overdoses, a variety of things.
I was also a firefighter. One day we went on a five-alarm warehouse fire. When you’re a male and you’re 26 and you get to throw on an air pack and grab a fire hose and run into a burning building, it’s about as an adrenaline-fueled activity as you can do.
So I was in the building, in the middle of this blazing fire and listening on the radio, and the battalion chief arrived on scene. Then the deputy chief arrived on scene, and then the assistant chief arrived on scene as this thing grew into a whopping fire. Then we got a radio call, “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 and the scope and challenges and where the people were positioned.
After the fact, I thought to myself that that was an incredibly valuable lesson in decision-making and leadership. The bigger the problem, the farther away we need to get from it so that you can see the whole picture. What I’ve learned is not that I need to go stand on the top of a building, but that, as problems are presented, and especially as they become more and more challenging, the more you want to give yourself time to view the whole picture.
People will come to me every day with problems needing to be solved. Some are easy and can be solved immediately, and others I tell them I need to sleep on it. Sleeping on it could mean overnight, it could mean a few hours, or it could mean a few weeks to make the decision. So when I look at managers, what probably scares me most, especially with younger managers, is “I’m just going to make decisions like a machine gun.”
None of us are perfect, no matter where we are in our careers. On big decisions, I want more time to think about it. As a manager, you need to be conscious of your decision-making. Some you can make instantaneously, some you can make in two minutes, and some you should park and take that “I want to sleep on it” approach to give yourself more time, collect more information, and make that decision.
Something that fascinated me, when you look at 9-11, that both the command of the NYPD and NYFD set up their command posts in the lobby of the trade center building. When both those buildings collapsed, it literally wiped out the leadership of both departments. No one ever thought a building would collapse, so I would never fault them for making that decision, but I have always wondered why they didn’t go take a step back and get five blocks away and manage the situation from there.
Just remember, the bigger the decision, the more you need to take a figurative step or two back and give yourself a little more time to think about what the best decision is.
Jody: If there is one takeaway today, I would 100 percent agree that you cannot think clearly from a clouded mind, and gaining that clarity takes time. The higher up you go in an organization, there’s a lot more influence and politics. You want to do what’s right for ownership, and there’s a lot of opinions, and even at some level, egos. You cannot make great decisions if you’re not focused and have clarity in your thinking. I completely agree with Bill on that.
Paul: Definitely, when it comes to focusing and clarity there are a number of different practices people have in addition to sleeping on it. Taking time to really put the decision in context, thinking about the variables and the scope. For a lot of people it can be very stressful to be in a position to make a lot of consequential decisions. So taking measures to recharge your batteries and ground yourself, and even establish your values, whatever you stand for, who you are, is another way to be on a solid platform to make decisions. That’s a big piece of leadership, getting clear on who you are. Would you both agree with that?
Jody: Absolutely. And I would say, there’s a few female mentees on the phone here. 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. It’s important to understand how to navigate it. It doesn’t mean anyone views you as different, but you have to have the confidence to get right in there and play your best game and bring what you have to the table, and not get yourself in a position where you feel like you’re the minority. Just have a “go for it” mentality. That goes for everyone across the board, as well.
Bill: I would be the first to acknowledge Jody’s point about being female in a male-dominated business, but I’ve always believed that regardless of gender, everybody is intelligent, everybody is capable. But ultimately, one of the skills of leadership is confidence. You have to be confident, you can’t be arrogant. You can’t be egotistical, but you have to be confident and you have to be confident in the decisions you’re making. You clearly have to show that. If you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, your organization will read into that within 24 hours.
One of the hardest things about being a leader is after making a decision, you get more information that shows whatever decision you made wasn’t the right decision. It’s really important to have the confidence to change the decision and explain it to your organization. If you’re egotistical or arrogant about your decision when you make it, you’ll never go back and revisit your decision when you have more information. Whether you’re male or female, your growth is developing confidence in yourself and the ability to rely on your knowledge and experience and intuition and intelligence and feel good about making a very difficult decision and feel confident that it’s the right one.
Paul: There is the formal role of management—being responsible for a piece of work, initiative, project, what have you—but then managers are also increasingly being asked to work with cross-functional teams, work with members of other business units or areas of the organization. This can require a level of influence in order to get things done, because in these situations, the manager is not directly overseeing the result.
Can you give us any insight into the expectations of managers, or those leaders who have informal, not direct, authority but are required to serve as leaders in the organization? What do you expect? What works, what doesn’t work? How do you identify it?
Jody: We are developing a “center of excellence,” if you will. Which isn’t the greatest title, but it is what it is. At the brand or corporate level, it’s meant to be a higher-level resource with expertise around growth, very cross-functional. I think it goes back to one of the comments Bill made earlier in the conversation, about how you create that culture of collaboration, and fostering that to get a shared mindset around best practices and expertise. Really, the ultimate goal is having the influence and leverage as a collective group. As a team, how can you work together to leverage up? Finding your highest points of leverage is a term we use here a lot.
One thing that sticks in my mind is that growth is very seductive when you get fixated on it as a company. Just growth, without having the proper balance of discipline 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 some non-productive behavior. Find your highest points of leverage and how those teams can collectively get there together.
Bill: I am going to echo Jody. Success in the ski industry is a team sport. You have to look at your organization as a team. And inside teams, whether it’s in sports or in business, 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 and it’s great, but when you become the top leader, whether it’s the GM, COO, or CEO, you have to become a coach. You have to relish being a coach. I can look at my own career and realize that I made that transition from quarterback to coach and that’s where I thrive.
I take more pride in the people that I got to see grow in their career than I do in my own success. When you reach that level, as Jody has, 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, because they’re so good at their jobs, it just happens.
Paul: This is a question that came in from one of the participants. What one skill do you feel up-and-coming leaders are lacking in order to be successful in this industry?
Jody: Patience. The first word that comes to mind is patience. There’s just so much to having the patience to get the experience needed to be at the top.
Paul: Not everybody can be a 25-year-old CEO.
Jody: Exactly, so I think it’s truly finding your mentors, getting the coaching, and really playing your strengths. I feel like 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. That would be the one area where I see up-and-comers not having the patience to learn from those around them.
Paul: What about you Bill, what are you seeing?
Bill: I agree with Jody. I was as guilty as anybody in my 20s and 30s—patience was not an attribute that I had. It was like a light bulb that went on when I was about 45 and I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, I’ve become patient.” I allow the time for people to either make the right decisions or for things to evolve. And again, it doesn’t matter the situation, sometimes things demand immediate action and that has nothing to do with patience.
I am going to share a line I just heard six weeks ago for the first time. Mark Twain said, “The two best days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I would tell the 10 of you on the phone that you need to understand your own personal “why.” What are your goals? What are your objectives? Be patient. And to Jody’s point, put your head down and learn from those around you.
When I look back on my career, the journey was incredible. Know your why. I share that with my team, and I literally can tell you the moment I knew my why: I was 24 years old and I was at Mammoth, standing in my ski boots, and realized I love this business. Yes, I love skiing, but I am passionate about the business, and I said to myself, “This is what I want to be, who I want to be,” and that started this trek.
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?”
Paul: We’re talking to folks who are starting that journey, and what a great way to wrap up our first call. I would like to personally thank both of you for your insight, your great stories, and your time.