Imagine driving down an unfamiliar, winding road at night. Twists and turns reveal one unknown after the next. It’s as thrilling as it is stressful. You keep going with hope that it all leads to a desired destination. Yet, there’s always a voice wondering, “Did I miss a turn somewhere?”
Careers can sometimes feel like this. We move forward as fast as we can along unpredictable pathways, so focused on getting there that we sometimes forget where we’re even going and wonder if we missed chances or are even on the right road.
Mentorship has been proven to help in this process, in the ski industry and other industries alike. Mentors can be the headlights on the winding career road. They can’t change the road, but they can help you see farther ahead than you would otherwise.
Numerous studies show that mentoring has a positive effect on employee retention, productivity, diversity, knowledge transfer, and employee engagement. With the huge cost of replacing high-potential employees, mentoring is an effective and proven way to keep employees around.
TO GIVE AND RECEIVE
To gain a better understanding of the value and impact of mentorship, we sourced a handful of the mentors and mentees who have participated in the SAM Summit Series leadership development program, which brings together mentors from ski resorts across the U.S. and Canada to share their experiences with the younger generations working their way up in the industry. The mentors and mentees all spoke to the value of mentorship and how it’s helped them to both give and receive.
Personal connections and advice. “With those of us just starting out in our roles, I found the time spent in one-on-one discussions with my mentor to be particularly valuable,” says mentee Benjamin Bartz, mountain operations manager at Giants Ridge, Minn. “It gave me an opportunity to ask blunt questions about some of the most challenging problems facing the industry. Particularly those challenges directly impacting myself and those of us trying to make a career in the business.”
Speaking one-on-one with a mentor provides valuable information and “a nice, neutral perspective,” agrees mentee Kaitlyn Fowle, patrol director at Bolton Valley, Vt. “It’s someone I can talk to about what I need and where I’m struggling, and I can hear their background and some of the tips and tricks they used to help them through—that is invaluable.”
Since the pandemic has changed the employee-employer covenant, workers are now expecting more personalized career coaching, tailored development plans, and custom assignments aligned with their professional goals and personal values. The ski industry is no different. Mentoring can not only help employees make sense of the value they are getting, but also the value they are creating.
Idea exchange. The sharing of information, collaboration, and exchange of ideas benefitted Fowle’s career in a variety of ways, she says. For her, mentorship and the timing of it—during the heart of last winter season—was helpful not just for the future, but in real-time.
“It was helpful for operations and for me as an employee, so that I could bring new ideas back to where I work, and it gave me some fresh insight, making my life a lot easier and more well-rounded,” says Fowle. “Through my mentor (Aspen Snowmass VP of mountain operations Katie Ertl), I was able to bring programs that had worked at her resorts and successfully implement them at Bolton Valley.”
For Bartz, who worked one-on-one with Crystal Mountain, Wash., president and CEO Frank DeBerry, mentorship reminded him of the importance of collaboration—even among direct competitors. “I was struck by the willingness of leaders to share ideas and offer up solutions that have worked for them,” he says. “That’s something that I want to lean into as I develop my own experiences, sharing and helping others along the way. I hope that we as an industry can continue the tradition of being tight-knit and having that culture, even in the face of increasing consolidation, because I think our future success is dependent on that collaboration.”
Mentorship with Ertl, says Fowle, also gave her a fresh perspective on how to interact with resort management, something she says she’s hoped to better manage.
“As patrol director, I can at times be pretty direct,” she says. “Katie Ertl provided a fresh look at dealing with the hierarchy of the resort. Katie gave me some ways to combat who I am and to present some of my thoughts better, which was incredibly helpful.”
MENTORS BENEFIT, TOO
Mentors also benefit from the close connection to mentees. Being a mentor helps leaders test and refine their own leadership skills, including their ability to motivate and encourage outside the context of a direct reporting relationship, like those they have as part of the SAM Summit Series. Mentors also report broadening their communication, listening, and empathy skills, particularly when mentees come from different specializations, backgrounds, and experiences. Similarly, they can gain new and fresh perspectives as mentees share their points of view.
Inter-generational understanding. “Sometimes you get stuck in a rut of knowing the same people in the industry from the same resorts,” says mentor Joe Hession, CEO of SNOW Partners. “What I got out of it is the connecting of people I may have never met. The opportunity to meet and the connection to them was absolutely the most valuable piece.”
Hession, who mentored Snowbird communications manager Sarah Sherman, says he learned a lot just from casual conversation. “Why she loves Snowbird, why she loved different spots like Sierra-at-Tahoe (Sherman’s previous employer), and the people that she’s gotten to work with along the way,” he says. “I’ve learned a ton from her on what’s important.”
This information, he says, has been his biggest takeaway. “If I quantify from a business perspective what is the biggest thing I got out of [mentoring], it’s learning from a generation of people growing within their organization and in the industry as a whole and trying to figure out what’s most important to them. Is it work-life balance? The way an organization is run? The culture? What’s the ‘why?’ What are those things, so we can help provide that in our own organization?”
Hession says this knowledge will help inform him and his team as they grow and continue to build their culture. “The ski industry is very people-focused and driven to make the guest experience extremely important,” he says. “So, to get to have an opportunity to have such in-depth conversations with a new group of people, to see what’s important to them [from a team perspective] was very tangible.”
Self-improvement. Mentorship for Ertl, a 35-year veteran of Aspen Snowmass, offered a great opportunity to give back. “I also learned that there’s so much more for me to learn,” she says.
For example, the importance of listening. “I know we give a lot of attention to it, especially in this day and age, with a lot of conversation around emotional intelligence,” says Ertl, “but working with Kaitlyn and listening so that I could hear what she was saying and ask questions based on what her answers were, and based on what her needs were, and based on what advice I can give from my experience, that’s where I learned the most. Practicing that was a huge opportunity for me and I hope for Kaitlyn.”
The conversations made an impact for Fowle, too, who says she will continue to apply Ertl’s guidance and helpful information at Bolton Valley to see what might work with its programs, systems, and location.
While the mountain resort industry considers itself “tight-knit” and a small community of folks that know each other well, it can be very hard to penetrate and take a long time to feel included. To the unfamiliar, the dark, winding road can feel very lonely.
Bartz, who had been thinking of looking for a new opportunity, says mentorship provided some needed perspective about his career path. “I really appreciate that [working with a mentor] gave me a bit more maturity and understanding of the fact that the right opportunities for me will come along as long as I continue to work hard and foster that passion for the industry,” he says. “It’s more about being content where you are, appreciating what you have, and continuing to grow yourself. The opportunities will follow that.”
Being an outsider in any company or industry is challenging. Humans want to be part of groups—it’s our nature. Mentoring programs lower the barriers in our industry. They switch on the headlights, so mentees can feel safe on their journey to career success.