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March 2023

Values Lead the Way

When leadership has defined values, organizations can grow and thrive.

Written by April Darrow | 0 comment

What exactly is values-driven leadership? How can it be achieved? For Mark Gasta, associate director of the outdoor recreation economy program at the University of Colorado and former chief of HR and sustainability at Vail Resorts, it starts with four key traits: humility, confidence, balance, and self-reflection. 

“Values-driven leadership is so important in your life, it’s so important in your leadership and in your organizational culture. It provides a roadmap, and if you don’t know where you’re going, every road will get you nowhere,” said Gasta.

Gasta spoke as the moderator on a recent SAM Summit Series discussion on the topic. The conversation brought together five resort leaders and 10 program mentees who talked about personal and professional values, and the ways, when combined, those values can create alignment and help organizations thrive. 



Any discussion about leadership and values must start with self-awareness, said Gasta. “It all begins with the self. Knowing yourself—your personal values and priorities. The secret of leadership is not about becoming a leader, it’s about becoming yourself.”

Who are we? What do we believe? What are we passionate about? What gives us energy? What are our strengths? What are our opportunities? “Having these criteria from which to make decisions is key,” said Gasta. “Once we have these answers, we can begin to make decisions in our life and in our leadership that take us closer to the desired end goal.”

When you’re clear on who you are, and what you believe in, he continued, you’re able to live and lead your life—or live your life and lead—in a way that aligns with your values. “Then we can begin to understand how to work with a team and help people understand how they fit in and build synergy.” 



Easier said than done, some say. For the Summit Series mentors, the journey to self-awareness has been—and remains—a process. 

“I didn’t realize back in my early career how many people were watching my actions and how I handled myself,” said Tim Foster, chief of mountain ops at British Columbia’s Sun Peaks. “It affected my team’s interpretation of me and of my core values. It wasn’t until it was brought to my attention that I realized what your values are and how you position yourself have to come out in every aspect of how you present yourself.” 

Learning to check his ego at the door was an important first step. “Until you do that,” said Foster, “you don’t have the ability to actually self-reflect and understand how you impact others, how you impact yourself, and the impacts you create through decisions that are made in the organization. All those things tie back to the self-reflection piece.”

Though Tara Schoedinger, VP and GM of Crested Butte, Colo.,  was once told her strong values might get in the way of her success, she believes they’re one of the reasons she’s enjoyed working for Vail Resorts for so long, as she says her guiding principles align with the company’s. Still, “I would say that my leadership style is constantly evolving,” said Schoedinger. 

“I don’t think fundamentally our beliefs change as we go through life,” added Dan Fuller, president and GM of Bristol Mountain, N.Y., “but I think the way we lead people might change, and I think that certainly goes with time.” 



Once leaders define their own values, they can begin to make decisions for their team. And organizations benefit from the same sort of self-reflection, said Gasta. “It’s important for leaders of any organization to look at the ‘why.’ ‘What’s our mission? What’s our product? Why do we exist? What do we value? And how do we want to treat one another?’”

Transparency. Authentic leadership and an authentic culture can be a catalyst for an organization’s growth and success. When president and COO Dee Byrne first arrived at Palisades Tahoe, Calif., the resort was perceived as “unwelcoming” by some guests after years of discord. There was a lack of trust between the resort and community. Byrne and her team set out to change that. 

“It started with transparency,” said Byrne. Palisades began publishing one or two blog posts a week, sharing a candid look at mountain ops and what’s happening at the resort. “Some people don’t like it,” said Byrne, “but we’re erring on the side of showing our humility and building trust. It’s been a process to be OK with being vulnerable.”

Collaboration. Going back a step, Byrne had to first align herself with the Palisades team, which was culturally different from Colorado, from where she’d come. “I realized I needed to adapt to the people here and really embrace learning the difference in culture,” she said. In the process, Byrne said she became more of a collaborator and “democrat” in participatory leadership, by enabling staff to be heard and have a role in decision-making. 

“In a values-driven organization, it’s also important to accept the values of others, which creates a dynamic conversation,” said Byrne. “That’s the way you get people on board—by having the conversation instead of just telling them, ‘These are our values.’”

Collaboration means doing it “with” them not “to” them, agreed Gasta. “This creates alignment, because people want to work for an organization they believe in. This leads to the next step: defining goals and how they’ll be achieved.”

Values alignment. David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, N.M., had a similar experience after relocating from Vermont. The move required him to really study this principle, consistently, over time. “It’s key to know your own values, but you also have to build on things that are inherent to your location,” he explained. 

In 2017, Taos became a Certified B-Corporation, joining corporations like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s as “purpose-driven organizations that look at environment, social responsibility, economic contribution, and philanthropy,” said Norden. 

“We didn’t know, really know, the impact of that decision,” he said, “but once we made it, it became very clear what [Taos Ski Valley’s] values were—paying attention to our planet, paying attention to our people, paying attention to our community.”

Defining these values has had a trickle-down effect on every aspect of operations. Staff now hold the resort accountable and bring their own ideas to the table. It’s helped with recruiting, allowing the resort to weed out certain candidates while attracting those that share the same principles. 

“It’s really helped having a team that’s talking about the same things,” said Norden. “The next thing that happens is staff is telling the guest, ‘Hey! You should go check out our geothermal-well field on the beginner slope that heats and cools our new hotel.”

“The fact that we could build our core values with a B-Corp ethos means everyone is aligned,” he added. “When everything is aligned, you’re removing friction, and you’re moving efficiently forward.”

Foster agreed: defining and sticking to your collective values is key. “It takes commitment and resources to pull it together, but what you’re going to get out of that is the potential for a culture that is powerful. It’s growth-oriented, it’s idea-generating, it’s looking beyond the standard box,” he said. “And that’s all driven by the power of value-based leadership. If the value-based leadership isn’t there, a lot of those things get lost; they don’t get the opportunity to be unwrapped.”   



“How does an organization move from stating values to actually living them?” asked mentee Charlotte Skinner from Granite Peak, Wis., and Lutsen Mountains, Minn. How do you turn words into action? She noted her resorts were considering turning “high-level goals” into employee incentives to hopefully spark conversations about values among staff. 

A similar concept has worked for Vail Resorts, Schoedinger said. There, core competencies related to the company’s values weigh heavily into end-of-year performance evaluations, specifically for managers. At Crested Butte, building an internal culture around the concept of “one team” has been a focus. An enterprise-wide “win the day” program (detailed in “Safety First,” SAM, November 2022) also promotes unity, operational excellence, and morale among teams and helps everyone get on the same page regarding message and values. In other words, “values” don’t live on a paper—they are part of the culture. 

“Once you define the values, then you need to enlist the organization,” Gasta noted. “People want to work for an organization they believe in, and ... they want to know how they fit in. So we have to go through the process of defining that mission and then defining how we’re going to achieve it, then talking about what every team needs to do to get there.” 



About balance—it can be hard to focus on values when you’re focused on the day-to-day operations of your resort. Fuller equated it to a game of Whack-a-Mole, and many mentors said they’ve had to work on that balance.

“To me, trust in the team is so important,” Norden said. “My role is to do the best I can to always take a step back and look at the big picture. Sure, we get sucked in and we all pick up a shuttle every now and then, and we clear the tables and that’s important, but you really have to avoid getting too sucked in, because people are looking for direction.” 



Good change takes time, reminded Gasta. “But if we are intentional, both for ourselves and for our organizations, we can create the life, we can be the leader, we can create the type of culture we want.

“If you do what you can where you’re at, show them versus tell them, lead your team in a way that demonstrates the power and the value of alignment and engagement,” he added, “people will take notice.”