Executives at Vail Resorts don’t tone down their comments or gloss over the truth when the team gets together. CEO Rob Katz delivers his opinions straight up and he expects members of the executive committee, or EC, to do the same.
“Now, the conversations flow in our meetings and there’s a real comfort with knowing how to use the time effectively,” said chief marketing officer Kirsten Lynch. “But at the first EC meeting I attended, I remember there was some great, direct feedback, followed by long, awkward silences.”
When Lynch joined the Colorado-based company in 2011, she was already a veteran of three Fortune 500 companies. She’d been to plenty of high-level meetings and was still surprised by the level of candor that her Vail colleagues used to challenge and push one another. And the way Katz spoke was even more unusual.
“At my third EC meeting, something had gone wrong, as happens in business,” Lynch said. “And I distinctly remember Rob sitting at the head of the conference table. He took total ownership, said here’s what I did, here’s what I learned from it, and here’s what I’ll do differently.
“I’d never seen a leader do that in any of my prior companies.”
A former investment banker, Katz accepted the top job at Vail in 2006 after working on Wall Street and taking time off, after 9/11, to learn more about himself and his thoughts on leadership. He became CEO when Vail Resorts employed about 10,000 people working in five resorts. At the time, expectations for any ski company were pretty low.
“During Katz’s tenure, Vail Resorts has grown to 14 resorts with more than 30,000 employees.”
“One of the reasons I took the role,” Katz said, “was I saw an opportunity to take an organization where employees had a tremendous amount of passion for the product and for their work and try to focus that passion around leadership—to create a culture where the goal was to develop people, make them better at their jobs, and really look at performance in a holistic way.”
Katz wanted a culture where members of his team—and the teams they led, the teams their teams led and so on down to the last employee—could trust one another enough to speak truth to power. He wanted the culture to encourage candor whether people were discussing success, failure, or wild ideas for innovation. Katz wanted the truth, even when it wasn’t positive.
“If anyone gave me challenging feedback, they had to know I was not going to seek retribution,” he said. “If I was defensive, it wasn’t going to work. I wanted a high-performance Loyalist Team and to have that, people had to see that the values and behavioral norms were actually true in practice.”
During Katz’s tenure, Vail Resorts has grown to 14 resorts with more than 30,000 employees. Men and women on Vail’s payroll groom snow, lead heli-skiing tours, grill steaks, book hotel rooms, sell season passes, and design programs to reduce the company’s carbon footprint, among other things. They work in eight states and three countries. Many are seasonal hires, plenty are part-time, and relatively few sit at computers ready to read all-staff emails from the boss. Leadership in this sprawling empire had to be a team effort, practiced by every team, at every level.
And it had to ring true.
Candor and authenticity are the hallmarks of the highest performing teams at any level of any organization. A recent study of hundreds of teams showed that the highest performing teams in any industry were nearly 300 times more likely to spend time debating issues, discussing problems and making decisions than the lowest performing teams. The best were 50 times more likely to openly discuss conflict whenever it arose than the lesser teams in the study. And the least productive teams were 40 times more likely to have “undiscussables,” or topics that remained off-limits.
Pat Campbell had spent her entire career in the ski industry when she joined Vail’s EC in 2006—the year Katz became CEO. She’d started her career as a front-line employee, teaching eager bands of kids to safely make turns down the mountain, and moved up to run the ski school. She later joined Vail Resorts’ leadership team when she became Chief Operating Officer of Keystone Resort.
“The company was in a very different place then,” said Campbell, who is now the President of the Mountain Division. “It was more of a collection of resorts and ski destinations. We didn’t have a unified vision that we put first. It was about making sure your business unit, your resort, was being successful.”
If each executive—or each member of any team—is focused narrowly on her own area of business, there’s no need to honestly assess or even discuss anyone else’s area. But Katz wanted each person to consider the company as a whole and to commit to accomplishing a bigger agenda than that of any one resort. He wanted everyone to put the team agenda ahead of any personal or localized agenda.
Executives needed time to become comfortable giving and receiving honest feedback. And they needed to see how Katz handled an honest assessment of his effectiveness as CEO.
“I got feedback that was like, ‘Listen, you can be very intense and that can make it hard for people to put in their viewpoints,’” he said. “’They said, ‘If you’ve made up your mind, tell us that first.’ It was quite helpful.”
Katz took the note—and others—and adjusted his style. Some people on the team loved the new climate of radical honesty. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t get on board with it and left. Lynch and Campbell were in the group that embraced the idea.
“There aren’t meetings after the meeting,” Lynch said. “It just doesn’t happen. That idea where someone nods their head in the meeting and walks out and says, ‘No way,’—we don’t do that. Nothing’s lingering out there like a bomb that’s going to explode because we didn’t bring it up in the meeting.”
The debates inside the room can be raucous, but the EC leaves in alignment. And because members of the EC are aligned, they don’t have to step carefully or move slowly to avoid unexploded ordnance. They can take action and guide the teams they lead with certainty, alignment, and decisiveness.
At Vail Resorts, business is booming. The stock price has jumped from $30 when Rob joined as CEO in 2006 to $230 today. It’s the best performing stock in the entire travel sector.
To enhance the skier experience, Vail invested in lots of shiny, new toys—faster chairlifts, fancier restaurants, interactive apps so skiers could track their routes, and more luxurious hotels. When asked which investment had the greatest impact on the company’s health, Katz didn’t hesitate. “The single biggest driver is the investment we made in culture, team dynamics, and leadership development.”