Managing a staff of a few hundred people is no easy feat. But add to that list the oversight of a company’s culture, its strategy and direction, community involvement and financial forethought, and you get the rough makings of a CEO’s responsibility. Steering a company’s ship sets the tone for nearly all aspects of the company’s perceptions and realities, and it’s why cultivating a senior leadership team is essential to executing any successful project—be it marketing or customer service.
That’s essentially what Steve Wright, Jay Peak Resort’s new CEO, explained to us in a recent conversation. So we peppered him with a few more questions about what, specifically, sets a company apart, both as a brand and an employer.
Origin: In what ways, or in what areas, does your mandate extend beyond the standard CEO responsibilities?
WRIGHT: I think, given the nature of the business we’re in, resort GMs end up a lot closer to the front-line employees—the mechanics of their position, the issues they face at home, personal struggles, responsibilities and challenges, etc.—than in other business environments. There’s a certain amount of psychological weight that relationship adds that can impact decisions on how best to manage certain situations.
What do you think it is about our industry that is creating this expanded responsibility? Is it a blessing or a curse?
I’m not sure it’s endemic to the entire industry, but at Jay Peak we stress this notion of being “Raised Jay” and all that comes with it—the good, the bad. It’s an authentic tone that runs through how we talk to guests, employees and each other and a set of expectations that are grounded in treating each other in a manner we, in turn, expect to be treated. It’s a good foundation to build a hospitality approach on. When employees know that you care about them at a deeper level than pure employee-employer, it’s a blessing. There are lots of upsides for everyone, but it can be challenging when you need to make difficult decisions regarding the process through which they are managed.
With all this on your plate, what is the thing that you never take your eye off of?
There are several. Narrative-based surveying of what guests are saying. All of our social media channels. Making sure we over-communicate to front-line staff. The retention of quality employees. When you start out with good employees, keep them informed, and make sure you understand (at very base levels) what your guests are saying about you, you create an environment where positive change can happen very quickly. All of this is connected to your ability to run profitably and doing so over multiple seasons.
If you had more time in your day, what one thing would you focus more on?
My relationship with the community. We do this a lot, but if I had more time this is where I’d spend it. The immediate upside is more difficult to get a read on, but resorts inevitably end up being the largest driver of employment and peripheral profit in the communities we exist in, and that role needs to be taken seriously. The goodwill it engenders plays a role in your ability to get support for a whole host of business-related issues; but at a basic level, being a conscious supporter of the community you live and work in is just what we need to be doing. Rather than simply reacting to opportunities where we can be supportive, we should be actively looking for them. We’ve recently created a team called The Joy Division here at the mountain, where we’re actively looking for these opportunities and it’s already paying dividends for everyone.
Great people make a CEO’s job a lot easier. What are some of the most critical positions in today’s mountain resort operations? Where are you finding people with this expertise?
Standard roles apply here: great marketers, operations people, accountants, hospitality pros, etc. But more than anything we’re looking for people who understand how important empathy is within the hospitality business. We can teach people to make a perfect hamburger, to make a bed or a spreadsheet or snow. We have good employees everywhere we look, but it seems the great ones always have their hands around what it means to be empathetic to co-workers, managers and guests. I can’t stress how important this is.
What combination of experience and education would best prepare the ski industry CEO of tomorrow?
The best ones always have some fundamental business understanding and a workingman’s knowledge of finance and marketing. Emotional intelligence is something people don’t necessarily focus on, but it’s very clear when it’s absent. Empathy shows up again here. How much are you willing to invest in being in another person’s shoes—whether it’s your employee, a co-worker or a guest?
Clearly a corner office at the bottom of a mountain and ski lunches are standard job perks, but what are the non-obvious perks of your job?
Getting to fundamentally impact guest’s memories. We have the ability to create experiences that, without hyperbole, stay with a guest forever. That’s a big responsibility. Or, at least, it can be if you look at your job through that lens. Every time I walk out my door, I’m thinking about how I can improve the experience of a guest or an employee. I always find a way. And I’m immediately paid off when I do. That’s pretty great. Oh, and discounted ramen noodles.
What’s your hope for the future of the industry?
That while we’re focused on big challenges (climate change, declining visits, health care regulations and minimum wage pressures), we continue to value the small ones: empowering and rewarding employees, being conscious members of our communities and improving the resort experience at the smallest levels. Everything, all of this, really is connected.
What’s your worst fear for the future of the industry?
I think we need to make sure that we stay focused on attracting and retaining great employees—however you, as a resort leader, define that. Every single challenge we face can be addressed by virtue of building and retaining a great team. Without that, I’d be afraid of everything. With a great team, there’s no fear so big that it can’t be managed.