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Earlier in my career, I thought I had things figured out. I thought I’d learn business by burying my head in books, keeping my ears open in meetings, and doing my best to shadow people I thought were smart. But I never thought trying to keep up with expert skiers would be the best classroom of all.
To be clear, business books—“Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” by Lou Gerstner, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, and “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard, for starters—have been invaluable resources. I’ve also been fortunate to benefit from the advice and insight of generous mentors throughout my working life. But now, as I approach the later side of my career, I realize something else: Devoted skiers and what happens on the mountain have actually provided some of the most brilliant business lessons I’ve ever received.
I find myself turning these informal lessons more than ever these days, as the climate crisis and ongoing pandemic challenge all of us in business and in everyday life. Building a future that is sustainable economically and ecologically for generations to come is an urgent project that demands the best from all of us.
That’s why I want to introduce you to three people, and tell you three quick stories that occurred far, far away from the inside of an office building. I hope you find these learnings as valuable as I have.
The Lodge: Request, don’t complain.
The Skier: Carlton Babbs is one of the most elegant skiers I know. Born and raised in Colorado, he’s been skiing Vail since 1977 and knows the mountain better than most. He served as chief of the Genesee Fire Protection District and has been deployed to more than 25 wildfires, either as management or a boots-on-the-ground firefighter. In other words, he knows a ton about leadership and how to act under pressure.
Carlton was born to socialize and is constantly hosting groups of friends and acquaintances from all over for ski weekends in Vail. I’ve been fortunate to attend countless gatherings with Carlton, and it’s always fascinating on these trips to see the types of personalities and behaviors that emerge on the mountain.
Inevitably, there are some who exist in a constant state of complaint—“Hey, Carlton, my hands are cold;” “My boots are too tight;” “These skis are too long;” and so on. Then there are those who handle themselves very differently—and I don’t mean they suffer silently. Rather, they approach their situations differently. It’s more like, “Hey Carlton, do you mind if I pop in the lodge quickly and adjust my boot?” or “Will you guys wait while I stop in the lodge and run my hands under some hot water?”
It didn’t take too many ski trips with Carlton to see a clear trend emerge. The complainers were almost always left to go to the lodge alone and catch up with the group later, but the requesters were graciously allowed to solve their issue while the group waited patiently.
In business, I’ve seen the same dynamic that I’ve seen on Carlton’s ski trips. People who are politely assertive and request what they lack—as opposed to whining about what they don’t have—are much more likely to be invited to join teams and gain positive recognition.
This applies across industries and seniority levels. The requestors are the people you want to work with. They help build teams and culture. The whiners are folks no one wants to work with, and are culture killers.
So, requesting instead of complaining will make you a better teammate, could help secure that promotion—and might even get you invited on more ski trips.
“No Gapers:” Focus on Talent
The Skier: I’m a bit of “gaper,” which is basically ski-bumese for poser. While I am a perfectly competent skier, I do have an issue with upgrading to the supposedly latest and greatest gear. Jackets. Skis. Gloves. You name it, I’ve probably tried it.
My friend Mark Johnson, on the other hand, is definitely not a gaper. He’s climbed and skied many of Colorado’s most iconic mountains. He’s summited the Grand Teton, and skied the Skillet Glacier. He even ran and completed The Rut, a 50-kilometer foot race. (My muscles ache just thinking about it all.) He also has extensive rescue and safety training. So that’s our running joke—I’m a huge gaper and he’s the real deal.
The Story: This gaper-expert dynamic of ours is also the context in which Mark once told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Ben, anybody that’s a really high-capability backcountry skier cares most about someone’s knowledge, ability, ambition, and talent. They don’t care which skis or jacket you have.” The Lesson: Some of the most talented and productive people don’t have spectacular educations or companies on their resumes.
I still lean on Mark’s bit of unintentional advice today. It helps me interview more effectively, better evaluate talent at the end of the year, and make sure I am activating and rewarding the right people—because of what they are doing for the team, not where they went to school or used to work.
On the mountain, it’s not really about your equipment. In the workplace, talent, attitude, and energy are what really matter. Or, put differently: No gapers allowed.
The Shovel: Don’t ask for advice from people who don’t know where you are going
The Skier: Troy Rothwell, who has had a lengthy career in marketing and advertising, is one of the most dedicated and aggressive skiers I know. He’s traversed nearly every inch of the renowned Alta ski area in Utah’s Wasatch Range. He prefers Alta to the point where every dog he’s ever had has been named—you guessed it—Alta.
One day, I showed Troy my new avalanche shovel, with its aluminum blade and collapsible handle. “Troy, this is the best avalanche shovel you can get!” I said, beaming with pride.
I’ll always remember how Troy looked at me and asked, “Ben, did you determine it’s the best shovel because you’ve tried them all in varying conditions? Or is that what the guy at REI told you?”
I looked back at him, deflated, and said, “It’s what the guy at REI told me.”
This otherwise innocuous exchange with Troy was so memorable because of the learning I took from it. It’s so much more important to rely on your own experience than listen to experts who don’t know you or your situation. All too often in business, I’ve seen talented and intelligent professionals discount their own instincts and blindly follow the so-called experts.
So many consultants and advisors want to tell you what the so-called “best-practices” are—but all too often these are just “average practices” repackaged for the unwitting. Investment bankers are quick to talk about “value creation”—but, in the end, it’s sometimes unclear whether that value creation was for them or you. Why is this? Because they don’t know your business, situation, or culture as you do.
In today’s world, where technology has leveled many playing fields, differentiation is critical. Muzzling your own instinct, experience, and research to duplicate advice from someone who doesn’t know your business and your customers is a tragic mistake. As with avalanche shovels and other gear, informed opinions are useful—but ultimately you have to chart your own course according to your own needs.
So why skiers? While writing this, I kept asking myself, “Why exactly did these lessons all come from skiers?” And I kept returning to one thing: commitment. Skiers understand that skis work best when they are pointed downhill. Once elite skiers make a decision, they commit to it. Fully.
I feel this is particularly applicable in business today, amid our precarious political moment and climate emergency. Now more than ever, all of us in the realm of big business must commit fully to practices and strategies that not only foster growth but also help create a sustainable future.
Thanks. Please wait for me at the lift line.
Head of Growth & Transformation
CMO, Bank of the West