Skip Yowell Leadership Lesson 1: The Myth of Seniority

The first takeaway from the Skip Yowell Leadership Academy: Decades of experience counts, but you don’t need it to be a great leader. In fact, sometimes it just gets in the way.

By Devon O'Neil June 27, 2016

Cristin O’Brien’s career in the outdoor industry can be traced to a teaching gig. In June 2003, a year after graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, O’Brien set off on a round-the-world adventure with Burton Snowboards Founders Jake Burton and Donna Carpenter. O’Brien’s job was to tutor the couple’s three children while they—and she, an avid snowboarder herself—chased winter for a year.

O’Brien’s parents didn’t work in the outdoor industry, and neither did any family friends. “It wasn’t until I worked for the Burton family that I was kind of like, wow, you can combine your passion with your profession? This is awesome,” O’Brien recalls.

She went on to manage a Columbia Sportswear concept store in Breckenridge, Colorado, in 2004. Now, 12 years later, she is the west regional sales manager for Sorel, one of Columbia’s brands, in Oregon.

O’Brien says the inaugural Skip Yowell Leadership Academy has pushed her beyond her comfort zone both as a professional and student. “It’s been more rigorous than I was expecting,” O’Brien says. “I feel like I’m in grad school, which is great.”

Read about one of the weekend retreats that are part of the nine-month academy.

Participants do about four hours of work per week for the program. They write biweekly papers, participate in webinars led by influential guest speakers, and try to mesh perspectives from all facets of the industry to solve problems, like how to grow the industry’s consumer base. For O’Brien, perhaps the most important lessons have been related to personal growth—and embracing a collaborative approach among representatives from competing brands, an idea OIA vice president of marketing and communications Jennifer Pringle calls “co-opetition.”

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned [in this program] is that leadership means leading from the inside out,” O’Brien says. “You have to know yourself first—who you are—in order to be an effective leader.”

Learn more about the Skip Yowell Leadership Academy and how you or someone you know can apply for the 2017 class. Applications are open until October 28, 2016.

At 35, O’Brien is part of a growing core of young leaders in an industry that has traditionally been run by executives with at least two, and sometimes three, decades of experience. But O’Brien doesn’t see her relatively short tenure—and that of the others in the Yowell Academy—as a hindrance to their leadership potential. In fact, she sees it as an empowering unifier that helps them approach business challenges with a collective enthusiasm and highly collaborative sensibility. “It’s strength in numbers,” she says. “This program brings young people together to create a groundswell of, ‘If we work together, there are things we can change together.’ The connections I’ve made, I would not have been able to make otherwise.”

To that end, O’Brien and a handful of other Yowell Academy participants have been working on a way to address the industry’s fractured retail model. But instead of trying to unite the competing sales channels—independent brick-and-mortars, big boxes, e-commerce sites and manufacturers that sell direct—O’Brien believes businesses need to better understand the consumers driving the shifts in buying habits.

Read these other profiles from the inaugural class of the SYFLA:
Lesson 2: Sometimes You Find Success By Taking a Detour
Lesson 3: There’s Strength in Numbers

“America’s demographic makeup is changing, and in order for us to stay relevant as an industry we need to better understand those demographics and connect with those new consumers,” O’Brien says. “For millennials, the outdoor industry is now the outside industry. It’s car camping and festivals and more social—not as much huck a cliff and climb a gnarly peak. How do we meet those consumers where they are and connect with them? I hope that happens more in the next five years than the next 20.”