Skip Yowell Future Leaders: The Camaraderie Quotient

Any outdoorist knows that the summit brings with it a unique type of solitude—for better or for worse. But reaching the peak is never a solo mission, nor should it be. The team you build, builds you.

By Devon O'Neil June 5, 2017

“Leadership is lonely.”

So says Matt Thomas while speaking to a roomful of 20- and 30-something outdoor industry professionals at a ranch in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado. Like climbers at an Ed Viesturs keynote, the 32 audience members hang on Thomas’ every word. But they are not here to learn how to summit a mountain, at least not literally. They are here to learn how to be better leaders, and Thomas, CEO of the Denver-based leadership development firm Core Ventures, is sharing a loose blueprint while psychoanalyzing the many leadership styles of and corporate structures in which successful chiefs operate.

The point is not that every leader must operate in a silo—quite the opposite, actually. By definition, a leader is singular, but the key to effective leadership is to engage and empower others, Thomas stresses, and there are do’s and don’ts when it comes to achieving that. His tips span the gamut—everything from “never initiate gossip” and “don’t enable stragglers by doing their job” to broader advice, such as “do your homework” and “embrace risk.”

“Every strong leader I know writes handwritten notes—often,” Thomas says, as his beholders jot notes in their matching black booklets.

“How do I become a stronger leader when I have no examples in front of me,” someone asks.

“If you have a bad boss, you can still spend time learning how not to lead,” Thomas replies.

The 32 attendees comprise the second class of the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (SYFLA), a six-month Outdoor Industry Association program designed to nurture the next generation of principals, product directors and brand gurus.

Know someone who should join the next class of the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy? Applications for the 3rd class will open in late July 2017.
Learn more about the program.

 

This class of future leaders met for the first time at the 2017 Outdoor Retailer winter market in January, and they will follow a curriculum of biweekly webinars, interactive and communal learning assignments, and mentor-mentee engagements that culminate in July at the Outdoor Retailer summer market. There, they will present their group capstone projects—tangible, agency-esque solutions for existing nonprofit organizations that sought help with challenges ranging from how to create brand awareness to how to engage children better.

Thomas’ presentation is only one element of this three-day retreat in mid-March. The stimulation begins at daybreak and continues until bedtime, with visiting lecturers augmenting collaboration and conversation among the future leaders, both formal and informal.

The first edition of the academy was akin to “building a plane as we flew it—creating something that hadn’t been done and then working with the class to implement it,” FLA Director Stasia Walker explains. Participants saw benefits in their professional lives (eight of the 22 were promoted within a year, Walker says) as well as their personal lives (some became close enough friends that they regularly schedule trips and visits cross country).

Much of the structure carried over to this year’s program, with a couple of noteworthy tweaks: The mentorship component (mentors range from Patagonia general counsel Hilary Dessouky to Arc’teryx commercial VP CJ King) got more structured, and the capstone projects were rejiggered to provide a more concrete return. But the overall goal is still the same: to convene young, mid-level industry go-getters from otherwise competing and disconnected companies, and allow them to collaborate and form a sense of community in the name of strengthening the overall industry.

The overall goal is…to convene young, mid-level industry go-getters from otherwise competing and disconnected companies, and allow them to collaborate and form a sense of community in the name of strengthening the overall industry.

 

After lunch, the future leaders convene in groups to discuss their capstone projects. One cadre sits around a table on wooden benches, trying to figure out how to capture market opportunity in the impressionable 3–12 age group for the National Wildlife Federation. “I’m most excited about some form of content that’s refreshed regularly and is kind of a hook that makes kids care about animals,” says John McCauley, regional organizer for Outdoor Alliance. “It could be a podcast, a game, an app that’s geolocated so as you’re driving around the country you learn about different animals, or Planet Earth-style videos you could put on your tablet.”

Quietly standing off to the side is Lisa Janssen, PR and marketing manager at Goal Zero. A tangential benefit to this retreat, she explains, is that it has reinforced the power of observation. “Just take a step back. Don’t talk for a minute. Just watch. And listen.” Janssen used to be so focused on her reply when listening to someone else, she says, that she missed some of what they were saying. Here, she’s learned “the importance of active listening”—fully focusing on what someone is saying until they’re finished—and how it informs her answers more effectively.

Here, she’s learned “the importance of active listening”—fully focusing on what someone is saying until they’re finished—and how it informs her answers more effectively.

Across the room, another group is working on ways to better connect veterans to professional opportunities in the outdoors. This group’s capstone challenge came from the Sierra Club. “As an industry we secure military contracts, but what are we doing to contribute to that revenue stream?” wonders Marmot Mountain national accounts manager Katie Hawkins. After speaking with the Sierra Club’s point person, the group realized it might be more successful working outside or alongside the Sierra Club, rather than from within. Hawkins’ groupmate Jo Andrews, a design director for Eddie Bauer, takes a “go-big-or-go-home” approach to the challenge—a risky proposition but also one that is consistent with Thomas’ advice about leadership.

“I feel like the gap in the market is much bigger than what an existing nonprofit can offer under their structure,” says Andrews. “Even if we don’t succeed in forming [our own] nonprofit, I feel like just initiating the conversation within the broader industry is a win.”

Andrews is a good example of why the SYFLA exists. She grew up in Dumont, New Jersey, 10 minutes outside of New York City, with a Colombian mother and a Dominican father. She and her extended family spent three months each summer tent camping on a lake, and she went on to work for Eastern Mountain Sports and Under Armour before joining Eddie Bauer. But when she attended Outdoor Retailer, she says, “I realized that there was no one talking to me, a woman of color.” So she found the SYFLA application on OIA’s website and applied, hoping to get more involved in the broader industry and perhaps to effect change.

Two other groups brainstorm ways to help their respective nonprofits, Outdoor Afro and Big City Mountaineers, solve problems of their own. Spirited banter continues until it is time to head back downstairs for a final talk by Thomas.

Thomas explains that great leaders embrace failure and are “shaped by suffering,” then he details some of his own trying moments. As he concludes his remarks, future leaders begin raising their hands to share stories of grueling periods in their own lives, from beating cancer to grieving the sudden loss of a coworker or father. During a five-minute break, as some future leaders bang out situps and pushups in the hallway, Colin Moynihan takes a page from Janssen’s book and observes from the fringe, marveling at his comrades.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve done in my career,” says Moynihan, the COO of Uncle Dan’s Outfitters, a Chicago-based specialty retailer. “Yeah, there’s a broad range of expertise here, but also a shared way of looking at the world.” While Moynihan is committed to forging a career in a flourishing industry, he also wants to have fun, get outside, and engage like-minded people—as Thomas recommended in his leadership talk. “We think we can’t have it all,” Moynihan says, alluding to the live-to-work approach young professionals often feel compelled to follow, “but I’m of the mindset that I can, which seems to be similar to a lot of people who are here.”

And when you put all those people in a room, they realize leadership doesn’t have to be lonely at all.


Know someone who should join the next class of the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy? Applications for the 3rd class will open in late July 2017.
Learn more about the program.