Children, Skiing, & Leadership

We’re deep into winter here in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. For some of us, that means one thing: skiing. And for me, that often means teaching children to ski.

While I was skiing with a gang of my own present and past students (mostly nieces, nephews, friends’ kids, and my own grown boys) this past weekend, I was reminded of the parallels between what I try to give these young ones on the slopes and what I share with leaders doing my job every day.

1) Keep your hands out front

Accomplished skiers know that you must keep your upper body facing down the fall-line to make solid, repeatable turns. One way to accomplish this is to make sure your hands are always out in front of you. My students often hear me shouting “fists out front” as they ski past me on their way down. If this concept is learned early, it will make a difference in the skier’s ability to continue to improve throughout their lives. If not, this lack of mastery will hinder their ability to become more-accomplished skiers.

Leaders can learn from this advice both figuratively and in practice. When a leader communicates with many direct reports (or even just one), they should speak with their hands in view. This common public-speaking advice really is true. When leaders show their hands instead of stuffing them in their pockets or holding them “humbly” behind their backs, it shows transparency, honesty, and a willingness to work and listen. Part of keeping your hands out front also shows that you are working, pushing, and persevering on the things that the group is driving to accomplish (think KPIs). Leaders can symbolically show that their hands out are out front by taking their own action items in front of the group, not just delegating to others on the team. Let your team see your hands—and your work.

2) Learn to transfer weight from ski to ski

Manager meeting in workplace

We often make a game of this with the little ones, picking up the uphill ski and setting it down as they begin to make the turn. Understanding that your downhill ski helped you make the turn you just made—and your uphill ski is going to help you make the turn coming up— needs to become instinctive for these bundled-up kids. I teach them that skiing is much more fun if you anticipate the change and make great turns as you go down the mountain, planning out your “line” and adjusting as you go. Blasting straight down the mountain with no finesse doesn’t require much skill and just isn’t that much fun to do over and over again.

In leadership, driving and leading change are one of the things that separates managers from high-performing leaders. This is similar to the concept of transferring weight on your skis. Managers take change and deal with it the best they can; the transfer of weight and priority is often late, and the turn is made poorly or isn’t done at all. Leaders anticipate change and are adept at leading their team through the cycle of change. Great leaders have a line-of-sight on changing market needs, shifting sales requirements, potential governmental-compliance issues, and internal and external client expectations. They prioritize and anticipate change rather than just reacting to it.

3) Be brave, but take calculated risks

I used to think that the kids who learned the fastest and would become the most accomplished were those who had no fear. However, as I’ve spent more and more time with these Groms*, I have realized that is not completely true. The kids who can balance their desire to fly and be the best on the mountain while taking well-calculated risks are the ones who end up jumping off cliffs and skiing double-black diamonds all day long. They find a place for themselves that borders on reckless and that’s where they live. These kids push the envelope without being silly or stupidly dangerous. They are the future Olympian racers and pro free-skiers.

Leadership in business is no different. Your team wants to know that you are in control, but they need to see that sparkle in your eye when you talk about stretch goals or new approaches to accomplishing them. They need to know you will always go to bat for them if they are following your lead in pursuit of something “unrealistic” or “unorthodox.” When I was leading my last large sales group, I ended every sales meeting with a 3–5-minute “out-there” session. Every person had the opportunity to give one idea to better reach our revenue goals. It was understood that these ideas could be as outlandish as the team wanted. During those sessions, we certainly had some laughs and became better friends, but we also found new methodologies and practices that enabled our success and growth. These ideas would never have come to light if someone hadn’t been willing to be “out there” and suggest the improbable or impossible.

*Grom = A child who is surprisingly accomplished at skiing, surfing, or skating.

Author Bio: Mark Parkinson

Mark Parkinson has been involved in consulting, software licensing, sales management, and database marketing for the past 25 years. Currently, he is a Vice President at CMOE, overseeing marketing and sales of leadership and employee development projects, as well as organization development, consulting, and facilitation. Mark is driven by enabling good managers to become great leaders.


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