Interviews conducted by Sustainability Intern, CC Cunningham.

KATIE ERTL: SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF MOUNTAIN OPERATIONS

On the occasion of March 8 being International Women’s Day, we took a moment to talk to Katie Ertl and Susan Cross about female leadership in the world of winter sports and what hurdles they have faced as a successful women in a traditionally male-dominated industry. For many, coming into a leadership role at a large company is daunting and intimidating. For Katie Ertl, newly appointed senior vice president of Mountain Operations, her new role gives her a meaty challenge to face head-on, with many people supporting her along the way. We took a moment to talk to Katie about female leadership in the world of winter sports and what hurdles she has faced as a successful woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.


CC Cunningham: Describe your role as the senior vice president of Mountain Operations.


Katie Ertl: I’m learning that much of it is about implementing strategies for the mountain operations and ski schools. The four mountain managers and ski school managing director all know what they’re doing and most have a lot of experience in these roles. Spending the last thirty years in the Ski Schools has shaped my ability to create and maintain relationships, so listening and observing will best help me support the managers in their roles. This role involves looking at efficiencies and consistencies across the four mountains as well as the operations, making those connections and seeing where it can be improved. It is about understanding that each mountain has its own character and you might have to do things a little differently for each one – whether it’s in Ski Patrol, Lift Maintenance, snowmaking, etc. Lastly, understanding culture, risk management and customer service across the four mountains and overseeing the aspects that are needed to be competitive and represent our Aspen Snowmass brand. It’s a lot to learn.

Cunningham: When did you come into the role officially?

Ertl: October of 2017. I’ve been with Aspen Skiing Company for thirty years working for the Ski Schools. I’ve grown up in the industry and its operations.

Cunningham: What are important skills to have as senior vice president of Mountain Operations?


Ertl: Having the experience in the industry is important. Leadership is important. I really see my job as being a service to those who are running the operations. To say, “What can I do to support you? How can I help you get the job done?” Leadership can look like “servant leadership” in this case. It takes listening skills, confidence, curiosity, action-orientation and motivation. I feel that I have to be a self-starter. Without that motivation, it can be daunting.

Cunningham: What helped shape your career to prepare you for this role?


Ertl: Concurrent with my management role in the ski school, I had support from Ski Co to work with the Professional Ski Instructors of America-American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIAAASI). I was the manager for the National Education Teams and we traveled around the country nationally and internationally, sharing the methods of education in ski and snowboard teaching. That helped expand my horizons, introduced me to people in the industry and allowed me to make connections. At the same time, I was working with the four schools here in Aspen Snowmass, growing that business unit and working toward constant improvement. My philosophy has always been, “Do the best job I can where I am.” How am I going to do better today than I was yesterday? If you can manage four ski schools and four teams with that attitude, can I do it with four mountains?


Cunningham: What is it like being a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated industry? Have you faced any challenges in this regard? Were there any differences in the challenges you may have faced working in the ski schools versus your current position in mountain operations?


Ertl: I feel very lucky. I’ve been able to achieve high positions while maneuvering through what is a male-dominated industry. In the higher echelons of teaching, when you start going from ski/snowboard instructor up through to Examiner, Trainer-Examiner and beyond, it becomes more and more male-dominated. In Mountain Operations, it’s feels more male-dominated. The main challenge I have experienced is bringing ideas to the table and being heard. That said, I operate under the philosophy that, if the idea gets put into action and the team succeeds, it does not always matter where the credit lands. I cannot say for certain that that challenge of mine is related to gender, but I have started to pay attention to supporting others’ ideas, to make sure that, if credit is due, it is given, regardless of gender. Beyond that, I let my actions speak louder than my words. I’ve generally experienced that women will listen to words with more scrutiny than men; men will watch for actions. I think it can be easier for women if they let their actions speak to what they want to come through. I’m not trying to lean on a crutch in any way. That’s just what I’ve seen and those are the challenges I have personally experienced.


Cunningham: You’ve been working in the field for thirty years. What was happening for women industry-wide when you first started working?


Ertl: My scope was a lot narrower then, as I was in my twenties and teaching kids in the Ski School. I do recall that women were breaking glass ceilings in this industry. In the ski-instructor world, they were starting to become Trainers and Educators, but there were not many. Let me give you some stats: as a Trainer, which means you’ve gotten all of your certifications and now you’re teaching others, 30% are female right now. When I started, only 10% of Trainers were female. At the ski schools at Aspen Snowmass, the gender split of our pro staff is almost 50/50. If you get above Trainer into Examiner, that number goes down to 30%. If you go on to national education teams, it comes down to 18%. In the 1980s, women were just beginning to break into the Training and management roles. However, it was less frequent than it is now. We have a lot more women who are coming into leadership roles at ASC. It’s exciting.


Cunningham: How do you view gender as it relates to the ski and snow sport industry?


Ertl: It is a big conversation in many industries and it is complex. The answer does not lie in whether the person applying for the job has confidence in their ability – we know they do, or they likely would not apply. Maybe the answer lies in how we see the conversation from the side of hiring. It is a cultural conversation, and requires a discussion about leadership and competency. Can we take off our blinders to the idea that certain jobs are “better” for women or men and, rather, look for the qualities that will make a difference?


Cunningham: Do you think women’s leadership helps the overall wellbeing of snow sports? I think you’ve answered that. It should be based on skill level.


Ertl: Yes, but I do think a balance is good. It’s important to have those voices at the table.


Cunningham: In your opinion, what is the next step for women in the industry?


Ertl: Hopefully, the next step will include the continuation of inviting women into the conversation; encouraging them to take a step where maybe they normally wouldn’t. Encouraging groups of employees to listen and find the best person for the job, and it has to include our perception of people as well as the courage of the individual. We have to do a better job listening, not getting tied up in the emotions, but listening to what someone is saying. What is the content? What is the context? How is it going to help the business? If we can keep those things in focus, it would be beneficial. Whether you’re male or female, if you can find that within yourself, you’re going to be presented with more opportunities.

SUSAN CROSS: MOUNTAIN MANAGER OF BUTTERMILK

In the world of skiing and snow sports, the topic of gender tends to take a backseat or barely gets brought up at all. Getting ahead as a woman in this field is similar to many other career paths in that there are many obstacles and challenges that women face in the workplace that simply do not exist for men in identical situations. For Buttermilk Mountain Manager, Susan Cross, these hurdles did not hold her back from taking the reins in mountain operations. We sat down with Susan to discuss her experience as a female mountain manager and how she became a leader in a traditionally male-dominated field.


CC Cunningham: Tell me more about your role as mountain manager.


Susan Cross: There are some challenges of running the day-to-day operations of a ski resort: not enough snow at times, spreading out hours during lean times, keeping guests happy and employees positive. But I love what I do. I have been working in this role as Mountain Manager at Buttermilk Mountain for six years.


Cunningham: What are some important skills to have in your role?


Cross: I grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, into a large family who couldn’t afford skiing. I graduated from Boston University with a business degree, but I always loved sports. I worked at a sporting goods store until I moved to Sugarbush Ski Resort in Vermont to learn how to ski. I sold tickets at Sugarbush, worked for the Events & Marketing team and started the Guest Services Department there. In the summer, I led wilderness trips for teens out West and some of my co-leaders convinced me to move out West for good. The skills you need as a mountain manager depend on how you interact with people. You must respect everyone, from the front line staff to the executives. The mountain and the ski industry as a whole change all the time, so you must be adaptable. Staying upbeat, positive and enthusiastic is key. Most important to me is making the right decision even when it is not the easy one. You must be willing to jump in whenever or wherever help is needed as well as having the ability to see the whole picture. It is definitely not an office job.

Cunningham: What was happening for women in the ski and snow sport industry when you started working at Sugarbush?


Cross: I started at Sugarbush during the late 1980s. At the time, there were only a few women in management roles, but I wasn’t aware of gender differences. I just thought the industry was more suited to men. When I started working out here, it seemed like it was difficult to break down some barriers. But it’s much better these days.

Cunningham: In your opinion, what is the next step for women in this industry?


Cross: The next step for all women in any industry is having the ability and fluidity to move up in operations – to become CEO, COO, etc. In terms of the snow sport industry today, more and more women are filling leadership roles. Rather than focus on gender differences, I like to believe that people are hired into positions based on their abilities and their passion, not whether they are male or female.