Robert Katz, CEO and Chairman of Vail Resorts, Inc., Shares Leadership Lessons

April 05, 2013


In 2002, Rob Katz came to Colorado seeking a life change. The former Wall Street executive had enjoyed a long career at Apollo Management and before that, Citigroup and New Street Capital. After searching the country for a great place where he and his wife could raise their two young children, the couple landed in Boulder, where Katz spent several years consulting while he set out to find himself.

Before long, his phone rang with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In 2006, Katz became the CEO of Vail Resorts, Inc.—for which he had been a director since 1996. At 39, he admits he had a lot to learn. And in the seven years since, Katz has certainly learned a great deal, which he shared with the Voices of Experience audience on April 1.

Lesson number one: You can’t lead thousands of people if you can’t lead one person.

Being a CEO, Katz says, is about relationships—and for him, the relationships with his key leadership team in particular. However, he admits that one cannot lead others unless they have built self-awareness. “I absolutely think leadership begins with relationships and it begins with you taking responsibility for yourself,” Katz said.

Lesson number two: You need to be big and be small.

Leading a company is no small task, and Katz said it is far too easy to feel compelled to solve every single problem—or totally detach from the minor issues. “Leadership is about doing both,” he said. “It’s about being able to scale between at times being big when you need to be, and at times, being small.”

Katz’s range was tested in 2009, when the stock market bottomed out in the middle of ski season. While others in the travel industry were laying off staff, Vail chose instead to take across-the-board wage reductions—a risky move on many fronts. The decision paid off. “I would say that the company has never been as aligned, as committed, our mission has never been more clear since we did that.”

Lesson number three: It’s all personal.

As a labor-heavy business, people are by far Vail’s largest expense, and Katz says that reality also means that everything he does as a leader is also personal. Over time, he has learned to listen to his team and give them the attention they need in order to deliver their best work. “I think part of your function as a leader is to create that hero’s journey for your people,” Katz said.

Lesson number four: It’s all risky.

In every decision he makes, Katz is prepared for the potential of a downside consequence. Even developing your employees has risk. Katz has a handful of mentors to whom he turns often to check in on his decision making.

Lesson number five: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Much like being on a mogul ski run, leadership is filled with tension—and to succeed, one must learn to “let it sit.” Whether dealing with concerned shareholders who are nervous about the recession’s impact on the business or an executive who isn’t right for the job they are in, Katz said he has learned how important it is to tolerate unsolved issues and understand that most will take time to deal with properly.

Lesson number six: Rest…don’t coast.

Admittedly, Katz sets the bar very high for his executive team and has difficulty relaxing on the job. The reason: he is constantly on guard for coasting. “Great companies are the companies that are constantly reinventing themselves, constantly striving to find that next great idea, constantly looking to be in front of their competitors and everyone in their industry,” said Katz. “And that’s the same thing for leaders. My job is to stay out in front of my team.”

Carrying out a simple mission

Experience of a lifetime.

It is a simple mission, but Vail considers it their business to make every single guest experience unforgettable and exceptional. And though it may be a lofty goal and an incredible challenge for the man at the helm, Katz says he welcomes it—and appreciates the people around him. “I feel like the luckiest person on the planet to get a chance to have my career with the most amazing, passionate, innovative and game, courageous people that I have ever met in my life.”