Senior Executive Mark Gasta on Putting Teams First and Engaging the Heart


Executive Education is excited to launch our A Year of Peak Performance content series this month. November’s theme is Empower to Perform: Leadership strategies for empowering people to rise up to business challenges. We have a bundle of content to help the working professionals in our community with leadership lessons and strategies, including an email series where our highly respected leadership faculty chime in on this article about what leaders do in challenging times (if you’re not on our email list, be sure to sign up here).

For November’s blog post, we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Daniels Executive MBA alum Mark Gasta for his insights on how he has tackled challenging times in his career.

And tackling tough times, it turns out, is a bit of an understatement. Mark’s corporate career ultimately brought him to the position of Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer/Chief Sustainability Officer for Vail Resorts Management Company. Vail Resorts, of course, is the premier mountain resort company in the world and a leader in luxury and destination-based travel at iconic locations. An organization doesn’t climb to that position in the industry without some bumps, and Mark was there for his share of them.

Before Vail Resorts he served in the United States Army as a commissioned officer and aviator, and has been a part of search and rescue crews in Colorado. So you want lessons in leading through challenging times? Yeah, Mark’s seen a few.

In addition to his EMBA from Daniels, Mark received his Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental and Systematic Biology from California Polytechnic State University and a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in Organizational Change from Pepperdine University.

Today Mark teaches at Colorado State University. He’s such a valued alum that we don’t even hold that against him. He’s an Associate Professor in the Masters of Tourism Management (MTM) Program and Program Director of the Adventure Tourism graduate certificate.

Daniels Executive Education:  You’ve led many initiatives across many situations. Can give us an example of what the most challenging was?

Mark:  I’ve led many things in many different situations. I’ve led in combat. I’ve moved helicopters, and troops into dangerous situations. I’ve led in search and rescue missions where you’re making decisions to risk the lives of your own soldiers or employees to assist someone else in need. And those decisions are difficult to make.

On the corporate side, I’ve led large-scale transformational change for good. How do you help an organization gain clarity around their purpose, and their focus, and then help employees understand how they align with that, what’s their role in that, how their efforts add up to something more, so that they’re connected with larger organization?

So that’s a more positive example. And then on the negative side, I’ve led very difficult things like organizational downsizing and restructuring due to economic conditions. All you can do is try to do that kind of work in a way that is caring, kind, respectful, and treats employees as fairly as possible. That is incredibly hard, but you can be as supportive, as transparent, as generous as you can possibly be knowing that you’re changing people’s lives.

So those are a bunch of different examples at a high level.

Daniels Exec Ed: What have you learned from the higher stakes situations? Are there things that you learned—like the importance of clear and elevated goals—that you can transfer into the corporate world when leaders are faced with challenging experiences?

Mark: I think absolutely all of that translates beautifully. And yes—the point you make about high overarching goals—is critical. For the most part in the military, people have signed up to serve, and they signed up to do a job, and they are committed to doing that job, and they are committed to that mission. It’s quite an amazing display, because you count on so many different people to do their jobs with excellence when they are called upon to do so.

In order to complete your mission, there are so many other people on the other end that will be there to support you in your objective. You know that you can count on them.  This despite the fact that you don’t know one another necessarily and all have different roles and are in different organizations.  For example, when the ground war began in Operation Desert Storm, we had a mission to fly forces to the Kuwait International Airport to secure the airfield.  In order for us to be successful, we needed to count on many others including intelligence, gunship escorts, designated fuel stops, etc.  You inherently trust that everyone will do their jobs, and do them well, allowing us to do ours.

And I think there’s a unique translation there into corporate America. The military trains their team members incredibly well, ensures that each individual has crystal clear expectations, and goes to great lengths to educate each soldier on how their particular role is critical in the success of the overarching mission. Everyone has to be very well prepared to do their piece, their part of the puzzle. There can’t be a question in the other individual’s ability to perform or their understanding of the goal.  Training, expectation setting, clear accountability, and understanding how one fits into the overarching mission of the organization are all critical components to success in the corporate environment as well.

There are other lifelong leadership lessons that I learned in the military as well.  First – it is the role of the leader to lead in a way that makes others powerful.  In order to do this, you need to demonstrate that you care more about them than you care about yourself.  The examples from the military are almost more symbolic than anything else. For instance, the officers never eat before their troops. The demonstration that we will make sure that you all have what you need first, be it gear, or food, or rest, or whatever it is before we take ours. The officers are going to make sure that everyone else gets what they need before tending to their own needs.

Second – A leader must also never doubt the capacity of his/her people. It is the role of a leader to help their team members see potential in themselves that they never thought possible.  Through trust and encouragement —because of your belief and your support—you have the opportunity to encourage them to play their biggest game. This belief in your team members results in individuals and teams accomplishing things they never thought possible, and achieving amazing results.

I’d say all of those learnings come to me through my experience in the military.

Daniels Exec Ed: Can you think of a specific example in the corporate world that is the equivalent of eating after the troops do? Something symbolically that you did to demonstrate to the folks that you needed engaged in a particular challenging situation that they came first?

Mark: Yeah. At Vail Resorts we had a program called Connections where, when the business is the busiest, the most important thing we could be doing at corporate is supporting our frontline workforce, supporting our guests, and supporting our day-to-day operations. So all of us at corporate took frontline jobs and got on the schedule to go bus tables, to serve as a parking lot attendant, and so on. Our frontline workforce could get some much needed time off as well as reduce our overtime need. And as a corporate executive it gave me the chance to lead by example. To be one of the first to sign up to bus tables and to connect with both our employees and guests.

So that’s an example, and another example, earlier in my career at Target where I was the head of HR for the distribution center, I would often work in the distribution center. One of the more difficult jobs was loading trailers with boxes of merchandise for our stores.  On a regular basis, I would block off my calendar for couple of hours to go out into the loading docks and to work side-by-side with our team to load trailers.  When I took the time to assist, I had the opportunity to understand what the workforce was going through and to get to know them on a personal level.  Learning, for example, that they have a 14-year-old daughter like I do or that we both enjoy mountain biking.  You gain a better understanding of the business and the challenges associated with the day-to-day operations and connect with your team members on a personal level, both allowing me to do my job more effectively.  For example, allowing me to design programs to better meet the needs of our workforce and building trust so that, hopefully, the team believed in their leadership and would come to me with challenges, concerns, and opportunities.

Daniels Exec Ed:  I’m struck by this notion of having a clear, and elevated goal in the military. It’s almost baked in, and I wonder if this is why in corporate America we spend so much time trying to articulate clarity around vision and mission, especially during a tough transition. Can you speak to that?

Mark:  Yeah absolutely. I do agree that the higher goal of the military is kind of baked in. But I do challenge the thought that in every instance more clarity is not required. Whether you agree with the larger political situation or not, you’re going to do your job for your brothers and sisters, period. However, it’s still incumbent upon military leadership to help each and every individual understand what the objective is, why the objective is important, and what their role is in that objective. So, leaders still have the obligation to enlist their team in the larger purpose.

Now, translating that to corporate America, people want to have purpose in their lives. And in the work environment we have a unique opportunity to provide that need. Too often organizations don’t take the time to really articulate this. Not the “what do they do?” or “how do they do it?” But, “why do they exist?” Individuals want to know that they work for an organization that is making a difference and how they fit into that mission. Once you articulate why your organization exists, you need to help individuals understand how their role fits into that.  So now, instead of a team member just being heads down in a frontline job, punching the clock, thinking that it’s not adding up to something more, they are clear on how their role is critical in the achievement of the organizations mission. Being very explicit around what we’re trying to achieve as an organization, the value and importance of it, and why each role matters. There’s incredible value in that.

When organizations get crystal clear on mission, values, vision and enlist their workforce in the same, it not only results in organizational clarity, it also results in increased employee engagement, increased productivity, and ultimately increased success.

Oftentimes, organizations move right to the strategy piece. But if you don’t know where you’re going, every road gets you nowhere. Once you gain clarity on why we exist, what we value, and what we want to be, you can clearly design a game plan and galvanize your workforce around that plan. And when I say galvanize your workforce, I don’t just mean from an engagement standpoint. I also just mean tactically: your resources, your priorities, and your project planning.

Daniels Exec Ed:  We’ve seen that it can be difficult to convince less experienced leaders of the importance of this. Some see it as “the soft stuff.” You don’t know it’s important until you try to lead a group without clarity in those areas. Do you see this too, and why is it hard to inspire people around actually doing this?

Mark:  Yes, I agree. But then I would say, “Well, whose fault is that?” It’s up to us, the senior leadership, to not just speak to [new leader’s] intellect, and tell them it’s important. “Just do it, dammit.” But rather speak to their heart, where they feel it, where it moves them. You cannot just enlist their head and hands.  You also have to enlist their heart.  When they feel it, they will then really understand the importance—the necessity and the value of operating in that way.

I try to enlist individuals’ hearts. Because once you feel it, then you can have a real conversation about what is really important. What do we believe?  How are we going to make a difference?  How are we going to lead?  Ultimately, what will be our legacy? When you enlist your team members hearts, when they believe in where the organization is going and their role within that, then they’re willing to do what is necessary and endure the long, difficult march to get from here to there.

Daniels Exec Ed: So Mark, what’s emerging here are two themes when leading through tough times: Clarity of purpose, and putting the team’s needs first. And doing this in a way that enlists (love that word) their beliefs first.

Mark: You start from a place of servant leadership. “I’m here in the service of others, and I’m here to make others powerful, so that they can play their biggest game.” And when they play their biggest game, we all succeed.

People want to know that they work for an organization that does well, and does good. And then they want to know their role within that. Then they’re going to show up, they’re going to be fully engaged. And you’re all going to win. This is accomplished by ensuring individuals are living their lives in alignment with their personal values.

The next opportunity is to ensure that the organization is aligned. The first rule of business is to stay in business – we shouldn’t be shy about that fact.  If you don’t create margin, you cannot pursue your mission.  With that said, there is a unique opportunity to build sustainable organizations that do both well and good. This is not necessarily an altruistic goal, it’s just good business. In order to build a sustainable business, you have to simultaneously invest in all stakeholders – your employees, customers, shareholders, community, and the environment (some organizations may have additional stakeholders to consider as well).  The high tide then raises all boats and ultimately there is a beautiful win-win.  The win-win is the development of an organization that creates profit for shareholders while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom they interact (employees, customers, communities).

This reinvestment in all stakeholders begins to create a virtuous cycle.  When you reinvest in your employees (benefits, development, compensation, rewards, etc.) they are fully engaged and show up each and every day providing their discretionary performance.  When they are fully engaged, they better serve your customer by providing higher levels of service, more innovative products, stronger team leadership, etc.  This then results in higher levels of customer loyalty and spend, increasing revenues.  When this margin is created, in addition to shareholder value, organizations can then reinvest in all of their stakeholders including their communities and the environment.  Your organization is a member of your community and, in most cases, your employees are living and raising their families in these communities.  Organizations have an obligation to be good community citizens and, by doing so, benefit in their ability to attract and retain talent.  By being good community citizens they are also building their reputational capital and ultimately brand loyalty by being a good world citizen.  Customers also want to frequent organizations that are good corporate citizens and by doing so, they too feel like their dollars are having a positive impact upon the world.  The natural environment is the final stakeholder and there is also a beautiful win-win in preserving and protecting this precious natural resource.  The reality is that when you reduce waste, minimize energy spend, reduce your carbon emissions, etc., you not only further engage your employees, customers, and communities, these efforts also have a positive ROI over time.  Bottom line, by holistically and systemically managing your business, you can do both well (financially) and good (for the world) without sacrificing anything.  This approach does however, take a sophisticated, systemic, long-term thought process versus simply a focus on short term gains.

So during challenging times, if you’ve invested in these areas upstream, you’ll have some social capital that will carry you through the tough times allowing you to not only survive, but emerge from the challenges stronger. An employee base that believes in you. Consumers that give their loyalty. Shareholders that are more patient.  A community that rallies around you.  And an environment that we and future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from.

It’s up to us as leaders to enlist our businesses in this potential, and then show them the path to get there. When you look at businesses in this world that have embraced this, they’re not only successful from a profit standpoint. But they’re also positively influencing all of those that they interact with and the environment that they operate in.