Build A Better Workplace


The workplace, it’s a changin’. The #MeToo movement has refocused the nation’s attention on workplace behavior. Even before that, the influx of Millennials—and their insistence on equitable, authentic workplaces—was causing organizations to think about the kind of culture needed to attract and retain great talent, while also achieving business results. These trends have reached all corners of the economy, including outdoor sports.

Decades of organizational behavior research shows that all human groups perform better when they are comprised of a diverse set of people. This applies to all groups, from small teams and departments to entire companies.

Already, we are seeing countless employers respond quickly to behaviors that threaten the workplace equity that we all now expect. Employees are demanding a higher standard for the way people treat each other at work—and especially, how men treat women. Employers are responding by evaluating their systems and processes to bring them into alignment with employee expectations, society’s expectations, and brand expectations.

Level The Playing Field

Creating an equitable workplace is particularly important in our industry, where parks focus on creating an outstanding customer experience in the outdoors—or as REI calls it, “the world’s largest level playing field.” The outdoors is perceived by most as an escape from the typical constraints and norms of day-to-day life. Therefore, customers expect that the outdoors—and therefore, your business—should be different. People have higher expectations when they come to your park, because it represents what we all want: a true sense of equity. Nature doesn’t judge.

But, before we ask what you can do, let’s acknowledge this first: creating a great workplace for all will accelerate your business success. Period.

Of course, it is the right thing to do, and it is where society is heading, and it is what customers expect, and it is what will attract great new talent. If you recognize that creating an equitable workplace is critical to your business, that elevates the chances for making change happen.

And a diverse workplace pays off. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies, reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that “those [companies]in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have returns above the industry mean.” Diversity leads to bigger profits.

Regardless of the size of your operation, there are specific things you can do to create a workplace where everyone can bring their full capabilities every day.

1. Acknowledge there’s room for improvement.

Leaders innately understand that they have blind spots. For example, a leader whose career has been mainly in operations may have a blind spot in marketing. But we don’t often see them—that’s part of what makes them blind spots. In my experience as a consultant to executive teams in many industries, I have noticed that most business leaders have a blind spot when it comes to creating a workplace culture. They lack the language and expertise to define and solve the problem, and for most leaders, it is hard to admit they do not know something.

Ken Meidell, CEO of Dakine, has said leaders need to be vulnerable. He is asking his senior team (comprised of men and women) for support to help shine light on his blind spots. He has set the expectation that the workplace will be equitable, and has engaged his team in helping make it so.

2. Do a self-assessment.

Leaders committed to creating equitable workplaces must examine patterns of past behavior so they can reset expectations for future behavior. This key step not only helps identify blind spots, but also opportunities to bolster your decision-making processes.

Here are a few questions to get you started. Over the past two years:

• What percentage of applicants for each job posting were women?

• How many women have been promoted, particularly into people-management and strategic roles?

• What is the gender breakdown for non-returning seasonal workers?

• Who on staff is in line to move up into a supervisory role?

3. Take action internally.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful ally of the status quo. It is easy to say, “I don’t know where to start.” But, by simply starting somewhere, leaders chart a path that sends important signals to the rest of the organization. Here are a few starting points:

Get the perspectives of your senior staff members. Find out from women what their experience is like working there.

Give men a platform to weigh in. There’s sure to be some pushback. Be ready for it. Recently, Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI, was asked what he says to men who are worried that advancing women will mean fewer jobs for men. His reply: “I say to them, ‘wouldn’t it totally suck to be discriminated against because of your gender?’” Engage men in the dialogue. This is not a zero-sum game; the goal is to create opportunity for all, and to advance the business.

Build incentives for promoting women into positions of strategic importance (e.g., high visibility, P&L responsibility, etc.). Many top companies have instituted a form of the NFL’s Rooney Rule (which requires teams to interview minority candidates for all coaching positions) and require that women are included among candidates for leadership positions. In these companies, managers at all levels are held accountable for following this practice, and are penalized for making a hiring decision without considering women candidates.

Be intentional about recruiting and onboarding. An old adage says, “Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they’re getting right now.” If you are attracting mostly men to seasonal, hourly, or entry-level jobs, then those folks will likely be the ones to ascend into permanent and leadership positions. As a result, the company will likely end up having mainly homogenous teams working on solutions.

To bring new ideas into the company and commit to more diverse teams, you must change your recruitment and onboarding strategy. This often requires some creative steps. For instance, N.Y.-based grocery retailer Wegmans Food Markets has a very specific guide to assess if a candidate matches the culture, and to evaluate his or her skills and interests for the sought position. During the interview process, an interviewer may redirect the candidate to other roles that are a better match for that person’s skills and passion. Would this practice work for you?

4. Let the world know where you stand.

Millennials typically want to know that their employer is committed to something bigger than simply profit. “Meaning” is important to an increasing percentage of the workforce. But it does not stop there—Millennials are also seeking to do business with purpose-driven companies.

It makes sense to appeal not only to your workforce, but also to your customers, by taking a public position on workplace equity. Many companies in the outdoors have adjusted their marketing messages to focus on the meaning and purpose of their organizations. For example, REI’s #OptOutside and Force of Nature campaigns not only express the company’s values, they also signal to consumers that REI is more than just a gear company. More companies can, and should, step up.

In a Nutshell

To remain a vibrant part of contemporary culture, the aerial adventure industry must attract and involve more, and more diverse, individuals to be a part of it. Innovation, acceleration, and action are essential. Past strategies will not be sufficient to solve current and future problems. We need to bring new thinking to the hard work of creative problem solving.

Excluding women from challenging entry-level jobs, from promotions, and from strategic conversations—intentionally or not—slows progress on this goal and increases risk. Now’s the time to create a great place to work for all, and leverage the full potential of everyone in your organization.


About Author

Paul Thallner is CEO and Founder of High Peaks Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm that helps leaders and organizations tackle the tough people challenges in order to accelerate business performance.

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