Over the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure and honor to work with two of the preeminent C-suite executives in the attractions industry; Terri Adams, COO of Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts, and Al Weber Jr., President and CEO of Apex Parks Group.
While their leadership styles are different, I noticed some interesting similarities about how they carried themselves and interacted with their teams. For those who aspire to lead at their level, these points will give you insight into what it takes.
Put trust in others – Both Terri and Al understand and embrace the fact that they can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. As an executive, it’s their job to oversee, to guide, to look ahead, to problem solve and to trust others to do everything else. As an example, when I spoke at the Apex event, Al was quick to point out that other people had taken the reigns of planning and executing the event, and he deferred to their direction and judgement. Often we see executives portrayed shouting out orders and taking credit for others’ accomplishments. Terri and Al did the exact opposite of this. They hired smart people, trusted them to do what was right and got out of the way.
Made it personal – Terri excelled at making personal connections with all members of the Schlitterbahn staff. We traveled to 4 of their 5 parks, and she was immediately embraced (often literally) by the local employees. I believe it is her willingness to be herself and be vulnerable that allows these connections to be made. As an example, the first night I was there I was working with a small team of trainers. After dinner we were playing a charades-type game when Terri showed up, dressed very casually, and jumped right into the game. There was no pretense, no barrier of, “I’m the COO!”, and no awkward moments when someone was afraid to be themselves in front of her. That’s one of the true tests of leadership… are people comfortable being themselves around you?
Al was really good at knowing the players on his team and figuring out what they needed to excel. He knew where there was experience and he knew who needed more guidance. That doesn’t happen by accident nor does it happen overnight. You don’t truly know someone’s abilities or potential until you observe them over a period of time and through various situations.
Direct (and respectful) communication – When you speak to Al or Terri, you know you are speaking to Al and/or Terri. They both make (and hold) very direct eye contact. They listen intently, and if they don’t understand something or need more information, they do not hesitate to ask. I think that is one HUGE difference between seasoned executives and less experienced leaders. Neither Terri nor Al shy away from admitting they didn’t know something, which leads to more conversation and deeper understanding. Inexperienced leaders often avoid those types of situations because they don’t want others to think they don’t have all of the information. The irony is that in order to be an effective leader, you NEED that information and to have those conversations. Otherwise you can’t make the decisions you need to make, or worse, you make the decisions with incomplete information.
As personable as both Terri and Al are, there is also an efficiency to their communication that I think can be misconstrued as rude or uninterested. Having interacted with both of them on a personal level, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Their efficiency comes from the realities of their role, but it DOES NOT (at least in the case of Terri and Al) indicate a lack of caring or aloofness. Quite the opposite… because they care so deeply about all of their employees and each area of their business, they know they have to manage their time to fit it all in.
Here are my takeaways (or… things to work on if you want to be an executive!)
- Communication skills – you’ve heard me say it a bazillion times – communication is the key to effective leadership, and that is once again proven with the examples above. Work on actively and attentively listening to others with an open mind. Forget about impressing others with your knowledge – impress them with how much you value what they have to say.
- Build relationships – leadership isn’t about barking orders and being in charge. It’s about developing people and building them up to create something new or to move the company forward. You can’t do it alone, so you better have people around you that can help!
- Be YOU! – you cannot lead authentically, build relationships and communicate with others effectively if you are trying to be someone or something that you are not. Great leaders, especially those in the top spots, are willing to admit their flaws and weaknesses. This helps them improve, but also gives them insight into the types of people they should hire. Your team is your lifeline, and their strengths can help balance out your weaknesses.
Thanks for reading!!
About the author – After 20+ years in hospitality leadership and human resources, Matt Heller founded Performance Optimist Consulting in 2011 with one simple goal: Help Leaders Lead. Matt now works with attractions large and small and leaders at all levels to help them improve leadership competencies, customer service, employee motivation and teamwork. His book, “The Myth of Employee Burnout” was released in 2013 has become a go-to resource among industry leaders.