Sustainable Opportunities Summit (Produced by: GoGreen) Mark Gasta on Moving People To Embrace Sustainability

You don’t get to be Chief People Officer without a keen understanding of what motivates us as human beings. Vail Resorts’ CPO, Mark Gasta, works to uncover our drivers as professionals and to create behavior change that not only benefits us as people, but supports the bottom line and sustainability as well. In our Q+A, Mark shares his expert insights on moving people to embrace sustainability with dramatic results.

GoGreen: A lot of talk around sustainability for business focuses on efficiency and systems. What about the people? Where does the human element factor in and how important is it in the grand scheme of things?
Mark Gasta: Businesses are a system, and all of these factors play together. So if we are thinking about the environmental system, or other pieces of the system, and not paying attention to the human aspects of it, ultimately it won’t be sustainable. The system will become imbalanced.

In order to create organizations that do both well and good, we have to ensure the entire system is taken into consideration and that all intersections are tended to. Then we can maintain our profit margins, while also accomplishing our mission as an organization in the community. None of the elements in the system are mutually exclusive. When we drive shareholder value, we not only give that value to them, but we can then reinvest in our employees, our guest experience, our communities and environments–all are inextricably linked.

GG: From the human resources perspective, is sustainability a selling point for recruiting talent and retention rates?
It is an incredibly strong selling point, because people want to feel good about the organization they work for. People want to understand how their efforts can contribute to a larger purpose. It doesn’t matter if the employee is coming just because they love the sport (in our case) and want to be a part of that sport. The stronger that connection is, the more they want to share this sport with others and share nature with others.

Its been proven through research that when people spend time in nature, it makes them want to protect it more and has a positive impact on their own personal values. You can build out that value chain and connect people with those higher purposes—and it doesn’t matter really what that higher purpose is as long as it’s greater than just showing up and punching the clock.

From this perspective, sustainability first creates greater success for the organization, but also results in greater engagement and satisfaction for the people working there. Getting back to the recruiting piece of it, when someone is contemplating their life and dreaming up how are they going to make a difference, they want to be part of something bigger. Sustainability helps us show that we can easily draw out their potential to have a very positive impact in the areas they care about.

GG: You also work with students in higher education. Are you seeing a greater tendency from this next generation of employees to place a higher value on sustainability?
MG: Oh, without a doubt. It’s on the minds of many kids coming through school right now. And that’s very refreshing and exciting. I read an article about a recent Harvard Business School graduating MBA class that had over 50% of its members sign a pledge that they would never work for an organization that did harm and that they would only work for organizations that did good.

People are looking for something more in their career. In the past, it took a catastrophe or something negative to cause people to be reflective and ask, “how am I going to make a difference” or “am I going to look back on my life knowing that I lived the life of purpose?” Today, I think those values are being engrained in us earlier on. Maybe it’s parents, maybe it’s technology giving people a better world view—but whatever the cause, it’s a good thing.

GG: What are your thoughts on where the responsibility should lie for succeeding at sustainability? Should it be with a green team or the sustainability officers or the executive team?
MG: The primary responsibility should not lie with a sustainability officer or green team. Now, should those parties be the conduit of educating others and providing tools and resources to help people understand how to drive and support green efforts – absolutely. But the reason I say no is because my goal is to make sustainability obsolete. Sustainability should be woven into the fabric of the culture and just be part of the business planning process. We should do it not because it’s going to result in altruistic successes, but instead because it’s the right thing to do for the business.

The beautiful thing about sustainability is that the pure definition of it is “be around to live another day.” If you’re not around to live another day, from a business standpoint you’re going to fail. If you want your business to be successful in the long-term, you have to ensure you build it in a sustainable way—which means paying attention and finding the balance for all of those key stakeholders. That includes not taking more than you give, as it relates to the environment, and ensuring you are not doing harm. Both can come back to bite you through brand reputation or negative aspects of compliance. That is the minimum expectation. From there companies have a unique opportunity to competitively differentiate themselves by becoming sustainability leaders and actually enhancing their surroundings.

Because it’s the right thing to do from a business perspective, the ultimate responsibility lies with an organization’s leaders. When they fully understand sustainability, they will see it meshes with the philosophy that wise decisions are those that consider the long-term viability of a company over short-term gains—and that short-term thinking ultimately does not result in a lasting success.

GG: How accountable do you think employees should be towards achieving the overall success of those strategic decisions and those goals?                                                                                                            MG: I think of it a little differently. I don’t think about holding employees accountable, so much as figuring out how we can inspire them to the chase the possibilities, Most people don’t wake up saying, “I want to destroy the earth today” or “I want to do things wrong today.” The responsibility lies with the folks who are leading this charge. They need to drive education, communication, and empowerment. It’s about helping people see how can they make a bigger difference, what their role is and their potential for aligning with a higher purpose.

We also need to create access to those paths and show how our teams can do all of this within their particular role. Every single person has the ability to make a positive difference . So, it’s not about holding employees accountable, it’s about inspiring them to be a part of something greater – which they naturally already want to do, in my estimation.

GG: Have you seen unintended consequences of a positive nature in other areas of your organization that have arisen from your sustainability efforts?                                                                              MG: Absolutely. It is all connected. I’ll go back to what we talked about earlier—that it’s all one system and you have to factor in all aspects of the system in order to create a sustainable organization. For example, as we work on employee engagement, many people may not immediately translate that as part of building a sustainable company. But taking care of the most foundational opportunities for employees allows them to become interested in things that create greater value-adds for the company overall.

When we do a regression analysis on our employee engagement scores, we see that the greatest driver in our company—the biggest difference we can make in further engaging our employees—is around sustainability. Our employees want to know how they can further influence our company’s work in the community and the environment, so we have been focusing on how to tie sustainability and employee engagement together.

As a result, we have never seen greater success as it relates to things like our guest satisfaction scores. This greater engagement we’ve fostered is resulting in higher guest satisfaction and it’s directly related to our efforts to help employees understand how our company makes a difference, and how they can personally contribute to our sustainability initiatives.

GG: What kind of organizational change is usually necessary to succeed at creating this very integrated system? What are the most common shifts needed or trends that you see?                                  MG: I think the greatest challenge for most of us is learning how to operate outside our silos. It’s easy to get stuck in them because that’s what we have control over. Thinking outside of those lines can be overwhelming. Be it a business unit or a department or a location – people are worried about themselves. They are not worried about everyone else.

Going back to the HR, many departments will plan their own strategy for the coming year, but how often do entire organizations bring the planning to a shared platform? Very few make that leap and even fewer take the more important step of looking across the full matrix to find points of integration and collaboration. But unless we look across all of those disparate agendas to ensure we have cross-coordinated our efforts in order to move forward together, we will always have the possibility that things will get out of balance. For example, you might have the greatest learning and development team in the world, but if your compensation and benefits programs are not competitive – you’re going to fail.

The key is to regularly look across the matrix and coordinate agendas at every level within the organization. If any aspect gets out of balance, you are going to stop moving forward and it is not a sustainable long-term solution.

GG: What would you say is the biggest barrier you’ve run up against in maintaining balance? How did you surpass it?                              MG: Working outside silos is an on-going challenge. It’s hard and that ‘s why people don’t do it very often. It is easier for me to close my door and just worry about my work. If you take a collaborative approach, now I have to worry about everyone else’s work and how it fits together to create systems that are mutually supportive. Constant communication is required, as is a true commitment to a shared vision.

A very simple example: if my CEO came in right now and asked me to create a frontline bonus program for employees, I could close my door, pull up old documents of other frontline bonus programs created over time and come out in a few hours with a sixty page document that is a perfect frontline bonus program on paper. But would that be successful or would it fail?

It would fail, because I failed to ask a lot of questions that require looking outside of my own silo. What technologies are necessary to pay these bonuses and measure these successes? Are the measures I put within the program driving the right behaviors to lead to the right outcomes? Have we communicated to employees how they will be rewarded based on the desired behaviors and why that’s important to the overall success of the business? Have we trained leaders to help connect this rewards program with the outcomes we want? On and on and on—you can begin to see all the systemic interconnections in just that one example. Unless I work with all of those constituents—unless I coordinate across that matrix—the program won’t be successful.

GG: OK, lightning round (:30 or less!).

1. Best book you’ve read that’s not about sustainability, but totally applies to it?                                                                                               MG:How Then, Shall We Live” by Wayne Muller

2. What’s the worst great idea you’ve put in place and turned out to be a flop? How would you make it better the next time around?   MG: We have what we call “Street Teams” in our organization. Traditionally Street Teams are a group of people that go out before a band hits the city and do things like chalk the sidewalks and post posters all around to gain excitement around the bands coming in to town. We have established street teams at all of our resorts and the idea is that they are the voice of our employee population—they are owning and fostering a culture around the environment and engaging our workforce further. We are utilizing them for outward communication and to gather information. It is a great idea, but it’s really hard to implement, organize, and to keep it alive, plus figure out how to fully leverage it. So, I still believe that it is a great idea—but it is certainly not optimized and it is a constant struggle to keep going.

3. The number one concept you drill into your students’ and employee’s heads about sustainability?                                               MG: Find and live your passion. You want to be able look back on your life and feel fulfilled in it. That is defined differently for each of us, but in order to do that we have to understand ourselves—what we believe, what’s important to us, what are we good at, what we like and dislike, what gives us energy. Once you find those answers and live them daily, success will result personally and professionally.

4. What’s one piece of advice you would give to an organization just getting started on a sustainability strategy?                                         MG: Help your people understand the potential of sustainability—that it is not just altruistic, but it allows you to do the right thing and make smart business decisions.

5. One piece of advice you would give to an organization ready to take things up a notch?                                                                            MG: Similarly, when you help your team see the greater potential in sustainability, you will have the foundation set to reach new heights. Again, I think it is about education, empowerment and making sure you are speaking to the triggers of your audience.

Mark Gasta is the Chief People Officer and a sustainability advocate at Vail Resorts Management Company. He is also a featured speaker at the 2012 Sustainable Opportunities Summit and share insights on driving sustainability via behavioral and organizational change with attendees, March 21 in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about the Summit at:

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