imagine a place you belong

by rebecca on February 11, 2010

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       The first time I met Kate Belknap she asked me to close my eyes and imagine skiing in puffy white snow, powder knee-deep, soft and silent. There were forty of us at least, in a classroom, with our eyes closed. It was late October and we were dreaming about skiing before even a snowflake had fallen. We were hoping to get paid to spend our days swimming through flakes.

       This is how Kate manages. She asks people to imagine something that has not yet happened. I’d never taught skiing. But she allowed me to believe in myself because she inspires confidence by drawing on snowflakes not yet on the ground.

       There is some kind of magic that brings together seniors and sixteen year olds and makes them all part of the team, eager to learn one from the other. Kate cultivates a collaborative spirit where work hard/play hard is not fluff but the real stuff that builds a program and teaches three year olds and grown ups how to make it down the slippery slope of life.

       She allows her team to save face. Instead of shame in the ski school, people clean bathrooms. Arrive late for morning meeting? No salty lecture. You get handed a sponge and you get to laugh while you clean up your act.

       Kate leads her team by example. When a guest instructor arrived at the mountain to help train the staff, he asked folks to carve as many turns as they could down a tiny section of hill. Kate rounded out over 70, 18% more than the next instructor there.

       She has some of the highest credentials on the mountain, but she knows that making a team is about showing up each day and doing the work, elbow to elbow, as the jokes flow freely.

       It looks like Kate is running a ski school, but her larger occupation is giving people a place to belong. We all have that desire, deep inside, to leave a mark on the world and Kate provides that forum.

       Kate is famous for five minute lectures. One day she talked about asking permission before offering feedback. “As instructors,” she said, “We assume everyone wants feedback because they’re in a lesson to learn. But that’s not always true.” She went on to describe several ways to obtain permission before offering advice or comments. Then, with her characteristic throwaway grin, she dropped her head and mumbled, “Not bad advise for the rest of life either.”

       Later that day one of my friends told me I looked like a frozen chipmunk then followed it up by saying, “I guess I should have asked your permission before offering that comment.” We both laughed. It’s the laughter that allows the wisdom in.

       The Golden Ski Pole is an award given to an employee who goes the extra mile. The award is a ski pole decorated with flair added by each recipient to symbolize their contribution to the team. One year an employee made a spectacular catch: a falling child from the chairlift. He added a baseball glove to the pole.

       On a particularly snowy morning Kate received a mournful message from an instructor facing a storm, “After digging my car out from getting stuck, I picked up my first passenger. I woke her up when I arrived.” She detailed several more stops with several more wake-up calls. “I’m on my way now,” she said in a tiny voice, “But I really don’t want to clean the bathrooms when I get there.”

       She didn’t clean bathrooms. She received the Golden Ski Pole for outstanding car pool dedication and getting so many team members to work that morning. It’s about more than teaching people to ski for Kate, though obviously that is primary. It’s about helping her staff find their unique revolve point where kindness and hard work come together effortlessly. If she can pinpoint that in each of her staff members then her work is done.

       It is the endorsement of a father that perhaps best exemplifies what it is Kate has created. His son wanted desperately to be on ski patrol. What young kid wouldn’t think it was cool to carry that crash cart down the mountain, saving people? It’s just short of being a super hero, on snow no less.

       But his father knew that super heroes are not born, they’re made. “Let me give you to the people who will not only teach you to ski,” said the dad, “They will teach all of you.”

       Kate’s program is not just a place where never-ever skiers come to learn to make it down the mountain. It’s a place where people finely tune their ability to carve a turn and relate to a four year old with equal precision. She coaches her people to find the line between safety and a rockin’ good time.

       Dad arrived at morning meeting with the whole ski patrol crew in tow and passed out cupcakes, pinning a new nametag on his son, “Cupcake,” because his father likes cake so very much. Dad left this new little slice in the care of the family on the mountain he trusted to bring his son not only to the balance point of his skis, but to the center of himself.

       Kate asks her employees to be good citizens and that is why people love to work for her. At the core of her morning meeting is a message to dig deeper. Whether this applies to carpooling or discovering an inner super hero, Kate has found that altared space that asks her employees to think beyond the confines of a job description and simply be a better human being.

       Who wouldn’t want to come to work when that is the job description you are filling?

       Do you know someone who makes an altared space where other folks are merely going to work? I’d love to know about them. Comment here or email me at rbcamullen at hotmail dot com (funny formatting keeps spammers away).

       Link to Powerhorn Ski Resort, where Kate works here.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephanie Logan March 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm

What a treat to read about what Kate is up to now. She was my soccer coach about 25 years ago. I want to take ski lessons from her now, too. Very inspiring!

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