Wyoming Business Report Article: Leadership in the treetops: Snow King’s bid for leadership training

Originally published September 2, 2016 in the Wyoming Business Report

By Mark Wilcox

JACKSON – Blindfolded with a dizzying 40-foot drop beneath them, participants in a new leadership training program had no choice but to trust their teammates.

The budding practice is coming to life at Snow King Mountain. The company is working to overhaul summer offerings on the ailing winter slopes this summer, and opened the Treetop Adventure Course at the start of this summer. The custom-designed ropes course winds participants through about two miles of obstacles, bridges and zip lines as high as 70 feet in the air.

But during a trial run of its new Leadership Development at Treetop Adventure program, co-founders Christian Santelices and Sue Muncaster said they had participants guide their co-workers from the Snow King Resort sales team through obstacles blindfolded.

“It was the first time we had people go through the course blindfolded,” Santelices said. “That was an interesting experience I need to go do myself.”

While they limited the experience to the blue course – one of the milder options on the mountain – the married Santelices and Muncaster said it helped bring leadership and communications skills to the surface.

“Our coaches led us through on-course exercises meant to build trust and to create awareness of how we solve problems and work together,” said Snow King Sales Manager Jason Bruni in a release. “The exercises really helped me see how differences in communication and leadership styles impact our ability to work together.”

Santelices and Muncaster met when both served as mountain guides in Patagonia, and have been dreaming up this leadership program since forming the basic idea for the ropes course.

Santelices, an internationally certified Exum Mountain Guide, has created similar programs for organizations such as the Wharton School of Business and the US Naval Academy. He said that mountain guides have a lot to teach in both business and the armed forces.

“I teach naval officers to manage a group of people and lead a group of people using [mountain guide] skills I’ve used all these years,” he said. “You sometimes offer space to provide input on what’s happening, allowing all participants in a group to bring ideas and skills forward.”

Other times, it’s obvious a storm’s coming and Santelices takes mountain leadership seriously in those moments. But both styles of leadership translate well to both business and other arenas, he said, making mountain guide leadership well worth understanding.

“We strongly feel that just presenting questions, problems or issues to the group in a relaxed, beautiful, exciting scenario rather than sitting in a boardroom has power in itself,” Muncaster said. And that, she added, allows for progress that may not happen in an office setting.

Watch for more on the Treetop Adventure course and other summer offerings at ski resorts around the state in the Fall Road Trips special section included in the September issue of Wyoming Business Report.