Sally McCoy has spent more than 30 years as an operating executive in the outdoor, bike, and sporting goods industry in leadership positions at companies such as CamelBak, The North Face, Sierra Design, and Ultimate Direction. Additionally, she has served and is currently serving on a number of boards related to conservation and the outdoor industry. A recipient of the Outdoor Industry Leadership Award, the Pioneering Woman Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Camber (formerly OIWC), McCoy is well-positioned as a keynote speaker to give her presentation, “Courageous Leadership: Adventure’s Key to Success,” at the Adventure Travel World Summit, being held 16-19 October in Salta, Argentina. As a sneak peek to her keynote address, she offered the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) her perspectives on working as a leader in today’s industry marketplace.
ATTA: As you’ve worked in the outdoor industry over the years, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced specifically as a woman?
McCoy: It’s hard to know, because I haven’t been anything else. I certainly get asked to speak on that topic all the time. I’m grateful for Jerry Stritzke, the current CEO at REI, for being a great ally and understanding that it’s important to have men talk on that topic as well. There were many women involved in retail in opening the specialty stores, but there were very few leaders of the brands, Patagonia being the big exception at the time, and there still aren’t a great number of women represented at the highest echelons of the leadership in the industry.
I think the outdoor industry, while having progressive values, has not always taken steps to achieve more diversity of all sorts because people did not understand that it takes conscious effort sometimes. We all have unconscious biases. We also need to build recruiting pipelines to communities different from us. We must diversify our talent as we diversify our customers. It could be that adventure travel faces that too, but the outdoor industry certainly faces that. In the U.S., it mirrors the society here, and in Europe, it somewhat mirrors the society there.
ATTA: What are some of the qualities or characteristics you see in successful leaders?
McCoy: I think good leaders, regardless of the space, are able to call on multiple leadership styles. You have to be able to paint a vision of where you’re going to go. You have to be able to motivate people. And there are different leadership styles for doing that. I think anyone who leans completely on one leadership type versus using a variety of styles will not be as successful. You have to be decisive as well as compassionate. You also have to be aware of cultural sensitivities and how to be respectful and still navigate in a complex and multicultural world.
To be an authentic leader, you absolutely have to be aware of yourself and care tremendously about others and the mission of what you’re doing. That is an everyday process that you need to evolve. It is not as simple as getting up every day and writing down the three things you need to do. That is a good habit and will make you more efficient, but that alone is not going to make you a leader.
Every time I’ve been honored to be in a leadership position, it’s been measured by what we accomplish as a team, and that’s an incredible feeling. You know you’re a leader when the team is functioning really well, and they’re functioning really well without you. There’s a collective agreement on what to do and how to go. That’s when you know you’re in the sweet spot.
ATTA: Do you think leadership skills are learned skills? If someone wants to be a leader, can he/she become a leader?
McCoy: Yes, I think so. In my experience, you have to keep evolving and changing your leadership skills, and I think first and foremost, you have to keep evolving your own development. It’s not like you arrive on the mountaintop and just stay there. I think understanding psychology and statistics are great thresholds to leadership but they’re not enough. You need to have a genuine concern for understanding people. And you need to have a genuine concern for what you’re actually trying to do and be able to communicate and translate that.
I think leadership relies upon getting honest feedback. If you want to build a great company, it can’t be out of fear. It needs to be collaborative but within a context that is understood.
ATTA: How, if at all, has leadership changed in the industry over the years?
McCoy: I think today it is incredibly different. When I first came of age in the business, it was dominated by the Baby Boomer generation and the digital age had not begun. Now you have multiple generations in the market. The market environment is radically different. The world has gotten smaller through innovation. The smartphone has changed the way people travel and also the way people communicate and buy. It’s a very, very complex environment and much faster-paced. It is also more transparent. What has not changed is that people want to be a part of and support a business that has products and values they believe in.