The C-Spot | Smartwool's Mark Satkiewicz explains why gender diversity is critical to success

Mark Satkiewicz has been at the helm of Smartwool for just over 10 years now and has developed a company culture that is legendary not just for its gender balance (Smartwool has what is likely the highest percentage of women in executive and upper management positions in our industry), but for it’s overall employee satisfaction. Developing that culture didn’t happen overnight, but it has been ingrained in Smartwool’s DNA from the start. We spoke with Satkiewicz about how he did it, and how other companies can follow suit.
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Smartwool CEO Mark Satkiewicz Photo: Courtesy of Smartwool

Smartwool CEO Mark Satkiewicz Courtesy: Smartwool

SNEWS: It’s widely accepted that if you’re a woman in the outdoor industry (or anyone in the outdoor industry, really), Smartwool is one of the best places to work. Is that something that started happening organically or was it a conscious effort to recruit, retain, and embrace women on your staff?

Mark Satkiewicz: We’re 22 years into Smartwool now, and the first half of our journey into the business was about how do you survive. How do you take your entrepreneurial idea and make it profitable and start getting some brand equity? At that point the business didn’t have any significant cultural ambitions, they were simply solving a consumer problem. But once the business was sold in 2005 to Timberland, a new leadership team came in and our goal was to take it to the next level and really contribute to the industry, our communities and our team.

I came on board because I wanted to be in the outdoor space, live in the outdoors, recreate outdoors, and work for a premium brand with big opportunity. We began talking about the idea of "What does living the life we want really mean?" None of it was focused on men or women or gender at all, it was just the right thing to do for the business and how we wanted to work and live every day. We wanted good communication, trust, engagement, and we wanted to allow people to have a great career but also get outside a lot, and have the flexibility to attend to their family. So in 2007 we created the Go To Work Book, which was a guide to how we work and communicate, and what we can expect from one another. We started having all-company meetings, allowing people to understand corporate strategies. Every employee wants to understand where a business is going, how they can contribute and know that they are being heard. We found that we started attracting both men and women equally. And everyone here is passionately engaged and wants Smartwool to be successful.

SNEWS: Why is gender balance so important for companies?

MS: Just as in your investment portfolio or your diet or anything else, balance and diversity makes for the best results. You get a cross-section of ideas, and you can capitalize on the strengths of what men bring to the table and what women bring to the table. Data suggests that women are more engaging, better at problem solving, big picture thinking, multi-tasking, and have higher emotional and social aptitude, which is critical in the way brands are communicating today. Men have complimenting skill sets in all of these areas. You want a culture of respect where people are listening contributing opinions equally. If diversity is not part of your platform, you will struggle, because a lopsided culture just won’t be as effective.

SNEWS: Fifty CEOs have signed the OIWC pledge [which is a written commitment to promoting the participation of and leadership opportunities for women within their companies], and OIWC reports that some good progress is being made, but that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. What advice would you give other CEOs who have taken the pledge to start elevating women within their companies?

MS It’s true that it’s a long term process that won’t happen overnight. But there are three key things that executives should consider:

1-Create an environment of mutual benefit/mutual trust. At Smartwool, we’re not concerned when you come or when you leave, as long as you get your job done. Nobody wants their boss looking over their shoulder all of the time, but you have to hold people accountable and put agreements in place. If you can get this done, it inspires, energizes, and motivates people. Trust absolutely motivates productivity.

2-Engage, empower, and develop. As an executive, you can set the stage for employees to be successful by understanding their needs and wants, then supporting them with council, coaching, and mentoring. You need to build authentic relationships that brings out people’s passions, which deepens that trust. Empowerment gives your team the right to be great. Give them strategies and guardrails and frameworks. Make sure people aren’t spinning their wheels on things that don’t matter. Ensure that your staff and top performers are getting the right development tools. That’s on leadership to provide.

Smartwool closes up shop once a year and the whole company hits the slopes together. Photo:  Courtesy of Smartwool

Smartwool closes up shop once a year and the whole company hits the slopes together. They also hold 3 similar all-team events throughout the year. Courtesy: Smartwool

3-Eliminate ambiguity. Ambiguity is a killer. Leaders need to communicate with their staff so each individual knows where they stand and has the information to maximize their contribution. Don’t alienate anyone. Leaders need to have the right cadence on check-ins on how the employee is doing. It doesn’t take a lot to have your culture zig in a direction that you don’t want. Smart people go the wrong way when they haven’t spoken to someone of importance in a long time or are unclear their efforts are going in the right direction. Teach these things, push them down through your organization, then lead consistently.

SNEWS: How do you bring what you’ve learned about cultivating women in the workplace home to your girls?

MS: Every day Olivia (14) and Mia (9) see the cross section of what we do at Smartwool. They know that we make cool products, but when they visit the office they see a diverse, young, and mature workforce with an equal balance between men and women. They see that women are respected, they’re making decisions for the company. I often tell them that the sky’s the limit for them, and there’s no job they can’t have at Smartwool or anywhere else.

If there’s a C-level industry personality you’d like to hear from, or if you inhabit the corner office yourself and have some stories to tell, email us at snewsedit@aimmedia.com.

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