Leadership For Thriving Inside And Out: Wisdom From Canyon Ranch

Blog 174 LuckowI love the hunt for people and organizations reinventing leadership! They are part of a growing global movement to evolve the drive to lead from me to we, from managing resources to uplifting people and whole systems, from fixing problems to transformative change, from scarcity to abundance. In the past I labeled this wellbeing leadership; today I simply believe this leadership approach—regardless of what it’s called—is more effective and relevant given the complexities we face in our organizations, societies, and personal lives.

So, I was delighted to recently meet Josh Luckow, Executive Director at Canyon Ranch, a world leader in healthy living and luxury spa vacations on land and at sea. Canyon Ranch has a long history of promoting a holistic approach to wellness—yet I know from years of working in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries that organizations can say they are committed to health yet themselves be sick. I’d heard Canyon Ranch had cracked the code for leading wellbeing in the marketplace and exemplifying wellbeing in the heart of their operations and culture…

Me: What does it mean to lead in a way where people thrive?

Josh: I love that question. What drives me and Canyon Ranch is unleashing and actualizing the full potential of people. We are blessed to have passionate staff. We hire people that are very energetic, and it is important to give them the right amount of resources and autonomy to master their knowledge and craft. Yet we also realize the pursuit of mastery is a team effort. We employ people that appreciate the value of each other, and we structure work to facilitate sharing. Through our culture of passion and collaboration, we achieve a vision and outcomes together that individuals cannot accomplish on their own.

Me: To me you are describing a real partnership between Canyon Ranch as an organization and the people who work there. I can remember a few decades ago the organization-employee relationship was more often like parent and child, yet our clients are shifting to a partnership model as well. Why does this work for Canyon Ranch?

Josh: A critical factor for us has been adopting Servant Leadership as our leadership style. It is extremely important our team members know: the leaders work for you, not the other way around. In the role of leader, it is our responsibility to make sure people have the right resources and conditions for thriving, and to help them engage in work that draws on their deeper purpose and passions.

At Canyon Ranch, when someone is unfulfilled by their job or their work doesn’t match their inherent strengths and interests, we look for positive ways to reassign them. We don’t want to lose them. Yet if we don’t have a satisfying job opportunity, we do whatever we can to support them in finding it elsewhere.

This same spirit of support goes for our guests. When Mel Zuckerman and Jerry Cohen founded Canyon Ranch in the 70’s, they did not have a background in a service business. They weren’t from the hospitality industry or healthcare. Instead, they were astute businessmen. One of them had a profound personal experience from which he birthed a vision for a holistic model of wellness. To bring that vision to reality, these two men needed the help of exceptionally passionate and driven individuals. As brilliant as the founders were, they knew orchestrating their vision would only happen through the power of a collective, and this early recognition set the tone for the collaborative model of operating and servant leadership style we use today.

Me: You say the founders were brilliant. It sounds like they also had a great deal of humility.

Josh: I agree. They fostered an egalitarian environment for our staff and guests. Mel’s life partner Enid Zuckerman, steeped in wellness disciplines herself, also played a critical role to ensure a feminine energy and sensibility flowed through our culture and operations. Today, from physician to housekeeper we all add value toward Canyon Ranch’s mission.

For instance, a few years ago a guest was trying to quit smoking. The housekeeper servicing their room could tell they were having a hard time weaning themselves off cigarettes. Each day, the housekeeper put the number of flowers in the guest’s room which equated to their success. If the person smoked two cigarettes less one day, they got two flowers. Three less, three flowers. The housekeeper’s actions were completely unprompted. We don’t have a standard operating procedure to reward guests with flowers! But the guest claimed that housekeeper gave them the motivation and stamina to succeed.

Me: That is a story of deep caring. It reminds me of a heartfelt interview I did with Richard Oliver, president at THORLO, a sock manufacturer that begin as a contract sock manufacturer for the military decades ago. At some point in their history, they decided wellbeing in relationships is what truly matters most. So, they invested in building a sustainable community—where people make healthy relationships with themselves and others a priority—and they say it is among the core assets of their business today. How does that play out at Canyon Ranch?

Josh: The value we create is not simply a list of services. We offer a safe place for personal exploration, where an individual can go deep and wide in experimenting with options for enhancing health and wellness.

Our brand also holds relevance throughout an individual’s life span. A few months back, for example, I ran into a guest in our healthcare area, a beautiful courtyard with an array of health disciplines—physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, chiropractors, physical therapists, spiritual advisors, and so on. Even after thirty years of coming to Canyon Ranch, he had no idea our healthcare options were so wide-ranging, integrated, and advanced. A significant health issue had surfaced in his life; now the healthcare side of our organization was relevant to him personally.

Another example is in our metaphysical services. We offer astrology, Tarot card readings, clairvoyance, numerology, handwriting analysis … you name it. You might not think of the esoteric fitting into our business. It works very well for us, however, because our environment encourages personal discovery, our culture is strong, and our credentials are high; people trust what we offer.

Me: You are legitimizing personal discovery and transformation as an approach to vitality and wellbeing. 

Josh: Yes! And to pull that off within a resort setting has been miraculous.

Me: I hear you are forging new lines of business outside the original resort setting too—experimenting with Canyon Ranch in urban settings, restaurants, and cruise ships. How does the authentic core of your organization support this growth?

Josh: At the heart of what we’ve created—and are continually nurturing—is a wellspring. From that wellspring, we believe many opportunities will flow.

Let’s take, for instance, corporate wellness. Many senior C-suite, Fortune 100 executives have come to our resort for years. They bring their teams too, and we partner with them to bring our value to their work environments. We believe our corporate wellness market will get even stronger as more and more companies realize they are attempting achieve high performance with an unhealthy, bone-tired workforce. Cultivating employee vitality is critical to their business success.

We also have a nonprofit called Canyon Ranch Institute. Through it, we mine, hone, curate, and share our expertise with low income, underserved communities. Our goal is to uplift them and help them enhance their health status.

Our Canyon Ranch restaurants provide guests a healthy cuisine, as well as education. Guests get opportunities to create a positive relationship with food through participating in demonstration kitchens and cooking lessons, shopping for food, learning about nutritional value of eating well, and so forth. This fully-rounded culinary and restaurant experience has taken us years to sharpen. Now we are taking our model outside of the Canyon Ranch wellspring to restaurants in urban and other settings.

Me: I appreciate the extent to which you, as an organization, allow yourself to incubate and birth something that’s authentic to your values, plus still maintain care and concern about how that is implemented. As you grow globally, it would be easy to productize your value so much that the essence of Canyon Ranch gets lost. In that light, what question are you holding for Canyon Ranch’s future?

Josh: One question I have is larger than our organization: What is the appetite for true change in the healthcare and wellness industry? Many healthcare systems have an aspiration to become more wellness-oriented and integrative in their approaches. But is there a real conviction to make it happen?

The need for living well is growing globally. Technology is among the macro trends prompting it. As a former software developer and technology consultant, I’m keenly aware of the shadow side of high-tech; technology can be all-consuming and create superficial rather than genuine human connections. People go to bed next to their smartphone because companies demand their attention 24/7. This approach to work is not humanistic or natural. Nor is it sustainable. Plus, deploying technology in this way underserves the evolution of human consciousness.

On the bright side, this always-on pressure is creating a backlash—it is causing more and more people to seek the kind of experiences that allow them to authentically reconnect with others and themselves.

I believe our entire industry can support people in recovering their essential vitality. But do we have the conviction to be it ourselves? 

Me: At the start of our conversation, you spoke about servant leadership to support Canyon Ranch employees and guests. It feels to me that we’re now talking about Canyon Ranch and other committed organizations engaging as servant leaders to evolve a new consciousness and capabilities for thriving in the world.

Josh: Absolutely!

If you’d like to learn more about our approaches to build thriving leaders and organizations, please contact me at renee@wisdom-works.com.

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