When Mom’s the CEO

Kim Schaefer, CEO of Great Wolf Resorts Inc., describes her career strengths as trust in her team, hard work, loyalty to her company, and equal parts passion and focus. But she quickly dispels the notion that she is the stereotypical, one-dimensional Type A executive.

Schaefer, 45, is a dedicated mother. Parenting complements her leadership at the publicly traded company, which operates 11 resorts, each with indoor water parks and wide-ranging family entertainment.

“My kids keep me grounded,” Schaefer says. “Being an involved mother makes me a better person. I’m learning life lessons that I bring to the company—how to compromise, how to deal with consequences. The decisions you make for your kids can be similar to those you make in dealing with employees.”

In the fall of 2010, Schaefer became the first female CEO to slip into her company’s rank and file for the CBS reality series Undercover Boss. Although she was always interested in fostering an employee-friendly work environment, she gained new insights by working incognito alongside other employees, as well as an even greater appreciation of their struggles to juggle family and work life.

“The people I surround myself with every day are my biggest influencers and motivators. I’ve learned the most from my employees; I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people,” she says.

As a result of her Undercover Boss experience, Schaefer has initiated new programs, including creating the position of corporate director of organizational development. The new director is working with her to develop programs allowing Great Wolf employees to have more face time with their families. Schaefer appreciates the fact that their personal lives play a major role in their work performance.

The servant-leadership culture at Great Wolf inspires managers to make it a priority to satisfy employees’ needs to grow, achieve and ultimately become servants themselves to customers and co-workers.

And Schaefer is happy to be that servant, identifying and then satisfying the high-priority needs of others at work and, of course, at home.

But her schedule includes time for fitness, mainly walking a brisk 15-minute mile, a regimen that’s as easy to accomplish while traveling to Great Wolf resorts around the country as it is at her home in Wisconsin. “All I have to do is pack my shoes.”

And one September weekend each year, Schaefer participates in the 50-mile MS Wisconsin Challenge Walk. “My sister has [multiple sclerosis] and I sign up to give myself a push,” says Schaefer, again alluding to the importance of putting the priority on her calendar. “I train for it. I recruit others from work for the walk,” encouraging them to be fi t and build energy to meet workplace challenges, too.

Because of Schaefer’s professional demands, she and her husband have made some nontraditional choices on the home front. “Dave is a stay-at-home dad, so the kids have a parent around all the time. With my work and travel schedule, it is good to have balance and stability with two busy kids,” she says.

For Schaefer, meeting corporate, family and personal needs still involves juggling, and there’s not much time for frivolity if it doesn’t further her goals and priorities. But it’s that kind of discipline and focus that’s powered her rise at Great Wolf.

“I’ve always been willing to do whatever the company needs, whatever is most effective for the company,” she says. “I’m a fan of [Stephen Covey’s] ‘Circle of Influence.’ That’s where you do a good job in the area you’re assigned, your area of expertise.” You set that as your priority, she explains, and then “you’ll see your circle of influence grow because people will ask for you [because they respect your performance and skills]. You’ll be included and become an expert in more things.”

Her willingness and proficiency in tackling all kinds of assignments have given Schaefer a circle of influence throughout her organization. She paid her dues—and continues to do so—so she can carve out family time without workplace repercussions. “Some days the company needs me more than the family does. I put in the 16-hour days when I have to, and some workdays are four hours.

“I’ve never apologized for leaving to pick my kids up from school.… If my daughter’s dancing, I’m going to be there.” She also makes time for her children’s sports, coaching youth soccer as well as cheering from the sidelines for her daughter, Sammie, 16, and son, Maxwell, 13.

During her 13-plus years at Great Wolf, Schaefer’s roles have included brand development, marketing, chief brand officer and chief operating officer. Before joining the Great Wolf startup and its entrepreneur track, she was in public accounting.

When she took over as Great Wolf CEO on Jan. 1, 2009, “it was an uncertain time—facing a recession, which was uncharted territory. Everyone was looking to me to handle it,” Schaefer says.

“What I learned was that every day you come in and realize you have to give everybody what they need to know to do their jobs. You must tell the truth. People want to know whether they will still have jobs, and you can’t promise that they will. You must communicate what you’re doing, that you’re all in it together. You must communicate more and say that the company must survive or none of us will have jobs.”

During this difficult period, Great Wolf shifted its focus from development to sales ($220 million annually), eliminated one department and laid off employees, which was “tough,” Schaefer admits. “You have to make it about the company, not the individual, and explain why you made the decisions you did. That kept morale up.”

At the end of the day, family support helped her recharge so she could return to face the daunting challenges with vigor and focus. “We’ve been fortunate that the business has held up well, with only a slight downturn,” she says.

Overall, although there sometimes are sacrifices, Schaefer attributes her just-do-it approach to a fulfilling personal and professional life this way: “My one-word definition of success is passion,” she says. “Life is not about regret; it’s about today.”


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