I have enjoyed the whole process of creating, publishing and marketing a book and the subsequent author events, book tours and responding to corporate invitations to speak at their events. After speaking at a conference or corporate meeting, invariably one of the first questions I get is “what have you learned from your escapades climbing mountains?”
In answering, I have surprised myself with how mountains are a fitting metaphor for meeting business as well as personal challenges. They both entail setting a goal, planning and preparing the process, dealing with adversity, challenge and even crisis, engaging a team – and experiencing the joy of success.
It is not so much that I learned these principles for the first time climbing mountains, but rather the experience helped me put into words the beliefs I had practiced over the years as a CEO, a Board Chairman and a business-venture advisor.
Setting a Clear Objective
I do not set out on a mission until I have a crystal-clear view of the objective and I can communicate it to my team in the simplest and clearest way. I have found equally in personal and business life that once an objective is crystal clear, my eyes open to opportunities for progress towards it – opportunities I would not have otherwise noticed. To others, opportunities that lead to success seem like strokes of luck, but in fact I have been manufacturing my own luck by setting a clear objective and making sure the whole team understands it and jumps at opportunities to further it. This is easy in climbing – the objective is the summit. Very clear, very simple, no distractions. It is a good metaphor.
Dealing with an Overwhelming Challenge
I have always felt that meeting and overcoming a big challenge is best accomplished by breaking the challenge down into smaller challenges, prioritizing and solving them piece by piece until success. I can’t think of anything that better exemplifies this approach than climbing a big mountain, I rarely attempt to look towards summit even if it is visible along the way – it always looks too far and too difficult. It is far more rewarding to pick a nearer term goal – a tree, or rock or cliff or whatever and focus on getting just to there. When I do, it feels like accomplishment, and then I pick the next do-able piece to bite off. This almost always works in business and in that environment you can even delegate some of the pieces to others on the team.
Mountaineers on technical climbs break down a summit attempt into “pitches.” These are segments of a climb that can typically be protected by ropes and belays. Each pitch can have its own strategy that the lead climber on that pitch has to discover and execute. In no way is that lead climber thinking about the total climb to summit. The lead’s job is to get up the next 100’ or so and set some protection along the way so the climbers below can come up more safely. At that point, the lead might be handed off to another climber to figure out the next pitch. That is not unlike a business leader delegating pieces of a total assault on an objective, one piece at a time, some delegated to others on the team.
In going after a big challenge with unknowns, the rule I follow is to keep making forward progress, no matter how slowly and I don’t quit. On a mountain, any climber will tell you there are moments where you wonder if you can go on – that’s the time to break the problem down into even smaller pieces and go for the nearest one.
I keep in mind a great quote from Mohammed Ali: “to win you must have the will and the skill, but the will is more important than the skill.” That describes the “don’t quit” commitment in a fewer words than I could have done.
With every problem, I start out assuming there is a solution. If it is a tough problem, I still assume there is a solution, but I just have not found it yet. I keep looking, and if I have a team, we divide up the challenge and explore in parallel. The mantra is still: do not quit, look inside the box and outside the box, and then pursue the tactic that is making the best progress. A saying I have used often about how to develop a strategy is to try a bunch of tactics, measure and pick the one that is winning and make it into a strategy. That has worked so many times for me in business and in mountain climbing. Much better than brainstorming for a few days in an offsite meeting.
The best example of problem solving comes right out of my book. On my first trip backpacking with a tent, food, and other supplies up 2500 feet and 8.5 miles to a lake in anticipation of a climb early the next morning I met a wall. I was still a novice and had loaded up my pack with all kinds of things I didn’t really need – it was heavy, but when I strapped it to my back at the trailhead, I felt like I could handle it. Then 5 miles and 1000 feet up the trail I could not take another step. I had no strength left. There was no choice that day but to turn around, even though I was with my son and brother, who I told to go on.
As I made my way down the trail, I was in a deeply negative mood since I took the failure as an indication that this was the end of my brief climbing passion. But as I hiked down the five miles, my problem-solving mind took over. Before I knew it, I was dissecting the problem into smaller pieces – too much weight, not enough fitness. What if I lost some weight off my body? Could I drop poundage out of my pack, either with a lighter pack or by packing fewer items? And what if during spring before the start of hiking/climbing season I hiked up a nearby ski mountain a bunch of times before attempting something more serious?
By the time I got to the bottom of the trail, I realized I had a game plan – a bunch of pieces, each one had a possible solution and therefore looked more achievable than my earlier morose mood had concluded. I became excited and motivated. By the next summer I had lost 22 pounds off my body, 9 pounds out of my pack and I had hiked up a 1700’ ski mountain 20 times in 40 days before the start of the summer. I went back to that very same hike and climb. That time I crushed it – I got all the way to the lake (Snowmass Lake) with energy to spare – and climbed that fourteener, Snowmass Mountain, with my son the next day!
THAT felt good.
There is nothing more infectious than a person who is positive, passionate about a cause or goal and confident there will be success even when there is yet no proof. Leaders who motivate teams have those qualities and people gravitate towards where the leader is headed. Most people are not leaders, although some could be – but everyone wants to be part of a forward-moving, confident and optimistic team with a mission that is motivating and with achievements along the way. In the mountains, I found that my passion and joy for still being able to reach a high summit despite my advanced age, motivated climbers more skilled and more fit than I to be my “team” helping me to go for it. It got more intense when I set the goal to climb all 58 mountains in the Rockies over 14,000 feet. My team stuck with me, despite my slower speed and lesser abilities – we had FUN!
They were so engaged, when we got the 58th and final summit, there was quite a crew of friends and climbing buddies there to celebrate at the end of the day!