Summiting the leadership mountain Posted at 0:00, Tue, 10 December 2013 in Industry Insights

Parallels with climbing mountains and business leadership.

Once or twice a year I have a chance to recharge my batteries and get away from my normal work and family routine.

My passion is climbing mountains. I thrive on spending some time in the wilderness and actively seek out those places where you can’t be permanently connected to the world by smartphone, email and the web. Having a few weeks away from this always makes me realise how easy it is to forget the really important things in life.

Although I’ve climbed in New Zealand a few times before I hadn’t yet attempted Aoraki / Mt Cook, the highest peak in the country (Aoraki is the traditional Maori name for the mountain). So with a reasonable forecast ahead of us Jono my climbing buddy and I set off a few weeks ago to test our middle age fitness out against the wild Southern Alps.

So there I was, perched on a steep ice slope looking at the amazing scenery around me and realising how only a few days before I was buried in To Do lists, emails and reports. It was then I started thinking how different but in many ways very similar climbing mountains is to business leadership. Both have risk and reward, challenge and disappointment. The more I thought about it, the more the parallels came into focus. Here are some examples.

1- The importance of planning.
Just as good businesses plan well, so do good climbers. You can’t just turn up at the foot of a mountain face and expect to get to the summit without a plan. You look at the prevailing conditions, where others have gone before and how your fitness and equipment are suited to the route. Just like in business you formulate a plan and try and stick to it but as with budgets and market plans, the minute you lock it in, something changes and you have to readjust your plan. Flexibility is key in both worlds.

2- The need for stamina
Business success is more a marathon than a sprint. We are still reinventing ourselves at MitchelLake after 13 years of operation, which is one of the things I love about the professional services sector. You have to be committed to the long term and have the stamina and willpower to stick with it. Climbing usually involves hardship, long, days out in the elements and not much comfortable sleep. Determination and fortitude also therefore go a long way in mountaineering.

3- Selecting the right equipment
The tools you have in your climbing pack often determine how efficient and effective you can be on the mountain. Although it may not be about ropes, ice axes and crampons in the corporate world, (although some sharp ice axes could come in handy at times) the same rules apply. Keep your toolkit up to date and learn to use its contents properly.

4- Having the right people around you
When you’re climbing a mountain, the level of trust you have to have in those around you is extremely high. Having confidence in your partners’ ability, knowing that they are looking out for you at all times and everyone being 100% clear on the outcome you’re aiming for are all traits I look for when growing the MitchelLake team, just as I do when I’m choosing who to climb with.

5- Fuel intake
Fuelling your brain in business with the right knowledge, reading and education is critical for success. The energy and calories you burn when climbing also need constant upgrading and replacement. A big day in the mountains will see you get through an enormous amount of food and liquid. With the right intake on a regular basis you will make more informed decisions and have higher energy levels both of which are critical on and off the mountain.

5- Constantly assessing conditions
The business landscape we live in today is moving quicker than ever before. This is especially so in the digital, innovation and startup space that MitchelLake specialises in. What appeared to be the right direction last week may now be fraught with danger as new disruptive technologies are established and become the norm. In climbing the same rules apply, snow and ice conditions change all the time, crevasses can open up unexpectedly, the weather is usually fickle and you have to always have one eye on what’s going on around you and be prepared to change your intended route at any time.

6- The summit is only the half-way point
Achieving a stated business goal always comes with further challenges opening up.
The real test is perhaps what you do next? Reaching the summit of a mountain is the same as it’s only the half way mark. More accidents happen on the way down than on the way up, just when you get too relaxed and take things for granted. The real success is when you get to the bottom again with nothing having gone wrong.

So maybe my initial desire to take a break from the norm actually bought both worlds closer together. I’ve certainly come back with a greater appreciation of these parallels and maybe the two worlds are not as far apart as I used to think.

And as for our attempt on Mt Cook, a 12:30am start on a frozen night and 12 hours of climbing later, Jono and I were lucky enough to stand on the summit for a few precious minutes ( see the photo above). Conditions were perfect and we could see the oceans on both sides of the majestic South Island, a rare and spectacular sight. Another 7 hours to get down meant a 19 hour round trip. A big day but totally worthwhile.

As for what’s next, the list is long and there’s always climbing plans to make but for now I can perhaps use the experience outside of the office to get even better at taking the steps towards the summits in business we are aiming to climb. Maybe I will bring my ropes and ice axes into the office after all.