Manage Like You Were Climbing a Mountain

For over 20 years I climbed mountains in the Pacific Northwest with a couple of friends of mine, Stuart and Jimmy.  The thing about mountain climbing is that it gives you a lot of time to think; because you are breathing so hard you really can’t talk or do much of anything else.  Over the years, it occurred to me that one should run a business exactly the way one climbs a mountain


Be Prepared.

Mountain climbing requires a lot of preparation, both physically and mentally.  I only went onto a mountain if I knew I was fit enough to get to the top.  I reviewed the routes in my head.  I was prepared for the pain, the lack of oxygen, the night after night in a tent sleeping on hard ground.  In business, you also need to be prepared.  Do your homework.   Make sure you know the topography before you set out to tackle the hill.  Be prepared for possible hardships.


Pick a Great Team.

Mountain climbing is a high risk endeavor.  It is a completely intimate experience with your climbing partners.  So is being in business.  You need to associate yourself with people you trust.  People with the right attitude.  People that will not let you down when the going gets tough.  Even a couple days on a mountain can be a nightmare if you are roped in with the wrong people. Pick good people.  Be selective.  Of course, when you’re in business your life doesn’t depend on it, but your livelihood does.  And the day will still go by a lot more pleasantly if you surround yourself with competent achievers.


Take Risks.

It would be very difficult to get to the top of any mountain without taking risks.  Being on a mountain at all is risky.  Being in business is risky also.  The reward associated with both endeavors is tremendous.  You have to think about your strategy, but over-thinking it or lingering  too long at important decision points  are mistakes.  To overcome the risks you need to make decisions very quickly.  Don’t believe me?  Try falling in a crevasse (I have, on Mt. Baker).  Over-thinking your situation will get you nowhere. You’re trapped in a huge hole in the ground.  Get out, NOW!


Be Flexible.

Even the best thought out plan is riddled with holes.  You cannot foresee all the obstacles. There is always something coming your way.  On a mountain it could be a landslide, falling rocks or a newly formed crevasse.  In business it could be a customer cancelling, a new customer with a big order you’re unprepared for, or your star employee leaving to pursue another opportunity.  In any case, it is important to be able to “adjust your swing” and adapt to the new situation.  My friend, Marj, used to always say “There is nothing as constant as change.”  She was right.  Be ready for surprises and face them with a calm demeanor.  Remember, you can always change course or pull back and attack the hill another day. Inflexibility can result in bad things. There are many routes to the top.  Be willing to try an alternate route when the one you are on becomes impassable.


Manage Your Inventory.

This concept has stayed with me my entire life.  When you are packing your backpack to go up a mountain, you have to have the right inventory – your life depends on it.  But too much inventory represents extra hardship and effort as you haul it up the hill.  Too much inventory in business is equally burdensome.  When I was a kid, I was a clerk at a major grocery store. The store manager was always reviewing the extra inventory in the back room to help reduce waste.  He wasn’t very understanding if we over-ordered something.   When I was an Industrial Engineer later in my career with the same organization, we would make store visits to help evaluate and improve performance.  I was always drawn to the back of the store to see what had been thrown away.  Anything that had been thrown away unopened represented wasted dollars – someone ordered too much.   The zeal to manage inventory has been with me ever since.


Have the Right Equipment.

Much like inventory, mountain climbers have to have the right equipment.  If you are trying to melt drinking water on a glacier with no stove, you won’t get very far.  Expense matters – when I started climbing, and I didn’t know if I was going to pursue it as a hobby, I bought a pair of wool pants at an Army/Navy surplus store in Pike Place Market.  They were something like $5 compared to the $200 you can pay for light, sexy climbing pants.  Once I decided climbing was something I was going to do a lot, I purchased the more expensive pants.  It’s okay to test the waters with an inexpensive prototype before paying big bucks for the machine of your dreams.  But don’t pursue your business without having the essentials.

Keep Up With Technology.

New technology keeps adding more fun and more safety to the sport of mountain climbing.  It is comforting to have a GPS and an emergency beacon in your pack in case of you get into trouble.  You know the helicopter will find you.  Back in the day, the only tool you had was your climbing route filed with the local park ranger.   Products keep getting lighter and more utilitarian.  In your business, it makes sense to weigh the benefits of new technology against the costs, but in many cases there will be technological advances available that will improve efficiency.  Be open to them.


Endurance Pays Off.

Be in it to get to the top.  I tell everyone who asks me about climbing to be ready to go to the top.  If you can’t see yourself at the top, you won’t succeed.  I once climbed the Shurman route on Mt. Rainier during a period of time when a huge crevasse had opened up near the summit.   It had turned away every single climber before us that weekend.  We talked with people at base camp who attempted the summit, and they all said it was too dangerous to pass.  Bernie, a friend who was roped in with us for the climb, asked if we were going to the crevasse in the morning and turning around.  “Bernie, put it in your mind that we are going to the summit, or we might as well stay in our sleeping bags and keep warm,” was my reply.  The next morning, we headed out with the thought of making it to the top. We jumped the crevasse and became the first people that made it to the summit in days. After that, others saw what we had done and copied us.  Reaching the top of a mountain takes faith and prayer and hard work and determination.  Succeeding in business does too. It is a long haul proposition.  Yes, there can be good luck at times, but most often, success comes from hard work.


Take Small Steps.

A wise man once said, “Every journey begins with a single step.”  A climb up a mountain, when seen as a whole, might seem like an insurmountable journey.  If I ever start to get discouraged, I take small steps. Even small steps, when coupled with determination, will get you to the top of the tallest mountain.  In your business, you always want to keep progressing.  If you start hitting the wall, go slower, but keep reaching for your goals.


Trust data, but be intuitive. 

Once we were in an avalanche chute on Mt. Deception.  I know, just that sentence sounds crazy.  “We were in an avalanche chute” probably shouldn’t be the start of any story, but there we were.  Everything seemed to be going well.  We were only 100-200 feet from the top of the wall. We were climbing the far side of the chute, and I kept getting a nagging feeling.  No data supported it – there was no reason to be alarmed, but I FELT something.  I kept nagging my co-climbers to turn around.  We were discussing why we should when, all of a sudden, half the hill started sliding away beneath us. We turned tail and ran across the sloughing snow as fast as we could, in time to reach a rock outcropping and sat and watched as tons of snow sailed 1,400 feet over a cliff beneath us.  We could have been dead if we had stayed where we were. Sometimes, it just pays to listen to that voice inside your head.   Don’t get me wrong, I believe in studying your data and relying on it, but sometimes numbers don’ tell the whole story. You have to be willing to trust your intuition as well.  Don’t get locked into one set of numbers or one strategy and be unwilling to survey your surroundings.    Always be willing to listen.


Keep your head. 

I have said this at work for a long time – “If you lose your head in an avalanche, you are dead.”  It pays to keep your wits about you and look for a way out.  It is the same in business.  Hopefully it never happens, but if big things come at you, keep calm, figure out your options and act on the best one.  Your partners or employees or coworkers will be impressed.  More importantly, they will stay calm too, creating a better climate in which to solve the crisis.


Enjoy the ride.

Lastly, enjoy the ride.  Mountain climbing is really hard.  It is a huge risk.  It is scary.  I would have never kept doing it if it also wasn’t so rewarding and fun. The view is definitely better from the top.  By doing the things I have mentioned in this article, you reduce risk and create an environment where the journey is almost as enjoyable as reaching the goal.  If you aren’t feeling rewarded or you aren’t enjoying the trip, you might be doing something wrong.   Enjoy the ride.  The people who depend on you will see that you are enjoying what you are doing. It’s contagious and it makes all the difference in the world.

Copyright 2012, Red Hawk Consulting, LLC.   All rights reserved.