Never say never; nothing is impossible, and anything can happen.
If your dreams don’t require a team, they are too small. After every mountain, particularly the tough ones like Mt Robson, McKinley, or the Matterhorn, I always say, “That’s the last one, and I’m never doing that again.” But, in typical fashion for me, months after my last trip, I started to dream about what’s next, what could be interesting, fun, and a real challenge to do with someone.
I recently connected with accomplished mountaineer and AMGA guide Jacob Dans out of Canmore, Canada, and we hatched a plan to team up and attempt Mt. Sir Donald. Named after the first Canadian Prime Minister, serving from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891, it’s a significant mountain, towering at 3,284m on the Rogers Pass. We fixed our minds on the NW Route along an intimidating rocky ridge with colossal drops on either side. The peak is considered one of North America’s fifthly classic mountains to climb, and we had it in our sights. It was a noble objective.
An extended few days of climbing resulted in a successful summit.
Trying to pack a big mountain into a few days can be challenging with life and work. Our first day was spent getting to the base camp high in the bolder field. It took a few hours, and upon arrival, our camp quickly established below the col in the mountain’s shadow amongst rocky scree.
Jacob and I began with a classic summit start at 4 am the next day. After hours of rock climbing ~700m in vertical gain and unnerving exposure, we made the summit around 11 am. The views from the top were spectacular, looking around at various peaks, valleys, and glaciers. We returned to our camp at 2 pm and the car park at 6 pm, making for a long 14-hour day. We estimated 14 rappels on the descent and some considerable down-climbing. It was a long and arduous day, and judging by the various cuts and scraps on my hands, arms and legs, I pushed myself.
Teamwork makes all the difference.
Reflecting on our collective success, I was out of my comfort zone, but you need to push yourself to achieve great things, just like in business. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Furthermore, the recipe for success on complex objectives is definitely teamwork. As they say, it takes a village, and so much more can be achieved collectively.
So, what is this teamwork thing? How do principles in mountaineering apply to business? What did I learn from my recent rocky exploits?
- A shared mission – You must have a common goal or mission. In mountaineering, it’s simple. Get to the top of this high mountain together, quickly and safely. In business, sometimes employees and even leaders can be confused and might learn a thing or two from mountaineering. The conflicting direction between executives, changing direction to meet different customer or shareholder needs, or the middle management disconnect can mean the mission is unclear. Alignment so that teams are marching or, in my case, climbing in the same direction is vital.
- Advance planning together – Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with a company based in the U.K. called Mission Excellence. They are basically a bunch of retired air force pilots from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. who share insights on leadership and high-performance teaming from the cockpit of fighter jets and applications to business. Thrilling stuff, and from a planning perspective on Mt. Sir Donald, we applied many of these principles that Mission Excellence promotes. For example, the importance of timeline – how much time can we be on the mountain given the weather? What threats exist, and being honest as to what we’re up against? What assets do we have, including our strengths and weaknesses? What tactics are we going to use to get up the mountain? And, finally contingencies and the importance of making high-pressure decisions in a low-pressure environment.
- Clear team expectations – As we sat in our small base camp ahead of the climb to the summit, Jacob explained his thoughts on the mission at hand. He made it clear that if the weather got bad, what our turnaround points looked like. We both understood that safety was paramount. The mountain will always be there for another day to climb. We understood that getting to the top was a bonus and were aligned on what was important. This conversation upfront was no different in the board room or daily scrum. Being clear about expectations of success, outcomes, how groups should work together, and the final product and service delivery makes for a better working environment. There are and should be no surprises.
- Aligned and sequenced execution pace – In mountaineering, external conditions can change on a dime with catastrophic consequences. As I think about my recent exploits on the mountain, I appreciate the importance of moving quickly together to avoid the weather system fast approaching, which could have left us in dangerous wet and slippy climbing conditions. I was also the slower climber on our team, so Jacob adjusted his pace to match mine. Business pace is also critical between different people and groups, especially when considering various projects and initiatives an organization is undertaking. Michael Watkins explains in his seminal HBR article that overwhelming employees with too many projects can halt any company. Work must be sequenced, coordinated, and adequately paced to ensure sustained success. Furthermore, an organization only moves at the speed of the slowest cog.
- Different vantage points – Astraunat Neil Armstrong once said, “When you get to different vantage points, it changes your perspective. It allows you to see things you should have seen a long time ago.” I think it’s always crucial in business and when working on projects with clients to pause and ask what others see you don’t. Everyone brings a different perspective, and combined with yours can make for a powerful combination. On Mt. Sir Donald Jacob and I constantly pointed out various risks to stay safe, such as loose rocks, better ways to climb up a particular section of the rock face, or weather systems changing in real-time.
- Continuous learning from others – You always learn from your teammates when mountaineering or in any sport. I was rusty on Mt. Sir Donald, having not climbed for over a year. Still, I tried to get into the mindset that I don’t have all the answers, and although I’m experienced and have climbed worldwide, I can always learn. I needed to check myself, listen, ask, and learn from my teammate. With Jacob, as the day of climbing progressed, he did an excellent job explaining and pointing out my mistakes. Still, he did it in a way that I felt open to the opportunity to learn. It’s the same in business. Within and between teams, people must keep an open mind, ask, not tell and explore the opportunity to learn in any situation or project, however terrible it seems. Humility is key.
- Relentless communication – American basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski once said, “Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication,” and he’s right. No other factor plays a more important role in trust and teamwork. Communication is how we keep everyone informed, aligned and coordinated. On our climb, communication was constant between Jacob and me. We regularly discussed fatigue, risks, safety, weather, gear, and progress. In business, it’s no different, and as soon as communication breaks down, you’re headed for the cliff face.
Combing efforts leads to mission possible.
So, what does this all mean? Having climbed another mountain and wrecked my body, I’m reminded of the power of teamwork. It takes effort, thoughtfulness, constant practice, and mighty things that can happen if done right. As I initially stood at the foot of Mt. Sir Donald, looking up and feeling a bit overwhelmed, I realized afterwards that impossible dreams become a possible reality through teamwork and collaboration.
Authored by Dr. Lance Mortlock (EY Canada Managing Partner, Energy & Haskayne School of Business Adjunct Associate Professor).