May 21, 2018

Careers, consulting, crevasses & cold – big mountains, big decisions and the lessons learned along the way

A passion for adventure balanced against a career in consulting has taught me a lot about the fine art of multi-tasking, deep breathing and smiling bravely through those moments when you realize that there are only 24 hours in the day and you've planned for 30. These are the moments when I find myself in the gym after a long day at work, gasping for breath on a treadmill whilst reading emails on my iphone and deciding what to have for my 11pm dinner once I've finished my third can of Red Bull. I’m exaggerating slightly – but you get my point..!

One of the most challenging parts of an expedition is in the preparation for the expedition itself – my experience in preparing for my expedition to climb Denali, the highest mountain in North America, has been no different. Managing work and personal commitments, time for training, charity fundraising, equipment organization, managing stakeholders, finances, and taking time out for myself - it's easy to become overwhelmed. And I have. 

Over the past few weeks I've had to consciously stop and take a few deep breaths, revisit the to-do checklist, re-define key dates, re-prioritize and let my body catch up with my brain. These are the times when I’ve really needed to focus and be disciplined in deciding what things on my 'to do' list relate directly to achieving my goals and which are just ‘nice to haves’.

Having been on over 25 major expeditions in the Himalayas, Andes, and the Alps over the past 9 years, I’ve realized that this planning and re-planning is a critical part of the process and will pay off in the longer-term. Discipline and rigor are critical in this preparatory stage so that I don't find myself on the mountain without a sleeping bag or return from an expedition without a job!

I’ve summarized below four key themes and lessons learned from expedition reflections and preparations...

Disciplinebe disciplined in your focus on attaining your goal. 

A focus on the end goal is a bit like having a personal GPS. Once you type your destination into a GPS, it cleverly spits out step by step details in how to get there. If only there was a GPS of life..! I’ve learned to manage goals by breaking key activities and events down into priorities: What needs to get done today? What can wait until tomorrow? What can wait until next week? Over my morning Nespresso, I spend the first 15 minutes of every day prioritizing so I know exactly what I have on my plate for the day ahead. There are plenty of apps (e.g. Trello, GTask, Tik Tik) out there that can help with this - Wunderlist is a personal favorite. 

Before every expedition I spend time thinking about my end-goal and the steps (real and proverbial!) required to achieve it. Is it the summit? Is it to raise money for a particular charity? Is it to improve my skills and fitness? Is it to experience a new part of the world? I then write down the activities required to achieve my goals in a step-by-step list. 

I’ve found that without this rigor and focus, I’m easily distracted ad diverted. As a highly skilled procrastinator this includes distractions like the dishes that need washing, the floor that suddenly needs vacuuming or the trip to the grocery store that just can’t wait. Just as a traffic accident, road congestion and construction requires the GPS to recalibrate, I’ve learned that my daily ‘to do’ list helps me to keep sight on goals no irrespective of the detours that pop up along the way. 

Commitment don’t give up when you’re forced beyond your comfort zone or when setbacks or disappointments happen. 

There’s a great quote by Kenneth Blanchard, ‘There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when it's convenient. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.” 

If I was only ‘interested’ in climbing Denali, I’d deprioritize training, planning, fundraising and expedition preparations, only focusing on the expedition when it was convenient.  Also, when on the expedition, I’d likely give-up with my first shiver in the -30-degree temperatures. Commitment to a project like Denali means that even when I’m exhausted from a long day of work, I still go to the gym to achieve my training goal. Similarly, it means that I’m laser-focused and committed to reaching the summit and descending safely, even when things get uncomfortable – which I anticipate will be regularly!

Those people who are successful in the mountains – as in life – are people who are unrelenting toward the pursuit of their goal. Sure, they experience setbacks and failures like everyone else. But what sets these people apart is their ability to get back on track and learn from their mistakes. Success and commitment to achieving a goal is about the ability to do this time and time again until they gain the prize that sets them apart.

A very recent example of commitment is the story of the 69-year old Chinese double amputee Xia Boyu. Last week on May 13th,  Mr. Xia summited Mount Everest on his fifth attempt after both feet were amputated in his first bid 43 years ago. In 1975, his team were trapped in a storm near the summit and he suffered severe frostbite, losing both his feet after he lent a teammate his sleeping bag.  In 1996, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. After recovering from cancer, he attempted the summit three more times in 2014, 2015, and 2016. In 2014, climbing season was cancelled due to an avalanche on Everest. His attempt in 2015 was called off after a magnitude-8.1 earthquake shook Nepal and triggered more avalanches. Then, in his fourth attempt in 2016, Mr Xia's dream seemed within reach - the team was just 300ft from the summit when a blizzard forced him to turn back… And then last week, on his fifth attempt, Mr. Xia achieved his dream of reaching the highest point on earth and becoming the second double amputee to ever do so.  A tremendous achievement and a true testament to commitment and an unrelenting pursuit of a goal.

Courage learn to say ‘no’. 

One of my favorite artists, Ed Sheeran once said, “I can’t tell you the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone’. How right he is..!

Learning to say ‘no’ takes courage and continues to be one the most challenging things I’ve had to learn in planning expeditions and everything that comes with it. Over the past few years, I’ve realized my people pleasing tendencies were creating stresses and inefficiencies which were impacting my work, personal life and time spent outdoors. Thanks to some great coaches and simple exercises in saying ‘no,’ I've begun to preserve my most valuable resource – time – while growing personally and professionally. By saying ‘no’ to some things, I’ve realized that I’m actually saying ‘yes’ to other things – for example, a steps toward a professional or mountaineering goal. Saying no to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill these commitments.

There are plenty of business books written on different ways to ‘say no’ and offering tips and tricks to help convert the ‘no’ into a yes. A few of my favorite tips are:
  • Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that.
  • Know your priorities. If you do have some extra time, ask yourself whether this new commitment is how you want to spend that time? 
  • Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word – it’s actually quite empowering. 
Creativitylook for ways to overlap things. 
Asking my boss for the two-months off to climb Everest was a nerve-wracking experience. I’d already listed out all of the reasons why he might say ‘no’ and hadn’t ever considered why he might say ‘yes’. As it turned out, he was an avid ‘arm-chair adventurer’, and immediately understood the drive-behind my nervous request. We spent the remainder of the meeting discussing the ‘leadership’ qualities of adventurers like Sir Ernest Shackleton and how these leadership qualities were also found in business leaders. My boss suggested that I conduct a presentation for one of his team meetings on ‘leadership lessons learned’ following my Everest expedition putting the lessons into the context of the project-based environment that I work in as a change management specialist. I obliged and a few months later following my return from Everest, was amazed at how much I’d learned from my interactions with our guide, other team members, the preparation for the expedition, and the challenges we faced individually and as a team on the mountain. 

From that first trip I started building a portfolio of “lessons learned” on a range of topics including risk management, decision making, communications, experiencing failure, and leading through adversity. Rather than seeing the time-off work as a ‘career limiting’ move, it became ‘career enhancing’, gave me confidence and independence and purpose. It tapped into my love of story-telling, adventure and I became a more effective consultant as a result.

A few years later I was approached by several colleagues to organize a charity trek of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to support one of our firm’s charity partners, Wellbeing of Women.  Our team raised 30,000 GBP with that first trek and helped fund critical research into the health and wellbeing of women and babies. The news of our success spread across the firm and subsequent trips were quickly organized. Today, nearly five years later we’ve organized 7 charity treks to Kilimanjaro and have also added Everest Base Camp to the portfolio.  We’ve raised over 250,000 GBP for the charity. Equally importantly, over 50 colleagues have become friends, have learned to fundraise and have experienced literal highs (and lows!) together, forging friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.

So what's next?

"A master in the art of living draws no distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both." An apt quote by British philosopher L.P. Jacks.

With just over two weeks before I depart for Denali, work commitments are largely organized, stakeholders are managed, bags are packed and I’ve only had a few ‘OMG’ moments on the treadmill - but most importantly, I am having fun, learning with every step of the journey - the consulting, crevasses, crampons, cold... and everything else.

My focus now turns to another goal - to raise funds and awareness for two incredible charities My goal is to raise $2,000 for Women's College Hospital (Canada) and 2,000 GBP for Wellbeing of Women (UK) to help fund critical and lifesaving research into cancers impacting the health and wellbeing of women and their families. Links are included below and all donations - no matter how big or small - are tremendously appreciated. 

So, if you've read all the way down of this article - brilliant and thank you (!) - I hope that you'll consider taking a quick minute to make a small donation to support lifesaving research.

Wellbeing of Women (UK):

Women's College Hospital (Canada):


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