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The View from Everest: A C-Suite Perspective

By Liz Nickles

everestThe air is thin. The risk is great. The path can be treacherous and is not often clear. The skills to succeed involve talent, teamwork, leadership and decision-making under constant stress and blinding-pace change. A misstep can be fatal, success inspirational. Climbing the 29,035 feet to the summit of Mt. Everest, the world’s most challenging peak—or helming a global organization in the most challenging times the modern world has known—have much in common. Today’s C-level executives—CEO, CFO, COO, and their peers—inhabit a rarified atmosphere and face unique challenges.

In the past, meaning as recently as ten years ago, a C-level executive could often succeed merely by staying the course and exhibiting strong leadership skills. Today, he or she must be much more of an elite business athlete—navigating from peak to crevasse to icefall, often within days. It should not be surprising that a 2010 global survey of over 1,000 CEO’s by IBM showed creativity appearing for the first time as one of the most valued C-level skillsets.

It’s interesting to compare a list of mandatories for Everest expeditions, as compiled by successful summiters, with the challenges of today’s C-suite. Having advised as well as been a member of C-level executives of organizations ranging from the boutique to the global, I realized that Everest Rules are beneficial, if not life-saving, to both. (Full disclosure: I have never climbed Everest.) Here are a few highlights:

1. Even if you are part of an experienced team, take control of your own gear and decisions.
At the C-level, your team is critical, but, as Truman said before he dropped the bomb, the buck stops here. At a major financial institution I advised during a merger, none of the global IT systems were on the same platform.  The CEO called the top-level IT team into his office.  How long, he asked, would it take to fix this situation and get on one platform?  One year, he was told. Wrong answer, said the CEO.  The job needed to be done in 4 months.  He would prioritize it.  Impossible said the IT team. The CEO then said something along these lines:

“My assistant is waiting outside this door with a letter of resignation from everyone in this room.  If you can’t get this job done in 4 months, please sign it on your way out. Now, those who have re-thought this and feel they can deliver, you are welcome to stay.”

Everybody stayed, and the job was completed in 4 months.

2. Start early.
On Everest, a late start is a suicide start.  In a change management environment, a late start is a non-start. Starting does not mean bolting out of the gate with a “ready, fire, aim” mentality, or even taking action.  It means anticipating the trends before they happen, monitoring the data, and gaining first-mover advantage.

3. Respect the weather.
When the climate changes on Everest, those who plow forward regardless, seduced by the nearness of the summit, are risking their lives and the lives of their team. The volatility of today’s socioeconomic climate is equally precipitous. Those CEO’s who ignored the signs of approaching storm clouds in 2008 paid the price. The view from the top means the C-suite has the best perspective to spot weather harbingers.

4. Use the ropes.
This is the technical piece: checking the screws and the ropes at all times. Today, there is one word for taking the basics on faith:  Madoff.

5. Know yourself.
Positions in the C-suite are not earned without a wealth of self-knowledge and expertise.  Extreme climbs can trick the brain with oxygen deprivation, causing false senses of depression or euphoria.  Markets and conditions that do loop-the-loops can do the same. It’s your experience and self- grounding that will see your company through. Trust it.

6. Know your tools.
Preparation is the backbone of success and, on Everest, called “the key to survival.”  For eight years, I had an advisory role on a global oil account. There was no way to predict the volatility of the market, which could be, and was, struck by shortages, surpluses, or political upheaval at any moment.  All members of the C-suite of the oil company were experts in scenario planning and required that we receive similar training.  There were pre-planned scenarios for every situation in place at all times. There was no way to control the circumstances, but they knew how to control their own response. This oil company has not suffered from the disastrous actions of some of its competitors.

7. Don’t climb the icefall too late in the day.
First-mover advantage is competitive advantage, but must be executed strategically and with judgment, whether on the Lhotse Wall or on Wall Street.

Finally, this quote says it all:
“Everest is very easy to climb—only just a little too high.”
— Andre Roch

© 2023, Liz Nickles & Associates, Inc.

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