On the way in this morning, something came to mind that I hadn’t thought of in a while. Several years ago, I was in charge of getting a guest speaker for a group kickoff event we were hosting at our main HQ location. Choosing the right speaker and getting approval was an interesting exercise in and of itself, but it was the speaker and her message that really resonated.
The speaker’s name was Alison Levine, a member of the first all-woman team scale Mount Everest. And at first, our executives had a hard time understanding how this topic about mountain climbing was going to play out to a group of corporate business people … and frankly, I had my concerns as well. But as Alison dove into the topic, more and more analogies to our everyday lives surfaced.
Vision (A Common Purpose)
At that time, fewer than a dozen American women had ever conquered the world’s highest mountain, and never together in a group. Now a common vision & purpose bound them. As I relate that to our roles as product management leaders, it is our responsibility to bring to light to a new endeavor and evangelize that vision as a means to inspiring others to understand and believe where perhaps they hadn’t before. The result is a higher order entity that is more than merely the sum of its parts. A team is established and animated toward a common purpose.
Strategy & Measuring Progress (Base camp)
One of the harsh realities of scaling Mount Everest is that above 19K feet the oxygen levels become so thin that the human body literally begins to deteriorate. The first order of business is to establish a base camp below 19K feet where the body can recuperate. Then an only then can you make a series of increasingly higher ascents, trekking back down after each to adjust to the dwindling oxygen.
Putting a plan in place to achieve a strategy is essential! But adjusting to the external environment is just as critical. Taking two steps forward, then one step back. Sometimes in order to move forward you have to take a step backwards. Regrouping at your base camp affords you the opportunity to regain perspective, to reassess the situation, and to adjust accordingly.
Work the Plan (Challenges & Setbacks)
The team encountered countless obstacles along their trek. From an originating team member pulling out prior to the trip; to avalanches; to death (another team dying on the very face they were going to face the next day); to fatigue, anxiety and doubt. The reality is that there will always be challenges and setbacks. Ensure you have a plan, and work the plan. As long as your vision & strategy are sound … stick to it. There will always be obstacles and people trying to throw you off plan.
Failure is not an option, until it is the right decision. Just 285 feet shy of the summit, the team turned back because of a change in the weather. Getting caught in inclement conditions at the top of a mountain is not ideal … and most accidents occur when people are tired and rushing things during the descent. As a leader, you have to understand the limitations of your team and your ability to succeed. Sometimes the right decision is to pull the plug (due to market conditions, investment priorities, etc).
Was it a difficult decision for the Mount Everest team? Absolutely! Was it the right decision? To a person the team would tell you yes. The all-woman team reached 28,750 feet … higher than any other point on earth. Do you consider that failure? I like the way one of the team members summarized things … “…the more I realize that if you try and you don’t make it, that’s not failure. To me the failure is if you don’t even try.”