I climb, and ski down, the highest mountains in the world for a living. There’s no arguing that risk is a huge part of my livelihood. It’s also the aspect of my work that fuels the adrenaline in me -- and in the clients I bring up and down the mountain, many of whom are in business themselves. They are learning the same lesson I am in our high-altitude travels: Calculated risk -- on and off the mountain -- is a key ingredient to success.
Our expeditions up mountains challenge our team members to expand their decision-making and leadership skills. Most of that, especially at high altitudes, involves managing risk. It’s a real-world training ground where taking the wrong chance can lead to either injury or death -- which makes mountaineering an effective, if ultimately unforgiving, teacher.
A large part of my success, both personally and professionally, can be attributed to more than a few risky choices I’ve made in life. But over the years I’ve come to discover it’s not actually the risk I cherish but the effective management of that risk -- and all the emotional strength and resolve that comes from making a practice of it.
So how do these same lessons transfer to the boardroom?
1. Successful outcome should outweigh risk level. Taking risks is not an invitation to live on the edge and act haphazardly. It is based on the premise that you are pushing the envelope to where no other man or woman will go -- but doing it in a very calculated way with a strong foundation beneath you and a plan to execute ahead of you. Always remember that the chance for successful outcome must outweigh the risk danger.
2. Never underestimate the importance of your team. At a high altitude, we know ahead of time we are going to exhaust ourselves both physically and mentally. As that exhaustion sets in, it’s the team, as a group entity, that keeps us safe and moving forward. We consult and check with each other frequently.
In business, it’s no different. Make sure you’ve chosen the right key players and instilled them with the confidence to lead and make decisions before you make big moves.
3. Maintain a level of conservative thinking. Conservative thinking is very important in managing risk. It’s the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other conundrum. Try to achieve the same goal without exposing yourself and your business to potential failure or harm. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Save the risky choices for when you really need them!
4. Own your risk. Once you’ve made a decision that a specific course of action is worth the risk, commit to it -- and don’t let anything sway your conviction that it is the right course of action. I have been in many life-threatening situations in my career -- avalanches, storms, you name it. These unplanned occurrences sapped my resources and left me emotionally drained. Sometimes they even made me question my original beliefs. But when I commit myself to the goal in the onset -- I honor that commitment in the heat of battle. You should too.
5. Keep in check with reality. In 2011 on Mt. Everest, my team had worked for weeks to establish itself at 23,500 feet, only two days from the summit. But the winds were not matching our weather forecasts and were threatening to destroy tents and cause dangerous frostbite conditions for our climbers.
We had accepted significant risk to get to this point, but our intuition told us that going further would be unreasonably dangerous and would risk the entire team. So we bailed and headed back to base. We had made the right choice. The lesson here? It’s okay to back off and reassess current conditions against you goals -- and risk-taking initiatives to achieve these goals.
The driving lesson here is simple. If you are afraid to take risks, you are preventing yourself from making valuable contributions and profitable business choices. On the mountain, if you are indecisive or inactive, the mountain will get you. It’s the same inside the boardroom.