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Business Lessons From A Professor’s Everest Climb

Michigan Professor Scott DeRue on Mount Everest

Michigan Professor Scott DeRue on Mount Everest

Teams that embark on the dangerous Everest experience can spend up to six weeks in advance developing camaraderie and trust with the members of their climbing group. Scott DeRue, the University of Michigan Ross School professor who reached the summit in March of 2013, argues that team development is not only crucial to conquering Everest, but also essential for business executives who want to lead high-performing teams (see A B-School Professor Climbs Mount Everest).

His three major team-building lessons learned while summiting Everest:

Know your team’s goals and stress points. Everest is high-stakes not only because of the inherent dangers, but also because nobody wants to fail after investing years of training (and in some cases, their life savings) in this journey. Not too dissimilar from high-potentials who fixate on the “corner office,” many climbers are completely gripped by the idea of “Everest” and have an irrational dream about what it means to summit the mountain. Other people play down the difficulty — the dangers and the accomplishment — acting as if it were not a big deal. You must assess and monitor where people fall on this spectrum. Do this by encouraging transparency, starting with yourself. Communicate your goals for the team and your personal motives. Make it clear how achieving the team goal can enable individuals to achieve their personal goals, and then be honest about what individual goals will not be met (including your own).

Cultivate psychological safety. In high-stakes environments, fear is your biggest enemy to success. There will always be unexpected events and setbacks, and fear keeps hidden the information your team needs to be resilient. You need team members to be honest and speak up even if their point of view is unpopular. On Everest, there are many self-protective reasons for withholding information. Reporting a health concern might result in being seen as weak. Inquiring about a specific climbing technique could appear as lacking adequate skills. Expressing uncertainty about the team leader’s plan could be seen as defiant, inappropriate, or not being a “team player.” So, how do you ensure team members speak up, share concerns, and question assumptions? Keep these strategies in mind:

  • Minimize status differences. David, for example, minimizes discussions about differences in experience levels among team members. Scott worked with an executive who would intentionally not attend brainstorming meetings with his direct reports, so they wouldn’t feel intimidated by his rank and hold back ideas.
  • Tell stories, even ones that make you vulnerable. Sharing personal experiences where you made mistakes is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it makes clear that nobody is perfect and creates a norm of sharing in the team.
  • Engage one-on-one. Trust is essential. Find at least one or two commonalities with each team member, and demonstrate a commitment to personal engagement and consideration.
  • Be inclusive and forgiving. Invite and appreciate others’ contributions to group decision-making. When mistakes occur, demonstrate a commitment to forgiveness. Focus on learning, not reprimanding. Mistakes will occur, just make sure not to make the same one twice.

Be decisive but patient. In situations with limited time and information, leaders need to be decisive and clear but should not feel compelled to immediately make a call. Imagine being at 28,000 feet with unpredictable weather, limited communication, and incomplete information. The team is anxious. A bias for action is necessary to accomplish the team goal, protect the group, and maintain the team’s confidence in your authority. Yet, at the same time, the leader cannot afford to become wrapped up in a very emotional, high-anxiety situation. You can prepare by consistently reinforcing “what if” scenarios in advance — which enable you and your team to more effectively deal with the uncertainty. But remember, under extreme stress, not everyone will recall and be able to act on those scenarios.