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The Power of Teams: From Everest to the Pinnacle of Business Success

Susan Ershler

In 2002, while relaxing at Everest Base Camp, I fell into conversation with Dan, a fellow climber about to make his fifth attempt to reach the summit alone. Dan was determined to be completely self-sufficient, carrying all of his own gear and climbing without a guide. I wondered why anyone would take on such a huge challenge without accepting even a modicum of help. But I wished him luck and rejoined my team to prepare for our climb of the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall, the first major obstacle on our route to the summit. A week later, at Camp III, I found Dan camping alone and stopped by briefly to offer him a cup of tea and an energy bar. Cordially but firmly, he refused, reiterating his decision to rely exclusively on the supplies he had carried up himself from Base Camp. Later, I heard that Dan’s fifth attempt to reach the summit of Everest had failed. His determination to climb the world’s tallest mountain alone had defeated him.

Creating a successful business is like climbing one of the world’s highest peaks. One moment, the way ahead is clear and the summit seems tantalizingly within reach. Then, without warning, an icy storm descends, battering you with howling winds and near whiteout conditions. At times like these, climbers depend on the expertise and experience of their mountain guides and fellow climbers for their very survival. We don’t climb high mountains alone.

The same is true in the business world, where global market forces and turbulent economic cycles pose ongoing threats to the viability of a fledgling business. New technologies may be introduced seemingly overnight that render your products and services obsolete. A former partner with deep pockets may suddenly decide to compete and wrest away your clients. At times like these, your company’s survival depends on the experience and expertise of your team and the contacts and advice furnished by members of your personal and professional networks.

My friend and fellow climber John Waechter and I have been repeatedly struck by the remarkable similarities in skills and attitudes shared by elite mountain climbers and peak performers in business. Over the years, we frequently asked ourselves what made it possible for us to reach the pinnacle of our professions while ascending the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Neither of us ascribes our success to the vagaries of fate or believes we possess unique or special talents. Instead, we’ve concluded that high achievement is a carefully honed skill; a strategic approach to problem solving that anyone can learn to cultivate with practice and dedication. This insight led us to share our experiences on the mountains and in business as co-authors of a new book, Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales: From Everest to Every Business, that examines the habits of success that we believe anyone can master to achieve peak performance in entrepreneurship and leadership.

When we began climbing, John and I relied on expert instructors and guides like my husband Phil Ershler to teach us the hundreds of basic mountaineering skills we’d need on our Seven Summits quest. With much practice, we learned to master such technical skills as belaying, rappelling, cramponing, pressure breathing, using ice axes to arrest a fall, and much more. Then, after testing ourselves on several challenging mountains, we set our sights on Everest, where we depended on our Sherpas and support teams to assess the weather and route conditions and to help us contend with the stark physical and mental challenges one faces in the “Death Zone,” the altitude above 26,000 feet, where the human body and its organ systems begins to fail rapidly due to insufficient oxygen.

We relied on the expertise and experience of others just as much in our business lives, carefully cultivating our personal and professional networks to help us overcome the sometimes insurmountable-seeming obstacles that threatened to derail us in achieving our goals. Peak performers…“establish partnerships with influential members of their civic and business communities to acquire industry knowledge and client access. They invest in building strong relationships with their company’s leaders…” and then… “leverage these relationships to recruit and lead cross-functional teams to the summit of sales success.”

On Everest, climbers are forced to pool their resources. No individual could possibly insert the more than 300 ice screws needed to anchor the three miles of rope climbers tether to as they make their way up the mountain. In business too, it takes a diverse and talented team to define and then implement a complex, company-wide enterprise-class business solution. Peak performers acknowledge they cannot go it alone. They commit themselves to helping their clients succeed and then recognize and reward their fellow team members.

In 2001, with the help of his climbing team, John reached the summit of Everest. It was a moment he will cherish forever. That same year, I was forced to turn back when Phil’s eyes were frozen by the frigid wind, compromising his vision and rendering him uncharacteristically unstable on the trail. But we would return the following year and achieve our vision to stand holding hands at the top of the world; becoming the first couple in history to climb the Seven Summits.

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