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Mountaineering

Leadership

Find your inner mountaineer to hit the heights of leadership

Published 19 April 2022 in Leadership • 7 min read

Vincent Bieri, the co-founder of Swiss Unicorn Nexthink and a long-term advisor and investor in startups, explains the mountaineering skills needed to reach the highest peaks of business leadership.

Anyone who walks in the mountains knows the weather can change rapidly with little warning. You may set out in the morning hiking in low winds with a clear sky, only to be caught in a thunderstorm in the afternoon. Today’s business environment is just as unpredictable. Leaders who had hoped at the start of 2022 that they had spotted a break in the clouds as the Omicron variant pushed the COVID-19 into a new phase of recovery were quickly disappointed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dashed hopes of an economic recovery for the time being, exacerbating supply chain bottlenecks and pushing up inflation.

Even without the geopolitical uncertainty, running a business has become increasingly complex with organizations now required to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their people and the planet.

Against this backdrop, I am seeing a lot of parallels with mountaineering.  While you may have been able to traverse a glacier yesterday, today you might fall into a crevasse because the temperature rose, or recent snowfall hid a crack in the snow. To thrive and survive in this environment we need to move away from the old leadership model focused on performance and growth at any price. The most successful teams will master the ability to work towards a common goal by quickly analyzing risk and making constant decisions, all while taking responsibility for others. This is a lot like the way a mountain expedition team operates, except hopefully, without the life and death choices.

Here I present my five main leadership tips garnered from the last 15 years spent climbing and skiing in the mountains multiple times per week, while at the same time launching and scaling innovative technology businesses:

1. Choose the right goal

We all must choose our summit as business leaders. More often than not people just start climbing without having figured out why. They say, “I want to climb Everest” or “I want our company to be a unicorn”. It’s my role as a coach and advisor to entrepreneurs to stop them and ask, why are you going there? If you can’t explain the meaning or purpose of the project or mission, people will jump off as soon as you hit the first hurdle.

It’s also essential to clarify at the start of any project or mountain expedition the price you, and everyone else on your team, is willing to pay to get there. This way you can avoid any nasty surprises. I won’t climb with certain people because I know they are willing to take more risks on the mountain than I can stomach. Once you have established the “why” and found people who share the same values and risk appetite, you can set off on your expedition in the mountains or launch your business project.

2. Follow your compass

Being a leader means having to set the direction and choose which path to follow. You have to make decisions even when you don’t have 100% certainty. You don’t have time and resources for 100%, even 80% but must make the best call you can based on the data available and by trusting your intuition. The same is true in the mountains. You can ask people if they want to take the shorter and steeper route or the longer more scenic path, but unless it’s a familiar itinerary and group of people, you don’t know for sure how long it will take to reach your destination.

At the same time, it is wise to distribute leadership and create a culture that encourages people to raise concerns, ask questions and suggest ways to progress rather than just blindly follow the leader. In business, you often need to re-evaluate and change course. You want the people behind you to feel empowered to question our strategy, propose more efficient processes, and take the lead too. Collective leadership is the way to improve our chances to summit a mountain and a business goal.

Equally as important is the art if turning around and abandoning the summit, even if you are just a short distance away, so that you can preserve the social responsibility of those on the rope – that is the life, relationships, and responsibilities of everyone in your team. To do so, you must be ready to sacrifice performance, objectives, and power. If you have the right attitude in your team, you will be able to bring people back and get reenergized to make another attempt. This attitude is key in business. Success is not immediate, linear and continuous. You take wrong decisions, the market might not be quite ready for your product or service or you may need to make adjustments. Getting back to base camp to select another summit or goal is what most successful businesses did at some point.

3. Keep moving forward

When you are leading an expedition in the mountains, you are constantly looking at your next step to avoid falling, but at the same time, you are thinking five minutes, half a day or even several days ahead as you assess the upcoming route and weather conditions, as well as whether you have enough supplies or a suitable place to set up camp. Sometimes you must adapt, change course or turn around, but there are also new opportunities on the way. Perhaps you climb to the other side of the mountain and discover a fresh field of powder snow that you can ski down. The same is true in business. You keep moving forward while thinking about the medium and long term. You may have been fixed on going after the German market when you realized the French market was more promising.

To keep moving forward, it’s essential to have a team of people with different skillsets for the different circumstances you might face. They also have different fears and worries that may choke their performances at different stages. In the mountains, one person might be afraid of heights. If we help her overcome that fear, she may end up being great with the compass when the fog sets in. The mountain is a laboratory that pushes us to our extremes and helps us to understand our strengths and weaknesses and how this collectively makes us a great performing team.

4. Pay attention to timing

As a business leader and a mountaineer, you need to manage resources as well as the energy and motivation of your team. As time passes these all tend to get depleted. The challenge is to maintain these relationships. With shareholders, they can be your best friend when you perform and may turn into your worst enemy when you don’t.

Just as an expedition leader can’t control the weather, a startup is exposed to the timing and favor of the market. When I co-founded Nexthink, a company with a mission to improve employees’ digital experience, we struggled at the start to sell the software because organizations didn’t want to spend money on something that brings value to staff, instead favoring IT infrastructure to improve productivity. That has now changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that people of all ages were struggling with their IT tools across the board. And companies have realized that caring about the satisfaction of their employees is essential to retain talent and maintain a competitive advantage.

Nexthink now has 1,100 customers and 14 million employees benefiting from its Digital Employee Experience (DEX) software. Its success is partly down to the employees we hired that had the endurance and resilience to run an ultramarathon without knowing exactly when we would reach a destination. In February last year, Nexthink secured $180 million in a financing round, reaching a $1.1 billion valuation.

5. Take responsibility for the whole rope

One of my most formative experiences on the mountain was when I was climbing near Chamonix in France more than 10 years ago. The expedition leader turned around and said to me, “you go first”. I was taken aback. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to lead that part of the climb and I knew there were others with more experience that I was prepared to follow. Leading the group is riskier. The fall is harder because the rope comes from the bottom rather than the top. But because he gave me that trust, I felt empowered. It meant he trusted my decisions, my judgment, my skill, and my ability to do the right thing.

I think sometimes people forget to do that in business. Too often, we practice “hot potato leadership” thrusting people into challenging situations without providing the rope to catch them when they fall. You can only empower people if you build that trusted relationship beforehand and make yourself a secure base from which to belay others. If I am belaying you from the bottom, I cannot climb on your behalf. But I can watch your back and do everything I can to support you. Building that relationship based on mutual trust takes time.

Just as it takes years of experience to learn to become a greater mountaineer, evolving into a good leader won’t happen overnight. To succeed on the mountain you need technical skill, an ability to read your environment and humility in the face of nature. Likewise, a good leader is technically sound and socially aware, able to share their doubts and not be overconfident.

One of my biggest inspirations is the Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton whose ship the HMS Endurance became immobilized in the Antarctic ice in 1915. All 28 men were stranded on the ice. But Shackleton was able to mount a rescue operation to bring his entire crew home alive. If you care about your customers and employees the same was that Shackleton cared for his men you will go far.

Authors

Vincent Bieri

Nexthink co-founder

Vincent Bieri is a Nexthink co-founder, and today cooperates with different tech companies as an investor, external advisor and board member. He supports various innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives including Innosuisse, MassChallenge, and Trust Valley.

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