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Surviving at High Altitude

At 29,035 feet, Mt Everest is the tallest mountain on earth. Since it was first explored by a geological expedition in the mid 19th century and established as the world’s highest peak, climbers have been drawn to the challenge of summiting this mountain located in Nepal. Not until May 29, 1953, was the summit successfully reached by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. Since then, 3,000 climbers have stood atop its peak.

220 people have perished on Everest. Most were killed descending the mountain after they had spent all the energy they had to get to the summit, ignored bad weather or reached the summit too late and ran out of oxygen. 150 bodies remain on Everest, a number of which are still visible to passing climbers.

Mountain climbing, as a metaphor for business and life, crystallized for me in 2011. Early in the year, I read ‘High Altitude Leadership’ by Chris Warner and Don Schmincke, which compares the challenges and dangers of mountaineering with business, and how similar they are in terms of the leadership, vision, teamwork, and risk management necessary to survive and thrive in that environment.

Later in the year I also had the opportunity to meet the great Seattle mountaineer, Ed Viesturs and to hear him speak. Ed stood on the top of Everest seven times. His motto has always been that climbing has to be a round trip – ‘getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory’ – and he has a strict personal risk management philosophy. His book, ‘No Shortcuts to the Top’, along with Jon Krakauer’s, ‘Into Thin Air’, share many things in common with ‘High Altitude Leadership’ (HAL).

The authors of HAL explore factors common to mountaineering and business – fear of death (fear of failure), selfishness, arrogance, lone heroism, cowardice, tool seduction and comfort, many of the same conditions that Krakauer and Viesturs talk about in their books and how these endanger climbing expeditions as well as businesses. With every famous business failure – Enron, Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff, and in our own backyard, Meridian and of course Washington Mutual, we see many of these characteristics evidenced, and from time-to-time, we can see some of them in our own companies and in ourselves.

Another concept prevalent in HAL is that of ‘compelling saga’. Why do we climb this mountain, what compels us to strive in our business and personal lives? The authors suggest that every organization have a compelling saga – a common goal or ambition that binds all together in a common journey.

As I have explored HAL, I’ve thought a lot about this, and personally, I think I have a good idea of what my mountain is, and probably what it’s been since I first started in business. As I have talked with friends, family, and colleagues, I see that our goals, our compelling sagas, can be quite different, however, some are more short term. Some are readily achievable and some are big dreams.

We all have different motivations and drivers, and I’m sure there are a variety of reasons why mountaineers do what they do. What seems consistent, however, among the best climbers and the best businesses, is that irrespective of the differences in their overarching goals, all the travelers are similar in one regard – how they go about their journey. There’s something there that’s not about what you do or what your business is, but why you are doing it and what it means to you. As is often said, the quality of the journey is just as important as the destination.

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Parker, Smith & Feek. No organization could survive and thrive that long unless there was a compelling saga. Parker, Smith & Feek’s saga, I believe, is more about the journey than the destination, and is more defined by a shared culture and business philosophy than the fact that we are insurance brokers. It’s not what we do as much as it is how we do it and why. We are not unique in that. Many of our most successful clients have a strong culture that aligns their actions and business objectives and keeps them moving toward the top of their mountain.

In past entries, I’ve explored some of the factors that define our culture, such as value creation and a commitment to community. In 2012 I plan to share more about our journey over the past 75 years and what we believe will take us into the next century.

Here’s to reaching your summit and doing it in a way that gives you pride and purpose.

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