One of the most fulfilling moments I get while climbing these days doesn’t happen when I reach the mountain summit. The most exciting moments occur during the ascent.
Those times when a client turns to me, faced with some unforeseen challenge—like an outcropping of loose rock, a deep and jagged ice canyon, or the blast of fine mist and pebbly grit from a changing wind—are always when he or she utters the simplest and most important of management questions: Now what?
As the leader of a mountain expedition company, our treks up mountains challenge our team members to expand their decision-making and leadership skills. Most of that, especially at high altitudes, involves managing risk. The mountain is 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—both on the mountain and off. 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.
After summiting Mt. Everest six times and skiing some of the tallest peaks on the planet, here are some of the essentials I’ve learned about managing risk effectively.
While I encourage managers to take more risks in business, there’s no reason to go about it foolhardily. Before you take any risk, be sure you have a foundation, a support system to help prop you up if the risk doesn’t pay off.
In mountaineering, that means first setting camps, placing caches of emergency equipment on the mountain and installing topes on dangerous sections of climbing. Only after putting the effort in to establishing a suitable infrastructure can I feel good about taking risks.
At 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.
Just because taking risks is a necessary part of achieving challenging goals doesn’t mean you should undertake them needlessly. Being conservative also has its place in risk management. Look for the short cuts and easy wins. If you can achieve the same goal without exposing yourself and your business to potential failure or harm, then that is the better course. Save the risky choices for when you really need them!
Once you’ve made a decision that a specific course of action is worth the risk, commit to it. It may be hard, painful, and involve the potential for failure, but all worthwhile objectives do.
In 2011, when I became the first person to successfully ski the world’s eighth tallest peak, Manaslu, I was repeatedly pushed off my path. Avalanches, storms, and the rescue of another team’s stranded climber all exhausted me.
These unplanned occurrences sapped my resources and left me emotionally drained. But I was committed to the goal and my belief in the value of the objective. I pushed through intent on honoring my commitment to do so. It remains one of my proudest achievements.
—Adrian Ballinger is a world class mountaineer, business leader, and professional speaker. As founder and head guide of the internationally acclaimed Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian envisioned a more holistic climbing experience for his clients than the status quo.