2005 Winter/Spring Volume No. 5

Why We Keep Climbing

Risk, fear, opportunity, and ambition, are feelings that all entrepreneurs are familiar with. While we try to avoid risks, we can’t turn the key in the front door of our businesses each morning without facing uncertainty.

We never know how the day, the week, the year is going to turn out until it’s over. And that’s one of the things that makes running our businesses so interesting.

Imagine if the risks you took each day were a matter of life and death for yourself and your entire company! How much harder would it be to make a decision? How could you make a decision at all? For mountain climbers, and people who lead climbing expeditions, life and death are often held in the balance. As they say, “just one slip...”

What they learn from making decisions under such extreme pressures provides lessons for all entrepreneurs in a new book I would like to recommend, called Upward Bound: Nine original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits, by Michael Useem, Jerry Useem, and Paul Asel.

The book is a collection of essays from nine executives who are also experienced climbers. While I have never climbed a mountain and doubt I ever will, these experts make the similarities between climbing and running a business clear and provide important lessons for all of us in management positions.

The qualities of patience, perseverance, courage, and leadership are equally important whether building a portable restroom company or hanging from a rock outcrop by your fingertips.

Of course, as business owners, we don’t take risks just for the sake of adventure.
Or, do we? Not many of us, I suspect, started our own business because we needed a job. There is always a good job out there for a hard worker who can manage himself and others.

No. If you are an entrepreneur, you did it for the same reason people climb mountains. For the challenge and the reward.

And what a reward! It’s not the money, as you know—it’s the feeling of accomplishment, the satisfaction of achieving our goals, and the completion of a promise we make to our customers, our employees, our families, and ourselves.
Like mountain climbers, our accom-plishments are achieved by focusing on a goal, planning our route, surmounting obstacles, making difficult decisions,
and then accepting our choices without looking back.

And, also like climbers, we are often tied together with other individuals. If we fall, we count on them to hold the rope. If we fall too hard, we bring the whole company down with us. They count on us to blaze the trail and set the footholds for those who follow.

I’ve read a lot of business books, but I’ve never found one that could hold my interest so completely—satisfying my love of the outdoors, and keeping my interest with hair-raising stories of adventure and courage.

Of course, it also brought up some important lessons about my own business. For example, I know most people have heard of Sir Edmond Hillary and his guide Tenzing Norgay, the first men to climb Mt. Everest, but who has ever heard of John Hunt, the manager who actually directed the ascent?

We learn in Upward Bound, that the first ascent on Mt. Everest was run like a corporation with dozens of people creating a pyramid of back up and supply so that the advance party could reach the summit safely. The authors remind readers of the original meaning of the word corporate, which is “a unified body of individuals.”

By organizing the structure of the climb, John Hunt helped mankind overcome its vertical limits, getting to the summit of a peak once thought to be unreachable.

I hope I have helped my customers, my employees, and my family reach places that may have seemed unreachable to them. I know they have helped me go further than I ever imagined.

But the climb is far from over. From where I sit, this is a base camp with a great view, but there is so much more to be done. As hundreds of family businesses in our industry grow into well-run corporations, there’s no limit to the heights we can scale together.

Ed Cooper

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