May 27th, 2009 | 1:00 pm

Team Building: Lessons from the Mountain

filed under Expert Answers

mountaintop.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

What do mountain climbing and team building have in common? Plenty, according to Alison Levine. Levine is the founder and president of Daredevil Strategies™, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and team dynamics. Her company is appropriately named. That’s because Levine is also a world-class mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest, Mount McKinley, and the Rwenzori Mountains, as well as skied across the Arctic Circle and the South Pole.

Mountains aren’t Levine’s only specialty. She has also climbed the corporate ladder at Goldman Sachs. In fact, while training for and organizing the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, Levine was working full time in investment banking. It was after her experience serving as team captain for the women’s Everest Expedition that Levine realized many of the strategies used in the business world are the same as the strategies used climbing mountains.

At the recent Simmons School of Management Leadership Conference Levine shared hard- learned lessons for succeeding and building a team.

Lesson 1: Find out how to make it work. How many times in a corporate setting do team members resort to “if only” thinking? If only we had more resources, or more time, or a different team. That thinking is useless in climbing. On a mountain, says Levine, “If you need something and you don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Lesson 2: Do whatever it takes. Levine talked about the time she wanted to climb a mountain near New Guinea. Local authorities told her the approach to the mountain was too dangerous and she could not. She did not take no for answer. She kept asking, “What will it take?” Finally the local authorities told her that unless the Indonesian army escorted her to the mountain, it was just impossible. Levine hired the army and climbed the mountain.

Lesson 3: Break down challenges into smaller challenges. When corporate challenges seem overwhelming, Levine says to break them down. Climbers don’t ascend straight up the mountain. Due to the high elevations, they need to acclimatize slowly. Therefore they spend several days heading up and then back down the mountain. “You have to remember,” she says, “that sometimes even though you’re going backwards, you are still making progress. Progress isn’t always in just one direction.”

Lesson 4: Fear is okay. Without fear you risk complacency. And on a mountain, complacency can kill you. If you start to get comfortable, you risk making mistakes.

Lesson 5: Build relationships. Levine says you should always be thinking about who outside your team you might need to turn to for help. As a rule, whenever Levine starts a climb, she introduces herself to someone from every other climbing team at base camp. If something goes wrong on the mountain, she says she wants other teams to feel obligated to help her team. Without personal relationships, that might not happen. After all, other teams could be fighting for survival or struggling to meet a goal. Without a relationship, they might not stop to help another team.

Lesson 6: Sometimes no matter how prepared you are, things go wrong. Therefore, you need to be smart and prudent about the risks you take.

Lesson 7: Sometimes you know you’re heading into an unpleasant and difficult situation. You have to deal with it. Levine keeps a picture of herself on Mount Everest at 24,000 feet. In it she is smiling broadly for the camera. What the picture doesn’t reveal, is that just minutes before it was taken, she had vomited from altitude sickness. But as the team captain, she knew her mood set the tone for the rest of the group and that she had to plow ahead without complaining.

Lesson 8: Ultimately, if it’s not right for the team, it’s not right. Levine and her team of women turned away from the summit of Mount Everest with just 200 feet to go. A storm had started to roll in and so they decided not to risk the ascent. At that elevation, 200 feet can take two hours to climb and the storm could have killed them. Perhaps some of the woman might have been able to make it, but as a team they knew they had to think about the group, not the individuals. Anything less might have cost some of them their lives.

2 comments

  1. Terrill Welch

    Fantastic article with a clear and practical approach to team building. So much leadership is about climbing a mountain as a team. thank you Terrill Welch

  2. claudia

    Excellent article, very practical, insightful and clear. Recommendations that can be used almost in any area of our lives.thanks,
    Claudia