Anybody who knows me, knows I love to be up in the mountains … it’s the one place where I am not 100% focused on work. The funny thing is, at work, I often find myself thinking about hiking and climbing … not from a daydreaming perspective, but from a business and leadership perspective. The skills developed from climbing and hiking have made me a successful leader and entrepreneur. I guess I didn’t realize it, but over the last decade, I have been hiking my way to become a strong leader.
Being in the mountains forces you to make decisions that could have significant consequences if you don’t choose correctly. For instance, in September, some friends and I were hiking the President’s range in New Hampshire and we got caught in an unexpected sleet storm on our first of 8 planned mountains. The conditions were dreadful, with limited visibility, high winds, stabbing sleet, and slippery terrain. We didn’t have microspikes (kind of like tire chains, but for your feet), our clothes were soaked (even with raincoats), and we were starting to freeze. I didn’t panic but instead assessed the situation. We took cover behind some rocks and discussed options.
We could continue with the hike in very unsafe conditions, we could turn back and end our trip, or we could hike to a hut that was less than a mile away, warm up, and determine what the conditions were for the rest of the journey. We opted for the hut, where we changed our clothes, warmed up, had some hot cocoa, and mapped out a more informed course of action. We ended up staying at the hut for the balance of the day and overnight, hiking three more mountains the next day and taking an alternate route to our car. While we didn’t summit the eight mountains we had set out to do, we were able to limit our risk and still accomplish half of our goal safely. The mountains aren’t going anywhere; we will have plenty of time to summit them in the future.
The same holds true in business. Every day, I find myself at a crossroads; I have to make decisions that could have a monumental impact on my business’ cash flows or operations. I now realize that the need to be flexible in the mountains and to rationally think through the hazards (it is not a place for emotion) has helped me be a better decision-maker and has taught me to consider all risks carefully. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take risks as a leader (every strategic leader does). They just need to be calculated risks.
I’m going to be honest; I like hiking with other people. There’s a certain comradery that being in the mountains fosters. You get to the summit, physically exhausted and mentally elated and you want to celebrate that feeling with someone. High-fiving the air just doesn’t cut it. There’s nothing better than that moment at the summit where you all turn and congratulate each other, knowing that you just accomplished something pretty incredible together. There’s a feeling of team spirit that you don’t really get from other places. Similarly, when you’re heading up a mountain, and you get sketched out, tired, or nervous and someone is there to give you a hand or a shout of encouragement. This gives you the drive to push forward (after all, hiking is 80% mental and 20% physical). When my daughter and I hiked the Grand Canyon last February, my daughter was talking to a woman she met on the trail. My daughter gave her some encouragement, telling her how amazing she was. Towards the top, my daughter started to slow down, the woman waited at the top and cheered my daughter on, giving her the boost of energy she needed to get to the top. That feeling of being in it together and knowing you have a support system is incredible.
I get the same feeling when my co-workers and I work through a long project together, working long nights and weekends to get it done. When it finally goes out the door, it’s like celebrating a big mountain. However, it’s important to remember that you can’t just recognize the summit. The journey along the way is just as equally important because the final step would not have been possible without the thousands of steps before that. Now I’m not suggesting that you should recognize and celebrate every step, but you should show your appreciation at the end of a project; a pat on the back, a “thank you,” a little note, or whatever your way of showing your team you appreciate them is. Doing this throughout the journey goes a long way in building cohesiveness, loyalty, and dedication for you as a leader.
Every relationship is built on communication, and nowhere is that more important than when you’re on a mountain; every action has consequences. For the safety and wellbeing of the party involved, every member of the team needs to understand their role, be able to communicate risks and concerns that they may have, and communicate issues that they are having (gear, physical condition, etc.). That communication is crucial for the team to effectively navigate the trail and ensure that proper decisions are made along the way. There are times on a rock or an ice climb when you are no longer able to see or hear your climbing partner, so you need to establish signals upfront to ensure that everyone is on the same page to create a safe environment.
The same holds true in business. It is vital for there to be effective two-way communication between management and staff, as well as between departments within an organization. Ineffective communication could result in errors, missed deadlines, duplicate work, frustration, and could have a significant impact on your business’ bottom line. By establishing proper communication channels, fostering open communication and giving everyone in your organization a voice, you can help ensure that plans and strategies are being carried out, and issues are being vetted and properly discussed so everyone is on the same page.
Pushing Through Your Comfort Zone:
As I said earlier, hiking is 80% mental. When you get tired or scared, you start to doubt yourself and what you can accomplish. When you are out in the mountains, you can’t give in to those doubts. You have to stay focused on your safety and that of the team’s. Panic is your enemy because it leads to mistakes that could derail a whole trip, or worse. Last year when I climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland, my feet were covered in blisters from my boots, my body was fatigued from the quick pace my guide and I were moving at, and I was working off very little sleep (my roommates in the hut were up all night due to a medical emergency). After nearly three hours of climbing, I looked up and saw how much more we still had to do. Instead of getting dejected, I told myself, “I got this,” and started playing little mental games to refocus my thoughts away from the pain and fatigue.
I deeply understand what it’s like to doubt yourself, and what it takes to silence that negative little voice inside. I can do it! I am good enough! I do deserve it! These affirmations have helped me better coach my co-workers and staff through issues they may be facing. Everyone has personal challenges, fears, and self-doubt. However, we can’t allow them to define who we are, nor limit our ability to grow both personally and professionally. The mountains are a great place to listen to your inner voice and discover how you speak to yourself, whether encouraging or discouraging and then work on techniques that focus on building yourself up. You can accomplish anything if you just believe in yourself.
The Ability to Refresh:
What I love most about being in the mountains is it gets me out of my head and gives me the ability to refresh. Too often, we get bogged down by life and work and everything becomes a chore. Being in the mountains sometimes pushes me to my limits and forces me outside my comfort zone. It also gives me the ability to disconnect from the world (very often I have no cell signal) and clear my mind. When I get back to work, I am both physically and mentally invigorated, ready to grow my business in full force.
Being up in the mountains is such an incredible place. It not only provides me access to breathtaking views that most people will never see in person, but it also helps me grow and develop as a person. The mountains continue to teach me so much about myself and what I can accomplish; they’re my personal classroom to build my management and leadership skills.
Kenneth R. Cerini, CPA, CFP, FABFA
Ken is the Managing Partner of Cerini & Associates, LLP and is the executive responsible for the administration of our not-for-profit and educational provider practice groups. In addition to his extensive audit experience, Ken has been directly involved in providing consulting services for nonprofits and educational facilities of all sizes throughout New York State in such areas as cost reporting, financial analysis, Medicaid compliance, government audit representation, rate maximization, board training, budgeting and forecasting, and more.