As Beverly Sills once said, "There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." Mt Robson is the most prominent and highest mountain in the rocky mountain range.
The mountain is heavily glaciated with a colossal snow-capped peak. It has an insane failure rate for climbing to the peak. Only 10% make it with lousy weather, commonly rebuffing most summit attempts. The challenge is that the Robson Massif creates its own climate, with gnarly clouds forming on the mountain most days, making ascent treacherous and impossible.
Similar overwhelming obstacles exist in business. For example, a recent Harvard Business Review article on M&A found that as many as 90% of mergers fail, pointing to integration as the main problem.
A five-year obsession with multiple setbacks
With the odds stacked against me, you might ask why to bother, your crazy, find something else to focus on, but as George Mallory said, "because it's there." It's one of Canada's more challenging peaks. It's big, domineering in its prominence, elusive, with sometimes two years going by without summit success. This made it very compelling.
I first attempted the mountain in 2017, getting to the top of the Kain ice face, but turned around due to bad weather. In 2018 I tried it again but failed due to weather below the Patterson spur. In both 2019 and 2020, I did not even get onto the mountain because, yes, you guessed it, the brutal weather. As a consequence of these repeated setbacks, this mountain weighed on me for years. So hard, so many challenges and I even doubted whether my climbing days were over. It became an unfortunate obsession.
2021 was almost a repeat of the disasters of the last four years when the heli company pulled out last minute due to ongoing fires in Western Canada. In the depths of processing losing another year, it got to the point that even my daughter told me, "it's time to choose a different mountain daddy."
These types of constant setbacks are not too dissimilar in business. In my experience, leaders aspire to audacious goals set by Boards and Management to grow the company, reach the pinnacle of a sector, and maximize shareholder return. The challenge is, product or service lines can fail upon initial launch, people skills and capabilities gaps emerge, M&A deals don't realize the intended value, new regulation appears, and competitors make a strategic moves that were not anticipated.
The opportunity presented itself, and we seized it
Those that know me well will laugh as we decided not to accept no for an answer and convinced the heli company to take us in after all. No bribes were paid if that's what you're thinking, but I can be persuasive. Several things needed to converge, and they did. We had great weather, excellent mountain conditions, an experienced guide, team fitness, and luckily resolved logistics.
Business opportunities don't last either, so leaders need to seize the moment with vigour when they present themselves. For example, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom quickly enhanced its video conferencing capability, scaled the business and promptly fixed encryption issues creating a $50 billion software giant.
An epic 24 hour summit day
After landing on the vast dome glacier, we set up camp nestled below the sierra and prepared our plan of attack. Starting at 2am the next day to take advantage of the freeze on the Kain ice face, we initially did several pitches of ice climbing. At the top of the first ridge, I was exhausted. Also, little did I know that the first 4 hours up the ice face were followed by another 20 hours of pain and misery further up.
We zig-zagged our way up, navigating ice walls, seracs, and crevasses that were harrowing at times. Like a blender, every type of high alpine climbing was involved. We pushed on, and the final summit was oddly calm, peaceful, with untouched sparkly snow as we meandered slowly to the peak. Job done, finally. We spent a good hour at the pinnacle, taking in the dramatic views. Soft at heart, I also made a crackly call to my family to say I loved them.
After 20 hours of climbing, we got back to the Kain face ridge and had to repel down, which at 10pm took another 4 hours in the dead of night, rolling into camp at 2am a total of 24 hours later. I dived into my sleeping bag like a burrowing marmot, every muscle on my body aching out cold in minutes.
In business, success is rarely a linear journey to high performance. With roots in the 1880s, IBM is perhaps one of the best examples of a company that has experienced a continuous rollercoaster over the decades with an ever-evolving portfolio of products and services. Whether it's personal computers, smartphones, services, server hardware or cloud computing, IBM's path to success has not been a linear one. Still, they've persevered, creating one of the largest and most successful multinational technology companies in history with operations in 171 countries.
In summary, don't be afraid to fail
The nomadic Texqakalit First Nation called Mt Robson The Mountain of the Spiral Road. And, boy, it was a spiral trip to the summit as we weaved every step of the way to the peak with repeated failures and no shortcuts.
Business success also requires determination and persistence. Very few companies are an overnight success, and results come from hard graft over the long term. Whether hiring top talent, building new products and services, or achieving customer loyalty takes time and commitment.
Unlike expeditions I've done like McKinley that require a long and slow grind over several weeks, this was a short sprint of intense physical climbing exertion like no other. Why you ask, and I would not blame you, but I guess the things worth doing in life (and business) are never easy.
Authored by Lance Mortlock (Senior EY Strategy Partner & Haskayne School of Business Visiting Professor).