Envisioning Your Business Summit

Envisioning Your Business Summit

The Parallels Between Consulting Success and Climbing a Mountain

By John McQuaig

A well–documented plan is the most important element of a successful business... or a mountain–climbing expedition! In 1963, Sir Edmund Hillary, with a carefully–crafted plan in hand, became the first human to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He got there by first establishing his vision: to reach the Everest summit. His mission may have been even loftier, perhaps to be the first person to stand upon the highest point on earth, the feat which ultimately brought him great fame and fortune.

Vision and mission are just two links between successful mountain climbing and launching a successful business. Clear objectives, solid strategies and thorough action plans are the other links that nearly always guarantee a place at the top. As a successful entrepreneur and seasoned climber, I experienced firsthand the similarities between business and mountain climbing as I made my way toward the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I've thought more and more about such parallels ever since, including identifying what I call eight major "keys."


When climbing a mountain, you have a fairly clear vision of yourself standing smack on the summit. Anything short of that will be viewed as a failure. Once you start climbing, all your thoughts and objectives are pointed at the top.

But most high peaks are also shrouded in clouds much of the day so that you can't always see the summit. The question to ask here is: "Where do you want your consulting practice to be in three to five years?" When answering this question it is important to consider: gross revenue, the types of services and products you want to sell, who your customers will be, net profits desired, etc. The goal here is to clearly define how you want your actuarial business to be functioning in three to five years.

Clearly communicate your vision to your team members. Unlike climbing a mountain, envisioning a business summit is a concept, it's not concrete. Therefore, communication is a must. Your stakeholders must be as clear as you are in terms of the company's direction.

Working Up a SWOT

Perform a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis to help determine assets and liabilities. Strengths and weaknesses are typically the internal portion of the SWOT analysis, representing factors within your control. In mountain climbing, these may include your level of cardiovascular fitness, your leg strength, and your general fortitude in the face of adversity. In business, examples include the financial capabilities within the business, its marketing and sales structure, and the capabilities of your personnel.

Next, identify opportunities and threats that are external. One threat in running a consulting business might be the absence of qualified personnel in the marketplace to adequately staff your organization. In mountain climbing, adequate personnel are equally crucial, as your life may depend upon it. Are these types of people available to your business "expedition"?

On the positive side, opportunities can help you in business as well as on a mountain trail. When you see an opportunity staring you in the face, jump on it! An opportunity for an actuarial practice might be legislation creating a new type of retirement account that will require actuarial computations to administer. The actuarial practice that quickly develops a plan to understand and assimilate whatever services would be necessary to administer these plans will have a jump–start on securing those types of services—.an entirely new service opportunity.

You Need a Good Plan

Before embarking on becoming the first person to summit Mount Everest, Sir Edmund carefully devised several sets of plans. Preparation before, during and after a climb are essential even today, despite technological advancements. No modern respected climber would even consider such a mission without it.In mountain climbing, you develop a "pre–climb plan," and also a plan for actually climbing the mountain. The pre–climb plan will include, for example, conditioning yourself from a physical standpoint. You'll also need a plan for once you get to the base of the mountain. This actual climbing plan will consider the route to be followed, the number of days the climb will take, ways to avoid expected hazards, and techniques for acclimatizing each climber to the altitude.

When climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, our climbing team stayed an additional night at 12,500 feet elevation so that we could acclimatize by climbing an additional 2,000 feet during the intervening day, followed by a return to sleep at 12,500 feet. This maximized our acclimatization, preventing altitude sickness which can be extremely debilitating and even lethal.

Running a business is no different. You need a business plan before you even get started. I always recommend the work of Jim Horan, author of "The One Page Business Plan," a masterful yet simple model for planning and operating a successful business that directly parallels Sir Hillary's game plan for conquering Mt. Everest. Writing your plan out will not only outline the route for team members and stakeholders, it puts the plan into action. You cannot over prepare!

Write Your Own Story!

Another element common to both business and mountain climbing is the need to "write your own story." Our guide on Mount Kilimanjaro, Peter Mata, warned us that many people would be telling us their stories of success or failure while we climbed up the mountain and they descended. Because every climb is different, Peter told us to ignore their stories and to write our own.

The same is true of business. Once you are on the road proceeding toward your vision or business summit, you will be in a great position to learn from the many stories of people who failed in business. But just remember to learn from them and not take them to heart: in the end, you must write your own story with your own versions of both success and failure. If you only listen to the naysayers, you may end up convincing yourself that you cannot succeed.

To a certain degree when you ignore the naysayers as you grow your practice you become a contrarian. There are many examples of successful contrarians over the years. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. reflects on his role as a contrarian in his book, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? In the first chapter (entitled "The Courtship"), he describes what the common thinking had been regarding IBM at the time he was being recruited to be CEO.

Bill Gates for example had been quoted as saying IBM would be out of business in seven years. Several business gurus had also predicted the demise of IBM. But Gerstner saw it differently. He had to ignore all the common press and business pundits' predictions in order to accept the CEO's role at IBM.

His book goes on to chronicle the progress IBM made and the eventual dramatic turnaround it was able to achieve under his leadership. If he hadn't been willing to take a contrarian viewpoint, he likely would have remained in his reasonably comfortable job as CEO of RJR Nabisco and not attempted leading such a daunting task as an IBM turnaround.

Team Work

For ultimate success, a team approach is crucial. In both business and mountain climbing, one person cannot accomplish much all alone. In mountain climbing, even the most successful "solo" climbers typically have a team of people supporting them in various ways right up until the day of the climber's summit bid. And for the other 99 percent of mountain climbers out there, a team is the absolute only way to reach the summit.

A team offers shared wisdom that tends to recognize both hazards and opportunities. Together a team can perform the heavy lifting and tedious work as a unit, making much lighter work for all. On a mountainside, a team will also be appreciated when you find yourself needing to be pulled out of a deep crevasse or off a treacherous ledge. Take it from me... I know!

In business, teams are just as necessary. Your team may consist of a group of trusted advisors or five hundred employees. Either way, it can significantly propel your practice forward. Pay close attention to your team, making sure its members are properly trained so that they can work together well. No successful business sustains itself for very long by relying on only one person instead of a team.

Find a Good Sherpa

In both business and mountain climbing, a well–trained guide or mentor or Sherpa is invaluable. Sir Edmund depended upon Sherpas to direct him on the correct trails and to help carry gear and set up and break down camps. I've used guides on every major mountain I have ever climbed, the least experienced of whom had climbed that particular mountain 110 times. The most experienced I ever used, the same legendary Sherpas from Nepal that Sir Edmund used, had more than 600 successful summit bids under their belts.

In business, too, well–trained guides understand where you are in your business development at all times, even when the climate in your marketplace has deteriorated. Guides such as business coaches, mentors, seasoned veterans or management consultants can provide perspective on whether you're moving too fast or too slowly, taking on too much or not challenging yourself enough.

With all the variables involved, your guide will prove invaluable for your eventual success. To succeed in business, the need will be just as acute, and the results, if your guide is experienced, just as extraordinary as a bid for a mountaintop.

One Step at a Time

Each time I have climbed a major mountain, I have experienced a major drop in self–confidence as I glanced up the mountain for the very first time. When you first set your sights on your summit, or even just the mass of your mountain, from a lower elevation, it can seem impossible that you could actually climb this monstrous thing and eventually stand on top of it. Yet you know it can be done—one step at a time.

With your actuarial practice, once you determine your vision or summit, it's important to determine your key performance indicators, or KPIs. These are the metrics or objectives you will use to chart your progress toward the summit. For instance, when trying to achieve that $2 million goal in sales volume in year three, it's important in year one to know precisely where you need your sales volume progress to be in order to demonstrate good progress toward your $2 million dollar goal. One step at a time and with the help of KPIs you will get there.

The Luck Factor

One undeniable component of either a climb up a major mountain or a successful business is plain old luck. You can exercise control over all the other factors, but luck always plays a role in the success or failure of a business or a climb.

The great business genius Samuel Goldwyn of MGM fame once said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." All the preparation described earlier represents the hard work that you hope will produce the results you want. Yet in the end, luck has the power to deny you part or all of it.

Examples of bad luck? In mountain climbing, an avalanche that dumps down 18 inches of heavy snow on your mountain path qualifies. In business, it could mean the misfortune of a suddenly shifting economy, with its spiking interest rates or plummeting market demand, or perhaps the intrusion of a less expensive foreign or Internet–based alternative.

Preparation and SWOT analysis can help deter or minimize such threats, but in the end, no matter how smart or careful you have tried to be, the luck factor will have its way. Paying attention to the other seven keys, however, will afford you with the strongest hedge against number eight. Your summit will always be within your sight and your reach if you commit yourself and your team to adhering to these tenets and steadfastly envisioning yourself standing at the peak of your journey.

John McQuaig, CMC, CPA, author of Parallel Peaks: Business Insights While Climbing the World's Highest Mountains (HRD Press, 2007), is a noted entrepreneur, consultant, banker, real estate developer, farmer and veteran mountaineer. He can be reached at 509.665.6600, john@mcqw.com or by visiting ParallelPeaks.com