Lessons from the summit push business leaders to new heights

For more than two decades, Chris Warner's business has taken him into a death zone 26,240 feet above sea level, where oxygen is thin, the weather is cruel and a single stumble can be fatal. A certified alpine guide, Warner has led nearly 200 international mountaineering expeditions. He is one of only nine U.S. climbers to reach the summits of Mount Everest and K2, the world's two highest peaks.

Warner, 48, is the founder and owner of three Earth Treks climbing centers in Maryland, the co-author of two business books, and a teacher of leadership skills at universities and numerous corporations. Late last month, he spoke at Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization.

You harnessed your passion for the outdoors to create a career. You developed the skills to become an elite mountain climber and guide. What did you have to channel to become a successful businessman?

The year I started Earth Treks, my climbing partner and I pioneered a new route, in winter, on one of the most famous peaks in the Himalaya [Mount Ama Dablam]. It was considered the hardest route done in the Himalaya that year and has never been repeated. I was at the forefront of my sport, but I knew that climbing wasn't enough for me. Climbing at your limit demands your total physical, emotional and intellectual attention. The climbing team only has to function for the days or weeks it takes to climb the mountain. Building a business is equally intense and demanding, but it's like being on an expedition that never ends. There is no destination, only the journey. To be successful in business, you have to bring the very best of your physical, emotional and intellectual gifts to work every day, and you have to build enduring relationships that can overcome far greater challenges.

Is it harder to get diverse people to pull together in a blinding snowstorm on the side of a Himalayan mountain or in a climate-controlled office?

Fear focuses the mind. It is far easier to get people to work together when death is a real possibility. And in the current business environment, great teams know that their survival depends on modifying their behaviors to drive strategic results. I haven't run into a team reluctant to change in years.

When you work with big companies now to improve leadership and team-building, do you run into a lot of: "What can this mountain climber teach me/us?"

Ahhh … quite the contrary. My resume is quite unique. I've led teams to the summits of Mount Everest and K2, built a business with 200 employees serving over 600,000 customers each year, and, for the past dozen years, I've taught leadership at the Wharton School of business [at the University of Pennsylvania]. My clients include a diverse range, from Google to U.S. intelligence and defense agencies' elite covert-ops teams to fast-growth companies that could be the next Google. With all of them, I use the stories and images of mountaineering to open people's minds, then use data-driven arguments — a nod to my academic approach — to help them solve real business problems as an entrepreneur would. To create an environment where positive change occurs, a great keynote or workshop needs to be entertaining, inspirational and educational.

You write that most of the risks that kill people on an expedition are human error, that mountains don't kill people, people kill themselves. What errors do well-meaning people make that kill their businesses?

There are 19 ways to die on Everest. On the way to the summit you pass eight dead bodies. Every one of those people died descending from the summit. They pushed themselves past their limits. They were so focused on the goal that they missed the storm building or the time of day or the amount of oxygen left in their tanks. Overcome by exhaustion, they sat down and quickly froze to death. I remind my climbing teams that human error is the leading killer on each summit day. And the take-away serves down here, too. In our book "High Altitude Leadership," Don Schmincke and I outline the eight dangers that teams regularly face. The problems that impact businesses and organizations are usually easier to spot, generally take longer to evolve and, if addressed properly, result in less damage. The dangerous, unproductive, dysfunctional behaviors are things like arrogance, selfishness, tool seduction and even comfort.

How has your own business philosophy evolved since starting your guide service in 1990 and opening the first Earth Treks climbing center in Columbia in 1997?

I am proud to say that our philosophy hasn't changed, but our skills have evolved. The team that founded Earth Treks were all climbers and educators. We knew that the qualities that made an expedition successful — passion, vision, partnership and perseverance — were the same qualities that would make a business successful. Developing the skills needed to deliver an ever more complex set of products was the real challenge. To paraphrase Steve Jobs and a dozen others, it took us 20 years to become an overnight success.

Last year, your business made headlines in a way no owner wants to see. How did you steer your way through that in a way that was responsive to the victim and assured your customers while keeping your staff together and the reputation of your business intact?

Two of our climbing coaches were arrested for sexual abuse of a minor. While a 1,000-page book couldn't capture the whole of that tragic story, the short version is that in good times and bad, you have to stay true to your core values. We opened ourselves up to our community, held emotional town hall meetings, and worked in partnership with the police. So many people came to our aid, reminding us of what a wonderful community we live in. While so many of us were affected by this tragedy, and our work is never-ending, we are stronger because we lived up to our core values.

You counsel people to act on instinct, to trust their gut. What's the downside of doing that? How have you embraced that?

The key word in your question is "act." People know what is right and wrong, but they often fail to act. Climbing teaches us that you have to act if you want to reach the peak.


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