Five Lessons from Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Posted in Huffington Post, online August 20, 2014 by Anne Day, Founder, Company of Women

As Nina Spencer stood in her smart business suit and high heels, it seemed incongruous that she’d actually climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But she did, and she came back changed by the experience.

As she shared her story, with wonderful photos so we could literally get the picture, we were in awe of what she’d accomplished. She explained that she’d also learnt a lot from the experience that tied in so well with our business lives, lessons she felt would transfer over to what we were doing as small business owners.

Now climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” as Nina affectionately called it, was not on her bucket list. Nothing could have been further from her mind. It was more that the opportunity kept appearing in her inbox, to the point that she finally decided to pay attention and learn more about what was involved.

One of the determining factors was that the group of women were using the climb to raise funds to support a leadership program for girls in Nairobi.

She did an excellent job weaving the lessons into her talk, tying them back to what we could learn through her experience. Here’s some of what she shared:

1. Ignore naysayers

As she started to tell friends what she was planning to do, there was often a silence, followed by comments like “you don’t even camp” or “it’s like you’re trying to get a PhD without finishing high school.”

Clearly her friends were skeptical about her chances of success, much like the feedback we get when we announce our business plans. Her advice? Believe in yourself. Ignore them. Prove them wrong.

2. Have realistic expectations

Right from the outset, Nina knew this was going to be an emotional and physical challenge and she trained for months before so she was more prepared for the climb. As she said “I was ready for the worst and hoped for the best.” She also knew she had to treat the venture with respect and be prepared for all eventualities.

However, she shared that one famous tennis player had embarked on the climb a month prior and on day three was sent home. Why? Word is that she felt she was in good shape and treated the climb as a “walk in the park.” This attitude led to her downfall.

It is the same in business, if you get too complacent and cocky about your product or service, you can set yourself up to fail. It’s important to be realistic as to what can be achieved and be ready to troubleshoot when issues arise.

3. Pace yourself

In order to reach the summit, and get back down, the climbers had to pace themselves and keep some energy in reserve to make sure that having got up the mountain, they could get down. A couple of women in their group reached the summit, but had to be taken back down on stretchers. They were spent. As she observed, “it ain’t over, until it’s over.”

Likewise in business, when you rush ahead and expand too quickly, you can leave yourself at risk of overextending your resources and not being able to maintain that pace.

Burnout is just around the corner. And as some of us have learned the hard way, a deal is never a deal, until all the paperwork is signed.

4. It takes a team to reach the top

Over 57 people travelled with the group on the climb — preparing meals, carrying their equipment and looking after their medical needs. “While it may have been a solitary experience at times, it took the team to get us to the summit.” she shared.

Similarly none of us achieve success by ourselves — our staff, volunteers, friends and family all play a role in getting us there. Someone once said that the only time success comes before work, is in the dictionary. How true.

5. Celebrate your successes

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is no mean feat, and even those in Nina’s group who didn’t make it all the way, should be proud of what they have accomplished.

So often in our businesses, we reach a significant milestone and instead of stopping to celebrate and pat ourselves on the back, we dismiss it. We quickly move on, extend the goals, wanting to reach higher and higher.

When Nina reflected on what she’d just done, she knew she wanted to share the experience and learnings with others. And we are glad she did.

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