Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

An interview I did for a Spanish corporate client.

1. You manage to juggle two different jobs – the one of alpinist and the one of conference speaker. Which one is more difficult to handle?
While being an alpinist is certainly more dangerous, being a conference speaker can be considerably more intimidating! I love doing both, and enjoy the contrasts that they provide.

2. How does one feel after being able to conquer Mount Everest twice?

3. How many times have you been to Mount Everest?
I’ve been on four expeditions. The first was a successful ascent via the south col. The second ended at 8600 metres on the north-east ridge when we abandoned the ascent to try and help a dying American woman. The third was a successful ascent via the north ridge. And the fourth was an attempt to climb a new route on the east face. We abandoned due to the high level of danger on the face.

4. What does one feel when they reach the top of the most legendary peak on the face of the earth?
Standing on top is a combination of sheer relief at being able to stop, incredulous exhilaration about having finally arrived and continual worry about getting down again. For me climbing, and life, is an ongoing process, highlighted by summit moments, but made up of much more than that. We can spend up to nine weeks on a mountain, just to sit for 15 minutes on the summit. To make that worthwhile, we have to find ways to get passionate about the process, to find value in the journey, whether or not we reach the top.

5. The mountain is a dangerous and even deadly place, as unfortunately, it was recently demonstrated with the tragic death of the Spanish mountain climber Tolo Calafat. In your personal experience, you managed to survive a similar fatal incident. How does an expert like you measure the risk?
Effective risk assessment requires a realistic understanding of what the real risks are. Mountaineers often obsess about the dramatic but unlikely risk, like avalanche and storms, while ignoring the everyday risks associated with stress, with complacency, with ineffective management of people. It also requires a realistic understanding of what the rewards of the undertaking are and how much you are prepared to risk to achieve them.
Risk assessment is a continual process as the conditions around you and the resources at your disposal, from your equipment to your own inner strength, are always changing. You need to continually keep in mind both your immediate objective and your long-term goals. Thus using so much energy to reach the summit that you haven’t the strength to get back down is a poor choice.
It is helpful to be brutally realistic about your abilities so that you neither push too far, nor let yourself down by not being sufficiently bold. It is also useful to be aware of the advantages and dangers of group decisions. The support of a team can be essential in keeping going in difficult times, but an ambitious team can also talk each other into ignoring or explaining away high-risk situations.
A very useful tool is what we could call scenario planning in advance. So you already have various possible strategies in place for use in dangerous situations. It is also helpful to have certain absolute rules established in advance – things that we do not do whatever the circumstances. It can be much harder to draw such line in the sand in the heat of the moment.
A successful team is one that knows when to back off, that can keep sight of their long-term goals despite the pressure for immediate results.

6. What is the link between climbing and company management?
Both are essentially exercises in project management. And both involve the management of ambitious people under considerable stress in the face of demanding objectives and potentially high risks. Mt Everest provides an illuminating case study because it is a simpler but more extreme version – smaller team, clearer objective, shorter time line, exaggerated risks – and that makes the key tools and the key dangers easier to see.

7. What do you recommend to company executives, now that the crisis seems to have settled comfortably in Western economies?
Everyone is now working in difficult external circumstances. This is where companies that make the most efficient and effective uses of their internal resources, notably their people, will have the greatest success. It is time to focus on the things that you can control, which are processes, attitudes and management within the company.
This is also where companies that have a history of trust and respect within their organisation will benefit as everyone agrees to pull together to get through hard times. Those who did not invest in such issues in the previous good years will find these times very difficult.

8. Do you think that governments are on the right track or they should be looking for new alternatives?
I don’t think that my experience in the mountains really qualifies me to answer this one! But we all need to be looking for new ways forward. We will eventually emerge from the crisis into a different world. It is no good hoping that the same old behaviours will produce their previous success.

9. What do you know about Campofrio Food Group?
I know that you are Europe’s leader in processed meat and that you produce some very tasty food! I also noticed that there is a very positive, supportive atmosphere within your management team, much more so than many companies that I have visited.

10. What issues are you going to focus on in your conference speech?
I am particularly interested in the way that people often misunderstand the major risks and obstacles in any great undertaking, and therefore put their energy into the wrong tools.
I will be telling the story of my first Everest expedition as a case study firstly in how not to do it – our team was badly chosen and rapidly erupted into complex infighting and power-plays, ending with 3 key members walking out before we even got to base camp. While it was traumatic at the time, in retrospect it is an amusing example of how ambitious able people can destroy themselves when they place personal ambition over the team objective. I then go on to look at what we learnt from this experience and how we used it to pull our team together to overcomes various external obstacles on the mountain – notably what has come to be called the worst storm in the history of Everest. And to eventually succeed in reaching the summit.
I intend my session to entertain, to inspire, to share with the audience a completely different type of experience, but also to share with them these key underlying tools to success that are true of ambitious people in stressful situations faced with difficult goals, whether they be mountaineers or businesspeople.
11. Is passion the driving vehicle for success both in climbing and company management?
I think that passion is crucial. It gives an extra edge to your motivation and your determination. It helps to create a compelling vision of your objective. It needs to encompass not just the goal but all the steps involved in getting there. And it has to be combined with discipline. There will always be aspects of the challenge that are no fun at all but need to be done regardless.

12. In your opinion, which are the most important values every company should try to uphold? And what about the values of company executives?
I feel that the key concept is to try and create maximum value for whoever the stakeholders are, but without causing harm to others in the process. So as climbers we push determinedly for the top, while remembering the bigger picture that says that no summit is worth losing our lives over. And accepting too that we will give up on our main goal rather than do irreparable damage to the environment and rather than fail to aid another human being who needs our help.
So companies strive to create maximum value for their shareholders but without causing damage, without exploiting their people or the planet, without losing sight of their ethical foundations.

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