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  Climbing Safely to the Top
  James A. Nortz

Climbing Safely to the Top

          Twenty-five feet in the air, breathing hard and clinging to a half-inch thick rock feature with tired fingertips, I stared down in complete disbelief at the safety rope that was not connected to my seat harness.  Reeling from the immediate adrenalin rush that followed, I struggled for what seemed an inordinate amount of time to accept the fact that this was not a bad dream and that I was indeed in significant peril.

          Being a bit of a fitness nut, I frequently lift weights and run five to six miles along the Genesee River in downtown Rochester, NY during the weekdays.  For a few years I liked to cross-train by working out on the weekends in a local rock climbing gym.  My routine was to begin with some easy routes to warm up and then do some speed climbing to see how many times I could ascend a particular rock wall in five minutes.  Then, I would strive to build on my technical climbing skills by attempting more difficult routes that required leaping to hand-holds just out of reach and utilizing only the smallest rock features on the wall. 

          It was while preparing to make such a difficult climb that I unhooked from my safety rope to apply some chalk to my hands and plan my route.  I then attacked the wall with all I had, stretching my amateur climbing skills to their limit.  As I prepared to navigate the last few feet, it was only by luck that I took a breather and looked down to note that I had neglected to hook back into the safety line before beginning my ascent.

          Business leaders don’t often find themselves in the kind of physical danger I confronted that day on the rock wall, but there is a seemingly unending stream of ambitious, smart, conscientious people in business who fall from significant heights resulting in serious injury to both them and their firms.  To avert a similar fate, I urge you to adopt three simple rules that all prudent rock climbers follow: carefully survey your route, check your safety equipment, and, no matter what, don’t panic.

Carefully survey your route

          Business, like rock climbing, is not a risk-free activity.  No matter which route you pick, there is always a chance of failure.  As a business leader, it’s your job to determine the path you will take.  However, to put yourself in the best position to succeed, you must do something that comes unnaturally to most human beings: squarely face the reality of your situation.

          Compounding the fact that it is often difficult to discern vital realities in the marketplace, we all have a tendency to see the world as we would like it rather than the way it is.  We tend to act on emotion and “gut feeling” more often than on the basis of a rational evaluation of objective data.  This, perhaps, is one reason why lotteries and gambling casinos continue to be so popular and profitable.  Hope does spring eternal, but when you are charged with leading a business, it’s important that you put hope aside and take a long hard look at your capabilities and the “wall” you’re about to “climb” – not just to find the path to your goal, but to consider the risks. 

          There are many potent enterprise risk assessment tools you might use to perform this work, but a review of them is beyond the scope of this short essay.  The important thing is that you exhibit the discipline to do the work necessary to examine the relevant risks carefully and rationally with an effort in proportion to the importance of the activity you are contemplating.  When engaging in this exercise, your objective is not necessarily to identify and choose the safest route.  Instead, your goal is to make sure you really know what you’re getting into and make rational choices before you start to climb.

Check your safety equipment

          Once you’ve assessed your risks and chosen your route, don’t make the same mistake I made by focusing so much on achieving a particular goal that you forget to check to see if you have the right “safety equipment” and that you’re “hooked in.”  This is a protocol experienced climbers always follow, but is far less common in business circles.  It begins with seeking the answer to a very basic question:  “How reliable are the systems I’m counting on to avoid problems and catch me if I fall?” 

          By far, the best way to answer this question is to institutionalize periodic systems evaluations for those processes associated with your company’s critical risk areas.  Such evaluations provide decision-makers at all levels of the company the basic information they need to assess whether the enterprise has the necessary tools to achieve stated goals within acceptable risk tolerances.  For example, if your company manufactures consumer products, a key enterprise risk may be associated with product quality and reliability.  In such circumstances, it is vital to periodically check to see whether the systems your company relies on to guarantee high product quality are up to the task, or whether they need improvement.  These qualitative systems evaluations should also be supplemented with objective performance data, such as a product defect rate.  Like pulling on a rope to check if it’s secure, such objective performance data confirm whether perceived systems’ reliability tracks with reality.

          In making this recommendation, I’m not suggesting that you invest in systems that eliminate all risk.  Like placing a piton in a rock wall every three inches, implementing ultra-reliable systems will slow your ascent and be too costly.  Instead of eliminating risk, your chief objective should be to ensure that you have taken financially reasonable steps to effectively manage the level of risk.

          If your company has not yet institutionalized effective, periodic systems evaluations and relies exclusively on functional experts within the company to do their jobs, it is quite likely that when you do perform such an analysis for the first time you will be surprised to see how frayed or nonexistent your safety ropes really are.  Like my experience on the climbing wall, companies that merely assume these systems are in place and in good working order are likely to find themselves in unexpected peril.  If you currently work for such a company, at least be sure to check the reliability of the risk management systems related to your projects so you can climb with confidence.

No matter what, don’t panic

          Occasionally, despite your best efforts, you may find yourself in a very difficult spot that threatens your career and/or your business.  There are myriad examples of business leaders in such positions who become paralyzed with fear and take no action as they watch their fortunes slip away.  I can tell you from personal experience this is a perfectly natural reaction to an emergency situation. 

          While clinging without protection to the rock wall, it took a significant mental effort to dampen my panic response and engage my higher-level reasoning skills to figure out a safe way to get my feet back on the ground.  The first thing I did was alert the climbing instructors nearby about my situation.  Second, I quickly made contingency plans in case their initial rescue effort of hooking me onto a steel safety loop in the wall with a short rope didn’t work.  My first backup plan was to have them send the self-belaying safety rope that I failed to hook into in the first place up the rock wall so I could clip in.  Failing that, I intended to commence down-climbing the wall; a risky move with tired hands, but one that was better than jumping to the ground from such a height.  Finally, I thought that if I began to slip or fall either before a rescue was complete or during a down-climb, I would grab the safety line with my bare hands to slow my fall.

          When confronted with a high pressure, high stakes business problem, you must do the same by suppressing your fear and rationally developing and executing contingency plans.  This is always much easier said than done, but if you can manage to do it, you may be one of the few calm, rational voices in your company capable of making the best of a bad situation, and hopefully averting catastrophe.

          As the minutes passed, gravity seemed to pull with extra force and the fingers on my left hand began to shake with exhaustion.  When the climbing instructor finally arrived next to me on the wall, it became clear that the rope he brought with him to hook me into the safety loop was too short for the job.  Because I was prepared, I was able to immediately execute my second contingency plan by giving instructions to another climber on the ground to release the spring-loaded safety rope for my would-be rescuer to guide it up and hook me in. 

          Fortunately for me, my second plan worked and I descended safely to the ground both without injury and much wiser.  Now, I never climb without carefully surveying my route, checking my safety equipment and, no matter what, keeping my fears under control.  As a business leader, I encourage you to always do the same.

Additional reading

Jim is currently serving as Compliance Director at Bausch & Lomb and is a leader in the field of corporate compliance and ethics with extensive experience in developing and implementing compliance and ethics programs for multinational corporations.  He writes the monthly business ethics columns for the “Association of Corporate Counsel Docket” and the “Rochester Business Journal”.  In addition, Jim serves on the board of directors of the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association, is a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation, and is a member of Nazareth College’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Professional Ethics. He can be reached at