3 things mountain climbing and management consulting have in common

by Benjamin Treble

Soaring summits and professional peaks – while scaling mountains may seem far removed from the world of management consulting, the two have more in common than many people think. Blackdot consultant Benjamin Treble shares 3 key lessons learned while ascending the world’s peaks that have helped him reach new heights as a management consultant.

“There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.”

Mark Twain

Over the past three years, I’ve become hooked on mountaineering – an endeavour that on the surface can appear to carry significant risks and financial downsides. Despite these challenges, there are also positives in the sport, including learning valuable lessons surviving on the slopes. These lessons have transferred across to my professional life, helping me when consulting to clients around matters such as change management, adopting technology, operating models, and channel strategy.

Here are 3 key lessons from mountaineering which can help in dealing with challenges in management consulting. 

1. Balance

Management consulting demands a high level of commitment and mental capacity – much like the combined mental, emotional and physical pressures of mountaineering. While it can be a significant challenge integrating a busy consulting career with other elements of life, there are many rewards such as early exposure to senior stakeholders across multiple industries, an incredible learning environment, and an opportunity to fast-track your own personal development. 

Mountaineering has acted as a personal check for me – an anchor to which I can track my progress and realign my routine. Everyone should have something that acts as an anchor, whether this is family, sport or a hobby. Putting aside the time and energy to train and climb has been a significant challenge. Finding a workplace that supports the extended periods of time off required for mountain climbing has been even harder. I have been very fortunate to work at a firm with ‘Love Your Life’ as an explicit value. This is strongly supported by leadership, which has allowed me to make achieving success in my climbing career a priority.

Lesson: 
Find something that remains a constant outside your workplace which lets you measure how well you are achieving your personal and professional objectives at the same time.

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2. Patience 

My first trip to the Himalayas involved a two-week hike through humid tropical rainforest just to reach our base camp. Taking this amount of time is necessary to allow your body to naturally acclimatise – an important consideration in the event bad weather forces you to spend a week in a tent or teahouse, likely developing cabin fever. More depressingly than the time taken was that our average hiking pace was less than 5km/h. It felt as though we were running and passing everyone, when in reality we were moving slowly – very slowly. 

Successful management consultants need to get to an answer quickly using a structured top-down approach. People who are good at this task can also be restless and impatient for results. This mindset can be further heightened by the world of social media, the bombardment of content at our fingertips, and multiple screens flashing before our eyes.

While speed is something I aim for in my career, mountaineering, with its slower pace, provides contrast to my work. The patience I develop on the slopes is highly transferrable into the consulting environment. Slow and steady wins the race, as much as fast and agile does. My advice for junior consultants is to take a moment, consider your track, consider the people you work with, and really think about what you want to get out of this professional experience. Are you setting yourself up with the right foundations for long term success?

Lesson: 
Be patient and invest in your skills and relationships to set up for long-term career success as well as delivering the current engagement. 

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3. Ambiguity

Our executive director has a favourite interview question to test how people deal with ambiguity: “Tell me about a time you didn’t have enough information to do a task.” Consultants deal with ambiguous situations every day. Every engagement involves coming up to speed with a new client and industry. Client problems are nebulously defined and evolving. There is never enough data and never enough time. You have to form, storm and norm with a new team every few weeks and, in the case of Blackdot, there is a massive diversity in backgrounds and ways of thinking.

Again, mountaineering taught me what to do when the path forward was uncertain and full of obstacles. One significant challenge while hiking through the Himalayas was the unexpectedly late monsoon season. We walked for a week through the resulting humidity and periodic torrential rain. In these conditions, the only two other climbers we saw said it was more difficult than Papua New Guinea’s rugged Kokoda Track. Being stripped of modern luxuries such as electricity, running water, and easy access to healthcare changes your perspective on risk taking and decision making. 

Just as weather will remain a relatively ambiguous part of mountaineering, the unpredictability of clients will be a constant source of ambiguity in management consulting. To make an excellent consultant, you must remain open to other ideas even if they topple your ego. You also must be prepared to challenge the client but understand when to back down. 

Finally, learn to really put yourself in another person’s shoes. Trekking through both the popular Khumbu (Everest) valley and the lesser known Hinku valley afforded me the opportunity to see the polar differences in both – where one offers travellers modern luxuries such as Wi-Fi, while the other is more concerned with clean running water and access to medicine. 

Lesson: 
Preparation is key in mountaineering and consulting; however, you cannot prepare for everything. You must remain agile and able to deal with rising scenarios spontaneously.

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Reaching the top

Even if you are not keen on scaling the world’s towering peaks yourself, these key lessons from mountaineering can still be applied to your consulting career. Find an anchor outside of your office life that helps to get perspective outside of work. Complement this with patience and preparedness to deal with ambiguity, and you should reach new heights as a management consultant.

If you are interested in working in consulting, especially in a company which can help take you to new heights, check out our vacant positions.


Images by @benjamintreble