High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Endeavor Entrepreneur Rodrigo Jordan: What do mountain guides and entrepreneurs have in common? [Transcript]

Endeavor is pleased to make public the following transcript from a presentation at the 2011 Endeavor Entrepreneur Summit in San Francisco. The event, which assembled over 450 entrepreneurs and global business leaders, featured dozens of entrepreneurship-related presentations by top CEOs and industry experts.

Overview: Endeavor Entrepreneur Rodrigo Jordan, Founder and President of Vertical, combines his mountaineering leadership skills with his professional business leadership experience in this compelling presentation about the importance of developing human resource strategies.

Bio: Rodrigo Jordan is the Founder and President of Instituto Vertical in Chile. He has been an Endeavor Entrepreneur since 1998. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Development from Oxford University and a Civil Industrial Engineering degree from the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Chile.

Jordan is considered one of Latin America’s most accomplished mountaineers, having led several successful expeditions to the Himalayas and Antarctica, including Everest in 1992, K2 in 1996, Everest again in 2004 and Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain, in 2006. In 2008, he participated in kayaking expeditions to Antarctica (with National Geographic) and Greenland to document the impact of climate change on the world’s glacial masses. Jordan has authored a number of books and documentaries based on these expeditions including Everest: The Challenge of A Dream, K2: The Ultimate Challenge, Planet Antarctica and Antarctica/Greenland: Expeditions to the Heart of Climate Change.

He is the author of Leadership: From Theory to Practice (Spanish, Prentice-Hall 2008) and was the host of Leadership in Person, a TV show interviewing Chile’s most important leaders. In addition, he serves as Professor of Leadership and Decision Making in the MBA program at the PUC School of Business. Jordan regularly runs seminars on leadership to a wide variety of clients throughout Latin America and beyond, including extensive work with the Wharton Leadership Ventures program.
Jordan also directs Fundación Vertical, the non-for profit arm of Instituto Vertical that serves underprivileged students from the poorest schools in Chile, as well as promoting the enjoyment, responsible use and conservation of the environment.

Full transcript:

Rodrigo: I became an entrepreneur by force. It wasn’t my idea. I climbed Mt. Everest and came back. I decided I wanted to have a foundation to encourage social skills in children in schools which didn’t have the chance to learn anything about human relations. They learned about math or Spanish or sciences, but nothing about how to behave themselves among other people. And that foundation grew up very well. Suddenly we jumped because corporate started demanding our services. So we started the company, because of demand, not because of impulse. And because doing that we started guiding people into mountains – I’m a climber, not a mountain guide – I became a mountain guide. And when I say I became, I really studied hard in the UK and the US and took courses.

Entrepreneurs and mountain guides have similarities. We are losing track of something. What we are doing when we climb a peak or when we are organizing a company, we lose track of what we are providing to people within those companies. It is what I call “transformational experiences.” Even if your company fails, not just you, but all people that are working with you are going through a very deep important action that is transforming them. Sometimes we lose track of that. We think that we need to put this together. If it doesn’t work – sadness, and then we move to the next thing. That experience might be very important.

When I started guiding, I was young and I was literally pulling people up. I would tie a rope together, run up and then you would sort of follow me. That was my idea of guiding — getting you up whatever peak you want. Now that I’ve grown more mature and older, I’ve turned it the other way around. I go behind you and I want you to go with the rope; you decide, you pick the positions, you might get lost, you might fall. If something severe is going to happen, I’ll intervene, but I’m allowing you to take the position to experience the act of leadership in your eyes.

So here is my first question. What do you think is best? Leading from the front as entrepreneurs generally do, or side by side as many guides do? What do you think is best for your organizations? What are you doing already?

Entrepreneur 1: I think that when you are a pure startup, you are pulling and trying to get people to follow you. Once those people start to get trained, you say, ok, lead the way. Once you see that they have wings, that they can fly, you step back and make them accountable. That has been my experience.

Entrepreneur 2: I deal with a lot of different people so it depends on their stage. I try to get to the level where they’re in front, or we’re side by side. Mostly what happens is I lead from the front and try to have them believe I’m really behind the scenes.

Entrepreneur 3: I notice the approach when I travel. When I travel, I leave things behind me. In the beginning, it becomes a mess, but later on they make decisions on their own. Especially when there is a time difference, I like the approach of pushing from behind.

Entrepreneur 4: I think it’s a mix. I think in some situations you have to make quick decisions and have your team believe in you and tell them now is the time for me to lead and not to ask questions. And then at other stages and other projects, you can take it easy, let them lead from the front. But first they have to see how you lead and then have you walk beside them; only then you can let them lead.

Rodrigo: That’s very good. I think it depends, like you were saying, on some historical level, on what point in growth or development you are. This is related to a different aspect of the situation because it might be that it is a very old company, but still sometimes you need to lead from the front.
When we are climbing these very high peaks in the Himalayas and you are very talented climbers, better climbers than I am, you certainly lead at least in a sharing type of lead, but if an avalanche is coming, you are going to give very autocratic directions and you are going to give orders that you don’t normally do with people of such a level. In certain situations you have to move in the front, but in others you should move in the back.

Entrepeneur 5: It also depends on the way you live yourself and the experience you have. But it also depends on the culture. So from my experience, I think you need to lead from the front, and then lead together. And in this stage of leading together, you need to let them feel like they are the leader. But don’t go back because it is risky. It is not easy to let them lead.

Entrepeneur 6: I think as a leader you have to go first, take a look because in many ways you are the one who really understands the whole picture. And then go see where you want to go and then return and go with them. Go in front and then go altogether.

Rodrigo: So—as entrepreneurs, how much time have you devoted to thinking among yourselves how you are going to work together with your teams?

Entrepreneur 7: That’s a very interesting topic and we were having a conflict thinking about that. Our mentor said, “Guys, you have to define who is the leader here. If you don’t define that, I’m not even going to work with you guys. You are always very cooperative with one another, but then someone has to stand up and lead and guide the others.” That’s something we have started thinking about right now. At the same time you don’t want to give too much power. It’s a very interesting question. That’s very critical in the beginning to define the roles between the cofounders.

Rodrigo: As I understand, the failures, or we can call them the downs, the downs of most Endeavor companies, one of the most important reasons of why our Endeavor companies go through dips, is because of human aspects. Not because of planning or strategic thought or market, but because something went wrong among the team or between the team.

My thesis, and I want to put this on the table, is we don’t give as much thought to these aspects as we do to the more obvious things that we need to do, the strategic plan, the business plan, the venture capital etc. We think of what we need to do, how we are going to do it, but not how we are going to work to it. We don’t devote enough time to how we are going to work together. In that case, who is going to lead and how they are going to lead – it’s something that you need to think about and we really don’t.

I encourage you to think about these things. You are not going to solve them in the sense that there is no specific answer. Just try things. We tend to lead from what is more comfortable to us. You might feel comfortable from the front because your culture is that way, because you need a role model. But I’d recommend at some point to check with your team, especially with a project that’s not critical to the outcome, and try and lead from the side and lead from behind. See how your team works. Because when you are doing that, you are experiencing new ways of working together. You are increasing the social tools within your team in order to confront situations that might be difficult. When you expand your company and you go to Africa or you come to the United States – or Latin America, Latin America is more autocratic – when you come to the Anglo Saxon world, it’s a different style. So you have to work differently and you need to be prepared to change your styles in order to relate to a different culture.

When things are critical just do it the way you are most comfortable with. But if it’s not a critical situation, try new things. There are companies that have three leaders and they have now sorted it out. You can sometimes have Hewlett-Packard. Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard who lead the company –they gave them titles CEO and CFO – but they are actually both leading the company. Disney same thing – Walt Disney and Roy Disney. Outside everybody saw Walt Disney, but inside everybody new Roy had as much power as Walt. These two brothers worked very tightly together.

What I’m trying to say is that while we give little thought to these things when we are trying to build our companies, it’s often more important than many legal and financial decisions. The other thing I want to say is if you do not experiment (and this needs to be done with care because you might ruin your company in the process), you are not going to grow your companies. If you don’t try this, you are going to be in serious trouble down the road because it is so dependent on what you do.

The other thing is that I think these things, the development of your people, your talent, needs to be spoken out in meetings formally. Formally. We do meetings for strategic planning, for whatever, but we don’t devote much time as now your mentors are asking you to do, to sit down and figure how you are going to work it out. I love human resources, but I hate the word. Human resources is as strategic as anything else. This is what we get. We get companies failing because of a human dimension and still after 15 years our entrepreneurs are not working as hard on that human dimension as hard as they should.

We were very lucky in our expeditions because it happened so naturally; at the end of the day you all sit together to eat food. So there is always this session. We would address the the technical issues – we are running out of ropes or sugar. At some point, somebody would say, “Yeah, I just want to mention that I’m having a great time” or somebody would criticize, “you know, you treated me very badly today.” “You put on the screw the wrong way – we could all get killed and that’s why I shouted at you.” “Yes, but I don’t think you should have shouted.”

In terms of creating a strong culture between team members, it takes time, but it can also be done instantly, from the very beginning. You are going to go through a difficult exercise, but once you sort it out, it will be the standard for your company forever. You can use it as a tool.

Because we are small companies, you don’t have enough money or time to hire a VP for Human Resources. There are many big retired Human Resources VPs. You can hire them on a part time basis to define your human resource strategy. They’ve gone through this before and they can really help you. It’s not very expensive. I think that might be extremely helpful. The other thing I would do is give personal time to think about this. Where did I learn how to lead? The most influential person in how a person leads is his first boss. They can lead just as he or she did or by opposition.

Entrepreneur: Do you I have any test or any way that you determine if a someone is a potential leader?

Rodrigo: I’ll tell you the truth. I have tested many things of evaluating potential leaders. I haven’t seen anything that is useful. The only way I’ve see it is that you’ve hired a guy and you see how he develops leadership within the company. I think leadership within a company is developed within a company.

Nothing is as solid as mathematics, but in general, I’ve never found a good guide that came from outside the company. That’s why I say even small companies need a human resources strategy.

The other advice I have – I have been married for 25 years, next month we are going to be 26. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs. We have two or three moments in our lives when it was impossible for just us two to work things out. We are so grateful now that we were humble enough to say that we can’t solve this on our own and we need a third person to facilitate it. And sometimes, if things go very tense, someone from outside can come in and facilitate it with you. We’ve seen this with partners in Endeavor. We could have saved those companies if we had resolved those differences.
I was going to tell you a story about K2, the world’s second highest summit. We had to decide the team that was going to the summit and I was capable of going, physically. And I said, I’m not going, these guys can go up. I’ve been up to Everest from the bottom to the summit and I can let these guys go up.

Entrepreneur: Why did you have to stay behind?

Rodrigo: Because there is an issue on these very big mountains that most of the accidents happen when you’re coming down. You always need somebody that would be willing to go and help, eventually. My Professor did that for me when we were climbing Mt. Everest. Literally, I wouldn’t be speaking here if it weren’t for him. This story is never told. The story is told that we got to the summit and we’re famous. We were coming down and arrived at camp 2 late at night, destroyed, totally physically exhausted. I said, “I’m so happy to be down and so that now I can rest.”

He said, “We are moving right now.”

I said, “What are you talking about? We have been climbing for 20 hours.”

“I’m going to give you tea, a lot of drink, and we are going to keep moving down.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because the monsoons are coming and if they hit the mountain when we’re up here, we’re not going to come down.”

He was right. I didn’t have the effort to argue and we kept on. He would be climbing on ropes and he would be leading us from behind. And believe it or not, we arrived at base camp the following morning, and that day the monsoons hit Everest. And we wouldn’t have been out then. So it was really reinforced in me that you needed somebody to help you down. For that, for taking that rope, you need someone as good as you.

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