Venkatesh Maheshwari, 46, has scaled several highs in his corporate career, but nothing compares to Everest. This year, he became the first Marwari to scale the peak, making him a celebrity of sorts in the community. But he is not alone. India Inc, which has had its share of marathoners, is seeing a new breed of leaders taking to mountaineering, and it is helping them become better managers.
In a complex business environment, corporate leaders are required to surmount Everest-like challenges on a regular basis. “There are times you need to take a tough call and stand by it, like in the event of a storm you need to abort the climb. While you face such challenging situations in the business world too, the kind of mental strength you acquire in an expedition is something you cannot learn behind the closed doors of a corporate office,” says Maheshwari, who works for Aditya Birla Group as senior vice-president, supply chain management, fashion division.
Vandana Trivedi, 40, who leads institutional sales for IDFC Asset Management Company, has done numerous treks in the Sahyadris and Himalayas. As a professional in a high-growth industry with steep business goals to meet, Trivedi says her time in the mountains helps her “accept reality, pause a bit, and come back refreshed to start again”.
Mountaineering is all about preparing for the climb. Working on fitness through the year for that one big night when climbers make the summit attempt is critical.
“At the workplace, it is important to prepare well before meeting the client. You demonstrate that you value the client’s time,” says Trivedi, who has two young children. She started trekking five years ago, and her training regime involves strength training, running and clocking vertical miles by climbing 100 floors in an hour on a weekly basis.
For Maheshwari, the physical preparation entailed climbing 50 floors with a 12kg backpack, wearing a high-altitude mask which cuts oxygen intake by 50%, and 4kg weights tied to his ankles. Mental preparation is equally crucial. A climber has merely six oxygen cylinders to manage with. “Can there be any better lesson in time and risk management? It teaches you to know your strengths, gauge the scenario, evaluate your resources and take a well-calculated decision,” says Maheshwari.
Making the most of limited resources is another key lesson Trivedi has learned. “As you climb higher, the odds are against you-food rations come down, you sleep on glaciers, oxygen levels fall. Business wins are generally about achieving the maximum output with optimal input, and the ability to prioritise time, money and effort most productively. And that is something that has become second nature to me thanks to these expeditions,” she says.
Vikas Dimri, director and head, SME, trade & working capital, at Deutsche Bank, who climbed Everest this year, says mountaineering has made him more mindful at work. There are other life lessons too. “For example, one has to wait out the bad weather in the mountains to climb another day, just as you would have to wait out the market headwinds while still looking for growth.” Also, he believes that when we do something extraordinary, it inspires others to strive for the same. “To me, this has helped bring perspective to the work I do and helped me get better at it,” says Dimri.
The mountaineers say the temptation to quit is greatest just before the summit is reached. The last leg of the ascent entails about 10 hours or more of walking through the night, climbing steep mountain faces, enduring freezing winds, while battling sleep and exhaustion. The “ghost hour” is between 3 and 4am, when the body refuses to take one more step. “If you don’t break at that point, you are almost sure to make it to the summit,” says Trivedi.
Business deals are no different. “The key is to be resilient to rejections and persistent in your efforts.” Team-building and humility are some traits mountaineers imbibe. “When you have to survive on canned food and limited water and oxygen for days, humility is the only thing that keeps you going. While we scale the corporate ladder, we need to become better human beings, and mountaineering has inspired me to be one,” says Maheshwari.