Leadership tips from the “Deadzone”

Kenton Cool (yes that’s his real name) leads teams of people into the “Deadzone” and out again.

The Deadzone’s not a new Zombie-themed paintball adventure but the top of Mount Everest, where the air’s so thin that if you spend too long there you die.

Kenton’s a mountain guide who’s climbed Everest’s summit 12 times, taking different thrill-seeking clients with him including none other than Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE.

Speaking at Flair4Recruitment’s latest networking event at The Watershed in Bristol, Kenton took us on a journey to the Deadzone, providing a range of unbelievable anecdotes and leadership tips along the journey.

From unclipping a rope at the top of a neighbouring mountain and free climbing the last 10 metres on rapidly melting snow to touch his nose on the summit, to spending 45 minutes trying to resuscitate a climber that had spent too long in the Deadzone, Kenton’s stories were astounding.

He started his journey with the adage that if you climb Mount Everest there’s a long shared mantra that most teams attempting the ascent follow: “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.”

Here are some of his key themes and messages:

  1. The importance of setting clear goals

One of the most critical parts of completing a successful climb, which is defined as getting down alive rather than reaching the summit, is to set the turnaround time.

In business we talk about deadlines which is perhaps a more apt description of the turnaround time, as this is the ultimate cut off time that a team needs to stop climbing up and start the descent to get out of the Deadzone alive.

The turnaround time is a non-negotiable deadline that has to be adhered to and is set at the beginning of the expedition. Everyone in the team knows that the summit has to be reached prior to this cut off.

On Kenton’s first ascent of Everest with Fiennes, the infamous adventurer told Kenton he had to stop climbing and turnaround to go down prior to reaching the summit. He knew he would be too tired to make the turnaround time if he’d carried on and didn’t want to jeopardise the rest of the team.

  1. Ability to adapt to a changing environment

However much planning and preparation goes into a mountain ascent, the weather in the mountains means the environment is ever-changing. Kenton and his team have to adapt to anything that’s thrown at them at a moment’s notice. In business we are facing tumultuous times with unexpected geo-political changes taking everyone by surprise. A great team should be able to adapt in an ever-changing environment. Mutate or die.

  1. Taking personal responsibility

Every member of the team climbing the world famous peak will know their responsibilities from the outset but critically, everyone must be prepared to take personal responsibility to carry them out. A mistake at high altitude can cost fingers or lives!

Kenton forgot to take his sleeping bag from base camp to the next camp, which could have cost him getting to the summit had his colleague not had a spare. Sir Ranulph Fiennes just thought he’d do a quick outside job in 40 below without his gloves. He lost his fingers as a result.

While we are humans and not robots, we will make mistakes. A great leader or team member will own up to mistakes quickly and apologise, so they can be tackled together with a quick solution.

  1. Take quick decisions

In an ever-changing environment a great leader must take quick decisions and stick with them. The courage of one’s convictions is imperative if the leader of a mountain team or business is to install confidence in their team members. The team must also have absolute confidence in its leader.

  1. Understanding how others work

Just as humans make mistakes, we are also all different. When Kenton climbs mountain peaks his team is not only made up of different English-speaking individuals but also Sherpas that not only speak a different language but have a completely different belief and cultural system to his.

People behave differently in each situation and what Kenton has come to understand is that everyone in the team will have a range of strengths and weaknesses and deal with what’s thrown at them in various ways.

Sherpas for example, will always find a solution to a challenge or situation whatever it is. No issue is too great for them to address and this is why they have led mountain expeditions for years.

  1. Clear communications

When climbing  Everest, the ‘team’ is how each individual gets to the top. Instructions and clear communications are absolutely critical at different points on the mountain.

To get in and out of the Deadzone within set deadlines requires clear and precise instruction to save time and effort.

In the same way the business leader that gives clear, unambiguous direction will get the best work and results he or she wants from their team.

  1. Seamless execution

When leaving base camp or other key stop-offs on the journey to the summit, Kenton talks about leaving any camp, “Clean Two”. This means tidying up and leaving everything so that the next climbing team finds the camp in the state that you would like to find it yourself.

This seamless execution can be applied to business teams when you are handing over your work to another team member or delivering a piece of work that’s been requested of you. To complete the handover or deliver work as you would like to receive it, is the sign of a true leader. Also always do the very best you can. To repeat other mantras, lead by example or be the change you want to see.

While the above seven tips are plenty to go on as learnings from the Deadzone, Kenton imparted a couple of final pieces of wisdom worth sharing.

The journey is the experience; if you are not enjoying what you are doing then make a change. If you are, then take a breadth and be in that moment and enjoy it when you reach the summit.

Last, while we might not scale Everest in our lifetime, Kenton was at pains to say that we only have one life and 24 hours in each day. Fill every day as though it’s your last and remember nothing is impossible:

“If someone says something is impossible, how can it be? It’s just no-one’s ever attempted it before.”