Hey BPL – I wrote an article on LinkedIn that talks about how lessons learned from UL backpacking can be translated to the business world. I encourage anyone else who splits their time between the boardroom and the mountains to give it a read.
What UL Backpacking Can Teach Us About Business
I am a backpacker. More specifically, I am an ultralight backpacker. Ultralight backpacking is not just about having the lightest gear; it is a minimalist philosophy centered around going further by bringing less. Ultralight backpacking is both a skillset and a mindset; it also has some important lessons for the business world.
But first, why should you listen to me? I am a client relations and customer experience expert. I have an MBA and a PMP (a project management professional certification), and until recently was working with some of the world’s largest and most respected financial services providers to improve the experience of their customers. On the backpacking front, I have a base weight (what I carry on my back minus food and water) under 10 pounds and hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in 2 days. It is not that I am the most physically fit person out there, it is that the ultralight philosophy and the way I approach the trail give me a distinct edge. Let’s face it, we can all use whatever edge we can get, regardless of the setting.
So, what can ultralight backpacking teach you about business? Here are my key takeaways:
A lot of conventional backpackers think being prepared is about having the gear for every conceivable situation. To this I would say, “alright Rambo, that 12-inch knife will open your dehydrated dinner really well, but how many miles are you going to do with that 45-pound pack?”
To me, being prepared is about knowing exactly what you are going to face. Pour over those topographical maps ahead of time so that you know exactly where the big elevation gains will be. Watch YouTube videos to get the lay of the land. Know the weather forecast so you can pack for the conditions you will actually face.
Of course, preparation is also integral in business. When I meet with a client, I have already done my homework. I don’t just go in there with my own agenda, I know what their biggest issues are, what is keeping them up at night, and how I can help. I don’t just know my slide deck when I give a presentation, I want to know what the audience is likely to ask and have answers to those questions at the ready. In the boardroom or on the trail, being prepared always leads to better outcomes.
Have a Plan
Having a plan makes all the difference. The important point here is that a plan is not a goal (like increasing sales by 20% this year or reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney in 6 days). A real plan looks at the all of the steps and milestones between where you are and where you want to be. In business that might be how you are going to generate leads, qualify them and funnel them through your pipeline; in the mountains it can be a detailed itinerary, including campsites, where the water sources are and contingency plans in case you need to bail.
Having a plan is great, but let’s face it, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Whether you are in the corner office or trying to Summit Mt. Marcy in the winter, something is bound to go wrong. Maybe that campaign didn’t go as planned or there is way more snow on the trail than anticipated. When everything does not go as hoped, you need to adapt. You need to be flexible. Tweak the copy and run some A/B tests to optimize your campaign, or summit a nearby south-facing peak with less snow instead.
A big part of being flexible is recognizing when it is time to pivot. All too often managers will wait just a little longer to see if they will magically start getting the results they are looking for, or a hiker will dredge through deep snow for a few miles before adjusting the itinerary. The sooner you are able to make adjustments, the more effective you will be.
Agility is Key
I once did a quick overnight hike on the Pemi-Loop (one of New England’s must-do backpacking trips). As I was making the long and arduous climb up to the ridge line, an 18 year-old kid, clearly in better shape than I, went zipping past. A while later, I caught up to him at a stream crossing. With my 10-pound pack, trail running shoes, and trekking poles, I skipped across the stream in seconds as this kid stared with his mouth agape. Apparently, it had taken him the better part of an hour to cross that same stream, taking off his pack, digging out his water shoes, shuttling his gear across, then drying off and changing back into his heavy hiking boots on the other side.
Agility is key in business; circumstances, customer preferences and the competition are changing all the time. Agility allowed me to be the first out with benchmarking on companies’ COVID responses in early April 2020 to launch a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution to address the lack of in-person oversight of suddenly-remote staff the following month. Nimble companies are going to have first-mover advantage and are best positioned for long-term success.
I have always been an advocate for the idea that, no matter what it is you are doing, there is a better way to do it. This is what drives me to modify my gear, play with how I carry my camera, and optimize my morning camp routine.
Continuous improvement is every bit as applicable to business as it is to backpacking. Analyze every process, every task, and every deliverable to see where improvements can be made. Don’t let the phrase, “that is how we have always done it” hold you back. Things might start out small, a step that can be eliminated here, a few seconds that can be shaved off there…but they add up.
A key point here is that you don’t need to do it alone. Adventurers can go on trips with more experienced friends, read Backpacker magazine, or explore the (extremely helpful) forums on www.backpackinglight.com. On the business front, I did not increase the gross profit of a flagship product from 38% to 68% through sheer willpower or my own brilliance. I did it by engaging the entire team, by asking those closest to the work to always be looking for ways to do their job better.
Know Where to Make Your Investments
Even the most successful companies and best-funded startups have resource limitations. The same is true for the majority of backpackers. We all want the best gear, but we need to have some money left over to take that big trip. In either case, the crucial skill is to know where to spend your money to have the biggest impact.
When it comes to backpacking, I have a $10 homemade stove and cookset which I keep in my $400 pack. In business, that might mean making do with the free version of a software solution so you can retain your best talent. Either way, you want to spend money where it will make the biggest difference. Looking at incremental costs and benefits is usually a sound approach here.
You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Okay, that is not 100% true, but you can definitely be more effective if you are able to leverage metrics. In backpacking that means weighing out every piece of gear and tracking what goes into your pack. In business it means finding the right key performance indicators and actively managing those numbers.
Hard work leads to big rewards. Whether it is achieving 95% client retention year after year, or soloing a 100-mile high-route (an off-trail trip through the mountains at high elevation), the greatest accomplishments require sustained effort.
Setting ambitious goals and working diligently towards them is key to doing the things that you will want to highlight on your resume or post to Instagram.
Okay, we have established that hard work is key, but if it is all about the pay-off at the end, you are going to get burnt out. Whether we are talking business or backpacking, you are going to do a better job if you are able to have fun along the way. That may mean building strong relationships with your clients, appreciating the mental challenge of redesigning an onboarding process, injecting humor into training, or taking a dip in that alpine lake as you pass by.
This is also true for your direct reports. If they are able enjoy their jobs, they will be more engaged. If they are more engaged, they will do better work. Approach your team with a sense of humor, ask for their input, make morale a priority and it will pay dividends.
Know When to Bail
Sometimes you just need to know when to bail. I love the desert, so when I found myself in Phoenix one summer, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go backpacking in the Superstition Mountains, despite the heat. It was 107° when I set out. I made my campsite on a cliff overlooking the city without incident, but the next day, in the midday sun, it was hot. Really hot. At the higher elevations there were not even any saguaro cacti to provide shade. It was brutal. I wisely cut short my trip and took one of the bail-out options I had scouted before setting out. As it was, I barely made it back to the trailhead, but had I kept going, I would have suffered serious consequences.
The same applies in business. No matter how much you want to close that deal or make that new product succeed, sometimes the best thing to do is to cut your losses. Tenacity is a virtue, but obstinance is a vice. If something is just not going to happen, you need to accept that, recoup what you can and move on. Similarly, if a situation is untenable or if you are asked to compromise your own ethics, you need to make tough choices. Moving on does not mean you cannot take pride in what you did accomplish.
Backpacking and business? My take…they aren’t that different. Maybe after closing that big deal, my legs don’t ache like when I get off a mountain, but that adrenaline rushing through my veins, it’s the same feeling. A rewarding career that allows you to stop and take in your achievements, one that allows you to navigate yourself through tough situations to finally realize your ultimate goals, a position that challenges you, utilizes all of your skills while insisting you keep improving; this is the apex of business. And the view…is spectacular.