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Of scaling mountains and running a business

Ever feel that running a restaurant is like climbing Mount Everest? Alison Levine says it is, and she would know. She’s an accomplished businesswoman as well as one of the few people who’s climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents. Then there are her treks across the North and South Poles.

“A lot of the lessons I’ve learned climbing mountains have helped me in the business world,” Levine said during the 2013 Restaurant Leadership Conference. “And honestly, a lot of the things I’ve learned sitting at my desk have helped me when I’m out in the field.”

So what are the similarities between mountain climbing and running a business? Levine counted the ways during a breakout session titled “Leadership Lessons from the Ledge.”

  • When Levine set out to climb Carslan Pyramid in Indonesian—what she calls her most challenging peak—the host nation was at war. She was told the area was off limits, but didn’t give up, asking questions until she found an answer she could use. “It’s easy for people to tell you ‘no,’” she said. You need to keep asking questions until you get to ‘yes.’”
  • When Levine was asked to lead the first all-female team of climbers up Mount Everest—the American Women’s Everest Expedition—she demurred at first. She said the Sept. 11 attacks in New York changed her mind.  “Do not let fear stop you from doing the things you want to do,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could do this successfully, but I had to try.”
  • In recruiting her all-female team, Levine embraced the opposite of the saying “check your egos at the door.”“[When recruiting], you want people who have the skills and have confidence in their skills,” she said. “You want people who know that they’re good.”
  • Early on, the concept of climbing from sea level to an elevation of 29,000 feet was overwhelming to Levine. Breaking the ascent into smaller missions made it easier to digest. When contemplating a major business task, “break it down into smaller parts. It’s always easier to accomplish” that way, she advised.
  • Getting acclimated to the altitudes on Mount Everest requires climbing parts of the mountain several times and then descending to prepare the body for the summit. In business, Levine said, “We tend to think that progress can only happen in one direction. Occasionally you have to go backwards” to make progress.
  • There are scary parts to any mountain climbing task, and being afraid is okay, even natural. “Fear is just a human emotion,” Levine said. “Complacency is what will kill you. … You have to be able to act and react very quickly when your environment is changing rapidly.”
  • As the leader of the Mount Everest team, Levine found it necessary to put on a brave face even when that’s not what she was feeling inside.  “As a leader,” she said, “you have to be willing to endure anything that you expect your team to endure. There will be times you have to suck it up and put a smile on your face. It’s not about you; it’s about your team.”
  • On that 2002 climb with the all-female team, the women found in necessary to abandon the mission about 180 feet from the peak because harsh weather was rolling in. It was a tough but necessary decision. “Turning around and walking away from the deal is harder than continuing to climb,” Levine said. “But if the conditions aren’t right, you cut your losses and you walk away.”
  • Eight years later, Levine would return to Mount Everest. Even though a storm again rolled on the final day of the climb, she found the lessons learned from the earlier, abandoned mission gave her the footing to reach the summit.  “It’s not about the time you spend on the peak; it’s about the lessons you learned along the way and how you use them going forward,” she said. “We have low failure tolerance. You have to be willing to fail to learn the lessons that will help you succeed in the future.”

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