Mountaineering team: Leads and support

Jul 13, 2020

You don’t achieve success by going solo. You need allies – your manager and your direct reports – to make the load lighter.

If you want to climb the highest peak in the world, you can’t do it alone. When George Leigh Mallory scaled Mount Everest in 1922, he had plenty of help. Any successful leader has learned the hard way that you don’t achieve success by going solo. You need allies to make the load lighter.

Balancing the demands of doing your job, taking on new responsibilities, and trying to change habits that have worked for you in the past, can be exhausting and draining. The mantle of responsibility that you need to worry about other things, in addition to getting deliverables to clients on time, can weigh on you like an 80-pound pack. We need not just help, but the right help. Start to look at the allies you need to help you on your journey. Recruiting them is your first step up the mountain.

In the next two articles, I’ll talk about building allies. In this article, I’ll focus on the two most critical members: your manager and your direct reports.

The Lead. When I coach people to define their mountain, or their three-year vision, I encourage them to first share their mountain with the one person directly tied to their success: their manager. Think of this person as your lead. The person who can take you from here to there on the quickest path. They are responsible for your workload and focus. If they know where you are headed, they can help you get there.

Oddly, few emerging leaders take this step. Which is too bad, because how can the person charged with your direction at the firm help you get to where you want to go if you haven’t shared your itinerary? There’s often a fear that it might be too assertive or pushy. But any good manager would rather have someone with drive and direction than someone without a plan, always asking for what to do.

What if your mountain is not in perfect alignment with the company mountain? The reality is few of our mountains align perfectly – most likely your manager struggles with similar challenges of fitting his own mountain into the demands of the job. Welcome to leadership.

Smart managers will not be threatened by your dreams. Instead, they’ll work with you to shape the demands of the job with what drives your life and career goals. If they know you want to become an associate principal in two years, they can tell you what you need to get there. They can put you on interview teams and give you coaching to confidently present to prospective clients. They can test you with larger projects and have you manage small teams. As you evolve as a leader, you’ll be doing the same thing for people on your team.

The Support. Beth is a project manager at a small civil engineering firm. She’s 35, married, no children, likes to hike and drink local beer with friends. Her mountain is to become a principal in the firm, but that’s probably seven years off. In three years, she wants to be an associate.

Beth is driven and extremely competent and loved by clients. There’s nothing keeping her from getting to her mountain but herself. She fits that super-doer profile of an emerging leader who is doing it all herself and not asking for help. But her death grip on every detail was not leaving room for meeting with clients to develop relationships in order to keep them happy and get more work. Delegation was very hard for her because she couldn’t trust it would get done to the high standard that people expected from her. She was stuck in the past and it was keeping her from reaching her future.

She had taken the first step of building her team by talking to her lead, her manager. There was perfect alignment there with her direction and what the firm needed. But she needed to enlist the help of her support team – the direct reports she managed – in order to spread the load. This was tough because it felt like she was burdening her team, who were already busy. It felt selfish for her to push work on to other people, so she could accomplish her goals. But she also reasoned that they are not going to grow and reach their own mountain if she doesn’t push them. If everything remains the same nobody grows and the firm never changes. Today, if you hired a guide service to take you to the top of Everest, you would carry a light backpack, while Sherpas typically carry up to 80 pounds of food, propane, and bottled oxygen. They are part of one team, interdependent on each other for success.

The next day when a junior member of Beth’s team gave her a set of drawings for a new bridge, she started to take out her red pen to make corrections, but stopped and then said: “I need you to review these more carefully.” In eight short words, Beth took several steps in the right direction: she stopped herself from doing work that wasn’t going to get her to her mountain (and the firm’s mountain); she modeled for the junior staff person how to manage time and delegate to others; and, lastly, she made the staff person more accountable and responsible for his own results, which is the first step in becoming a leader. She helped him on his mountain, even if he didn’t know what it was! And it wasn’t a long, drawn-out uncomfortable discussion.

To grow as a leader, you need to know where you’re going. You need to be conscious of how you’re spending your time and if each move in the day – an email, a conversation – is keeping you exactly in this spot or moving you closer to your vision or mountain. Your manager and your direct reports are the team members most directly tied to your rope up the mountain. They will either drag you down or help you move up. Start by having a conversation with your manager about your direction. Push back work to your support team, so they are taking more responsibility and you are untethered to move forward.

Leo MacLeod is a leadership coach in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at

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