Excellent teams are a precondition for high-performing organizations. At mountains of 8,000 meters and higher, cooperation in teams even is a matter of life and death. Nowhere else are leadership and teamwork challenged as much as at the highest summits of the world. Dutch mountaineer Katja Staartjes shares some lessons in this book that can be taken from the mountains into the office. Katja Staartjes was the leader of and a participant in various expeditions in the Himalaya and the first Dutch woman at the summit of Everest.
Staartjes distinguishes six stages in climbing a mountain. The first is the expedition, including equipment, logistics and health. She pays attention even to simple things: down gloves have to be tied to your wrist; if you lose your glove in the snow, it will be the end of the expedition. In this stage you define success, for example the main goal is to return with all expedition members alive and healthy, reaching the top is secondary.
The second stage is the team. A well-functioning team has a sense of togetherness, collective safety and responsibility. Members complement each other, which can create synergy. The ideal team is between two and six people, depending on altitude, level of difficulty and accessibility of the area. As in organizations, diversity pays off but isn’t easy. Staartjes uses Belbin and Management Drives as tools in this chapter, which are scientifically debatable but are nevertheless used in many organizations.
The third stage is base camp. Staartjes urges to pay attention to team communications, getting to know each other, checking if you are really understood. The higher you get, the more difficult it is to communicate, wrapped in your thick suits surrounded by darkness, snow and roaring storms. Staartjes is honest about herself and her pitfalls in this book. In her Everest-expedition, she was the only woman amongst eighteen men, who had a different communication style. “No more questions, Katja”, she was told.
The fourth stage is the ascent. This is about personal leadership, knowing thyself, be honest to yourself. Staartjes sugggests to amplify what you are already good at and develop what should be improved.
The fifth stage is the summit. Decisiveness, flexibility and resilience are important. The highest summits can only be climbed five to ten days a year, depending on the weather. Adversity is guaranteed, you just don’t know when and how it will hit you. You have to face reality and accept the emotions that come with it. The death zone starts at 7,500 meters: bodily functions are giving up, clear thinking is next to impossible. As Staartjes writes: it is clear that people don’t belong here.
The final and most risky stage is the descent. On Annapurna one in six climbers die during the descent from the summit. From the highest camp to the summit usually takes 14 to 24 hours. The exhaustion is incomparable to anything else, she writes, and the dehydration is complete.
Staartjes’ personal experiences and her honesty in sharing them make this book worthwhile to read. The breathtaking photos by Menno Boermans and the beautiful design make it even more enjoyable. And don’t forget the bonus to imagine yourself in the heroic efforts of conquering the Himalayas without leaving your warm desk or couch.
Top teams. Samen bergen verzetten. Katja Staartjes, Menno Boermans. Management Impact, 2019