April 2013 | 

Team-building Lessons from Mount Everest


Rodrigo Jordan knows about high performance: he led the first South American team to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the second team in the world to do so via the treacherous Kangshung Face. He led a Chilean team a few years later to a successful ascent on K2. Jordan then founded Vertical in Chile, a company that uses mountains as classrooms to teach about leadership and the development of high-performing teams. He routinely leads executives and students on expeditions to the Himalayas and Antarctica.

Jordan says it was on his ascent on Everest when he came to a critical realization about teams: “You can’t reach the summit without communication, crisis management, teamwork, optimism, and effective solving of conflicts. But most crucial to the successful team is each member’s full commitment to the shared values of the team.” It is these “soft skills” that he credits for his team’s mountaineering achievements, and that he says must be present for organizational teams to meet their goals.

Executives benefit from Jordan’s knowledge and expertise without summiting one of the world’s most challenging peaks in Wharton’s Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams. The program has been a model of experiential learning since its inception in 2008, affording participants the opportunity to learn first-hand what it takes to be part of an effective team. A combination of theory and practice puts them to the test, and is designed to maximize learning.

“It is one thing to take people out for an experiential program. It’s another to develop that program so everyone involved learns from it,” notes Jordan, who holds a PhD in Organizational Administration from Oxford University. “The adventure is not a learning experience if you don’t think about it. Many programs have the activity, but they don’t give you enough time to process and get feedback. When you hold structured debriefing sessions, the learning curve is experienced by each member of the team, and the leadership quality becomes amazingly good over time.”

In Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams, participants actively relive Jordan’s K2 ascent. “It is about living the experience in terms of the urgency, the decisions that had to be made as we were climbing. And then it is about how to transfer the team leadership experience to their work environment. Taking the time to make these connections is where the real learning happens.

“My session is critical in the sense that it makes you think where you want to be as a leader. Do you want to lead from the front, accompany your team in the middle, or lead as a general from the back? The executives in the program would typically lead from one of these positions without thinking about it — they haven’t given thought to the process. My idea is that you don’t lead the same way every time. You must be able to move from front to back, depending on the group and situation. That very simple lesson is gained by living it.”

Jordan explains that experiential learning also involves getting people out of their comfort zone. “One way to do that is through the leadership position. Because of your personality, you might be more comfortable leading from the back. But you might be called to be out in front. You need to train for it, and be ready for it. We get everyone to take positions they need to take — not the ones they prefer to take. Physical challenges also get people out of their comfort zone, but there is a delicate balance. If you take it too far, the senses you want open for learning will be closed. In Antarctica, we start the first day at a camp by the beach. As leaders we get to know the group and give challenges that are a good fit for their capacities. This happens in Philadelphia, too. To learn to lead teams better, we are going to put you in situations where you are uncomfortable — but not too uncomfortable.”