HR Lessons from the Rock
This week, we are excited to feature a piece contributed by Sheri Kashman, Principal Consultant at Jouta.
As some of you may know, one of your HR Consultants at Jouta (me!) is not only passionate about supporting your business with solid HR, but also about rock climbing. So, this week I bring to you a glimpse of my life on evenings, weekends and holidays, as well as how we can all apply what’s learned on the rock to the workplace. As you’ll see, there are many parallels that I suspect aren’t unique to climbing.
Training & Practice
With some notable exceptions, few climbers walk up to a rock face for the first time knowing exactly what to do and do it exceptionally well. Sure, there are naturally gifted athletes with fingers of steel, extreme strength, flexibility and the grace/balance to move easily up and through an intricate array of holds. But in addition to technique and strength, it’s also necessary to know how to use the respective gear, how to rest, how to breathe, and even how to fall.
In much the same way, employees need to be appropriately trained and mentored in order to succeed, as opposed to expecting them to meet or exceed goals in a sink or swim scenario (in actuality, setting them up for failure). Just as climbers achieve better success by specific finger strengthening exercises, weight training, breathing/visualization, endurance laps, etc., employees need the opportunity to learn, hone and practice their skills.
By this, I mean structure and commitment. While I love getting outside on the rock, I enjoy much less the structured training required. Yet I know that when I stick to a structure that makes sense for me, I’m more likely to achieve my goals. This past winter, as I was preparing for a spring climbing trip in Spain, this meant getting up three days a week at 5:15am in sub-zero Squamish temps to go to the climbing gym. Given other commitments and my natural energy patterns, had I tried to do the same thing after 5:00pm, I would never have been able to stick to it, nor have been successful.
Employees also need structure–and do much better when that structure not only fits the company they’ve chosen to work for (i.e. aligns with your culture/values), but also the way they work best. That’s why organizations who trust and empower their employees to be autonomous, and can provide a reasonable amount of flexibility, often see the most productive and committed employees.
Trust & Team
Alex Honnold (Free Solo) and other free soloists aside, climbing requires a significant amount of trust in others and teamwork. When we tie into the rope and leave the ground, we’re to some degree putting our lives in the hands of our belayers. Even if I make it successfully up a route without falling, at the anchor, I need to trust my belayer to listen and respond to my directions until I’m safe. Accordingly, when I fall (which happens often when I’m pushing myself on a difficult climb), I need to trust that my belayer will catch me, that they’ll do their best to prevent me from hitting a ledge, and that they’ll reduce the impact of my fall by giving me a soft catch. When I trust my belayer, my mind is free to focus on the task at hand–and that freedom in climbing is priceless.
While not so much life and death (except of course in highly safety sensitive environments), in the workplace, trust and teamwork is equally priceless. As noted above, fostering teamwork and having trust in employees to carry out the roles they were hired to do are key ingredients to their success. When managers can trust that employees will figuratively “catch their fall” (e.g. be able to step in when other priorities arise, or lend their expertise in a critical moment), they’re better able to focus on the business and also open the door for their employees to rise to the occasion.
Risk Taking & Fear
Which brings me to fear. Whether or not I’m pushing myself or taking calculated risks (such as moving far above the last bolt/piece of protection when a fall wouldn’t be ideal), sometimes, I’m simply really scared. Occasionally that fear is justified, because a fall could seriously injure me, or the protection is sketchy. Most of the time, however, that level of fear is irrational; yet it still has the power to overtake me, leading me to over-grip (tiring me out faster), climb stiffly, fall badly and/or simply retreat. While some level of fear can be important in climbing, it’s how we deal with it that makes all the difference. Taking a moment to logically assess the danger (or lack of), staying in the moment and breathing through the fear are all very effective.
In the workplace, fear shows up in both expected and unexpected places–and can lead to equally expected or unexpected reactions. For example, fear can show itself during interviews or performance reviews, or when an employee needs to speak in front of a group or facilitate a meeting. It can also show up when employees feel they need to execute something perfectly, when they don’t feel properly trained or when it’s not a safe place to make mistakes. How employers help manage their employees’ fear can have a significant impact on how employees react.
Failure & Success
Fear is also often intimately involved with failure and success. Over 18 years as a climber, I’ve come to learn that little of what I do is a failure, even when I’m not successful in “sending” (climbing an entire route start to finish without falling) a route or not able to pull a move. I understand now that there are great days and less than great days, that focusing on the process and mini goals is preferable to focusing on the win, that just being outside in a place I love is amazing, and that my self worth isn’t wrapped up in whether I send. I didn’t always feel that way though. I recall countless days berating myself for not being able to climb something well, or feeling like I should have been able to send, pull a move, etc.
All these same concerns show up in the workplace on a regular basis. Part of this is related to how employees are performance managed and how managers handle learning, risk-taking and mistakes. It’s also related to the complexity of us humans and the egos we bring with us to all that we do.
Community, Spirit & Morale
One of the absolute best aspects of climbing, other than the physical act itself, is the diverse and positive spirit that exists amongst the climbing community. While all unique in our backgrounds and lives outside of climbing, we share a bond that I’ve not found elsewhere in any other pursuit. That bond allows people of all walks of life to naturally gravitate together in climbing areas–whether on the rock, in the campground, in a café, or in a nearby town. It provides an infectious spirit that prompts complete strangers to encourage one another when they’re trying hard (successfully or not).
In the workplace, the most engaging and productive workplaces also have a strong and solid community spirit that leads to positive morale. Those organizations that intentionally focus on their culture and values, hire to them, performance manage to them, and work hard to maintain community and spirit to attract and retain dedicated and engaged employees.
I’ve enjoyed writing about a topic that inspires and motivates me so much and hope you’ve enjoyed seeing the parallels. I’m certain there are other sports, hobbies and pursuits that equally lend themselves to such alignment, and I invite you to discuss them amongst your team.