At this Altitude, Not Everyone can Make the Climb

“You are on Mount Everest. This is not for everyone” – Sherpa Tensing, June 2001

Note: I went on a trek to Everest Base Camp in 2001 prior to starting my first company. I unexpectedly learned one of the hardest lessons about entrepreneurship, loyalty, and leadership while on the mountain. This post is for entrepreneurs that have scaled their companies to the highest of altitudes, and have come face to face with the realization that not everyone on their team can make the climb.

The trek to Everest Base Camp is one of the most beautiful and challenging treks on earth. Visited by thousands every year, most groups start their journey by flying into a small village at 9,000 feet in the heart of the Himalayas, and spend the next 7-10 days pushing up the mountain to nearly 19,000 feet*. Those that come to Everest train hard to prepare themselves for the effects of ascending a mountain at such high altitude, but there are few places in the world to simulate such strenuous conditions. The trail itself is steep and at extreme elevations your brain and muscles become deprived of oxygen. Your body rapidly dehydrates. You experience headaches, can’t sleep, and lose your appetite. And the conditions only get harder every day as you climb higher.

At the beginning of the trek, the group is fueled by the pure adrenaline of being on the trail of the tallest mountain on earth. But by 12,500 feet, the climb gets steeper and the effects of Everest begin to set in on everyone. A few people begin to fall back, and the pack breaks into two – those that can keep pace, and those that cannot. At ~14,000 feet, the gap between the leaders and stragglers grows larger and the landscape turns dry and barren – it is a startling reminder that the conditions do not allow for biological life to thrive. By ~16,000 feet, everyone is starting to show concern for friends and colleagues that are struggling, and the group must stop to make tough decision. The final stage of the trek, from ~16,000 to ~19,000 feet, is the greatest challenge. Your guides inform you of the choice the group must make: some people will get to Everest, and some people will have to stay back or go home. It seems unfair that some of the hardest working and best prepared in the group are feeling the most fatigue, and that everyone has come so far only to turn back now. But as the group approaches the highest altitudes on earth, the conditions are extreme and it is very clear who will need to stay back for the good of those that will continue the journey.

As an entrepreneur, you don’t need to go to Everest to know that there are a lot of parallels between climbing a mountain in extreme conditions and building a start-up. Starting a company is one of the most physically and emotionally stressful activities you can undertake, and it will test even the best trained and qualified of individuals. Similar to the beginning of any great expedition, start-ups can thrive on the adrenaline of the adventure ahead. But as you scale your company, the path gets steeper and the conditions more challenging. Whether you are at 50 or 500 employees, the road ahead is always more difficult than the already steep trail you’ve climbed and you must confront the reality that you are pushing your team to the highest of altitudes.

In a high growth company one of the hardest tests of leadership and loyalty is determining who can make the ascent and who will lag behind. Paradoxically, the bonds of friendship, camaraderie, and trust that make start-up teams strong in the early part of a company’s life become the hardest obstacles to overcome in making the tough decisions that set up companies to take on the challenges ahead. How can you lead your company through these transitions? Here are some best practices I’ve seen great leaders follow through the years:

Enforce an Honest “Bell Curve” Ranking and Don’t Inflate Grades – every manager loves their team and needs resources to accomplish their goals, but CEOs need to be honest about their “A” players (10-20%), “B” players” (60-70%), and “C” players (10-20%). Stacked and forced rankings of every employee reveals who is likely to keep up, and who is likely not to make it.

Don’t Make “Churn” a Bad Word – in a scaling company, there is a relentless focus on hiring great talent to fill important roles. But it is equally important to assess overall quality, not just quantity, along the way and to be honest about hiring mistakes that are inevitable in a hyper growth environment. Make employee “churn” a metric that is measured every quarter, and don’t make “churn” a bad word.

Look to Promote from Within – when it becomes clear that one of your managers isn’t keeping up, the natural tendency is to recruit a seasoned executive. But one of the best, and frequently overlooked, sources of talented and fresh leadership is within your own organization. Rather than force an outside hire, find the “A” players deep within your organization that are setting the pace for everyone else.

Don’t Force People “Up or Out” – an “A” player can become a “B” player if given too much responsibility, too fast, and spread too thin. Creating a culture that rewards and recognizes “A” players, even if they are in entry level and individual contributor roles, gives you the best chance at getting your entire team up the mountain.

I am constantly reminded of and humbled by the trials of entrepreneurship at its highest level. I have witnessed firsthand how difficult it is to challenge the loyalty entrepreneurs have for their teams in order to honestly assess who is ready for the road ahead. But starting and scaling a large and successful company is one of the most challenging endeavors on earth. Those blazing the trail must remember that at the highest of altitudes, not everyone can make the climb.

*Everest Base Camp is the START of professional expeditions to the top of Mount Everest. Though thousands of tourists (like me) go to Base Camp every year, only a few hundred professional climbers successfully climb to the top and as many as a dozen die trying.

**Originally published on Jon Sakoda's Blog


  • Jon Sakoda


  • April 2, 2013


  • Jon Sakoda's Blog


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