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Reaching new heights: Lessons on leadership and mentorship

January 12, 2022

How is scaling the side of a mountain similar to working in an office? In more ways than you’d think! Gabriel Filippi, the renowned mountain climber who was the first Canadian to reach the top of Mount Everest on three separate occasions, draws some interesting parallels between these two environments. He explains how a successful mountain ascent or business project is a group effort that requires continuous learning and collaboration within and between teams. For Mentoring Month, he’s giving a talk on how to work with a mentor in order to excel and reach new heights.

Can you summarize the key takeaways from your talk? What are the parallels between extreme mountain climbing and working in a corporate setting?

The mountain climbing metaphor applies nicely to the workplace. Every project presents a personal or professional challenge that you can’t overcome on your own. At any given time on Everest, there are 25 teams hoping to achieve the same goal. You may prepare and collaborate more closely with your immediate team, but you need to collaborate with other guides and expedition leaders in order to lead your clients to their objective—which is reaching the top, of course! It's the same thing at work. To succeed, you need to share ideas and get assistance from allies, who might be other colleagues or even other teams.

People often say that the mountain is the school of life. You can’t learn to deal with high altitudes alone. You need others to tell you about the acclimatization process, along with the right techniques and equipment. When you’re leading others, whether it's up a mountain or within an organization, your role is to provide explanations and give instructions. At some point, you let them climb up to your level, but you make sure they do it right. After that, it’s their turn to take the lead and spread their wings. The same is true in any setting.

What qualities should people look for in a mentor? Is it better to find someone with a similar personality and interests, or someone who’s quite different from you?

You want to find people who are more competent than you are and view the relationship as an opportunity to learn new things really quickly.

You should also cultivate chemistry between you and your mentor. When you throw two people together, you sometimes come up with a winning combination of personalities and aptitudes. For example, if an ambitious employee has advanced computer skills, they’d get the most benefit from being paired with another computer whiz. Since they’ll have something in common and be able to speak the same language, they’ll be more likely to understand each other. However, you don’t want to match 2 people who have the exact same skill set because they’ll have nothing to learn from each other.

No one rises to the top of a field like mountain climbing without help from others. Who were your main mentors? How did they help you grow?

When I was 35, I’d never done any mountain climbing. My first mentor, the person who literally helped me get off the ground who I call my “guru,” was Patrice Beaudet, a work colleague who’d been climbing for more than a decade. I got to capitalize on his experience by learning the technical and logistical ropes from him, along with the special considerations for different types of climbing, such as ice, rock and high-altitude ascents. I would have never gotten to where I am without him.

Gabriel Filippi and first mentor, Patrice Beaudet

Then there was Babu, a Nepalese expedition leader, and Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the pioneers of climbing Everest. They taught me to assign meaning to my work. Babu asked me, “Why do you climb? If it’s for fame or awards, you’re not doing it for the right reasons.” Sir Edmund Hillary helped me find the answer to that question. When I visited him in New Zealand, he said that Everest wasn’t the end of an adventure, but the beginning of a new one. In his case, he felt so indebted to the people of Nepal for helping him achieve his goals that he established a foundation to help them.

Since then, my relationship with work is often defined by the concept of “helping.” This human side has become more important for me than the athletic side, which still gives me satisfaction, but it’s very personal. I help business leaders with my talks. I lead Everest expeditions to help my clients achieve their dreams. And I’ve also helped people in Nepal and several sherpas with various fundraising initiatives for things like building schools or paying for the education of orphans.

I also try to pass on this way of thinking when I accompany expeditions. For instance, I led a group of trekkers up to Mount Kala Patthar, a 5,600-metre peak from which you can see the top of Everest. On the way up, the group talked a lot about their athletic achievements, their interest in seeing Everest, and things like that. But I had two surprises planned for them: visiting an orphanage in the capital city of Kathmandu and filling their second bag with clothing and toys for the families and children of our Nepalese porters. When the trip was over, everyone said these two activities were the most meaningful moments of their experience, not the athletic achievement. I now try to focus on humanity because that’s what makes my work meaningful.

Your book, The Escapist: Cheating Death on the World's Highest Mountains, tells a motivating story in order to push individuals past their personal limits. What’s the secret to excelling when you’re not in an environment that’s as demanding as the side of a mountain?

It’s important to know why you get up and go to work in the morning. I gave a talk at North Face (editor’s note: his clothing sponsor) and I told their employees, “If you’re not sure why you come here every day, let me tell you: it’s because you save my life with your clothes and you build the gear that protects me during each of my expeditions. I feel safe thanks to you.”

Whether you work for Desjardins or another company, each employee is part of a huge puzzle and has a role to play to help the group achieve its goal, just like in a mountain climbing team. If someone’s missing, the chain is weakened. As an employee, you need to remind yourself of that.

After a major achievement—whether it’s winning the Superbowl, earning an Olympic medal or reaching the top of a mountain—athletes often go through a period of feeling empty. To stay motivated, I believe that employees who successfully complete a project need to make an effort to generate the same level of interest for their next challenge. It’s important to anticipate the next step, like tackling another construction project or gaining new skills. If you’re feeling down or unmotivated, it helps to remember what drew you to the field in the first place. What was the spark? Reconnecting with your passion can help you think ahead to your next challenge.

What has the pandemic taught us about our ability to adapt and overcome adversity?

On the last day of an Everest climb, when you’re approaching the summit, you need to stick to a really slow pace. Past 8,000 metres, you’ve got to take 5 breaths for every step. Even once the top is within sight, you can't race up to it.

The pandemic has taught us to be patient and resilient when faced with a situation that is beyond our control. We want things to move faster, even though it isn’t possible, just like we always want work projects to wrap up quickly. But everything happens in its own time. It’s all about how you react to the situation.

Lightning Q&A

Your hero? Guy Lafleur. Back when I was a kid, he did fundraisers for the Montreal Canadiens and I got the chance to meet him. He’s always been my hero, even more than the comic book superheroes.

Gabriel Filippi with Montreal Canadiens hero, Guy Lafleur

A celebrity who inspires you? Sir Edmund Hillary, the mountain climber and philanthropist from New Zealand who, in 1953, was the first person to reach the top of Everest along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay. He was 80 years old when I met him. And the funny thing was that instead of talking about mountains, we discussed sherpas and his foundation. The experience changed me.

A more recent example would be Barack Obama, whose demeanour and attitude changed the world for the better.

Your next challenge or climb? I’ll be accompanying a group in Nepal in March, unless the pandemic prevents it. On a more personal level, I have a long list of potential projects. But I’ll only discuss them once they’re done. I don’t want anyone stealing my ideas!