By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute
I once heard a speaker quote a fascinating statistic: 80% of the climbing deaths on Mount Everest occur on the descent! We all know that attempting to scale Everest is a daunting physical and mental challenge which no human being had successfully done prior to the 1950s.
We also know that, for a host of reasons, it is an undertaking frequently resulting in physical injury if not death; even today with all the advances in technology and equipment, almost 10% of Everest's climbers lose their lives. I was struck and surprised by that “80%” statistic!
My assumption was that deaths on Everest occurred as people struggled to reach their goal of attaining the summit. Why is it the case, then, that 80% of the deaths occur on the way down?
Here are a few reasons:
- Exhaustion. The climbers are just plumb worn out! They've used all their energy, focus, and resources to ascend the summit. They don't have much left in the tank for getting off the mountain. Tired people make mistakes, and on Everest mistakes resulting from fatigue can kill.
- Euphoria. Having reached a goal so few human beings ever achieve, their hearts and minds are filled with euphoria and elation. Most climbers held the dream of conquering Everest for years if not their entire lives. Having reached the top – literally – they're overcome with a giddy sense of euphoria and, consequently, they let their guards down.
- Planning. Most of the planning for conquering Everest goes into the ascent. Having ascended successfully, the assumption is that getting off the mountain will be easy by comparison. It's not. The journey down is just as treacherous if not more so. Think about the times you have had a close call on the stairs in your own home. If you have a little stumble going up, that's usually not too bad; you can catch yourself. However, if you stumble going down the stairs, that might be a different story altogether. Stumbling on the way down Everest may be a killer.
- Relaxation. Climbers coming down the mountain are more relaxed for the reasons noted above. The goal having been achieved, they breathe out huge sighs of relief, and the weight of their immense tasks fall from their shoulders. They relax, sometimes to the point of complacency, and there is no room for complacency in such an unforgiving environment.
Okay, this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with construction companies? The same four elements which increase the danger of an Everest descent also apply to contractors, don’t they?
- Exhaustion. Running a successful construction firm for five or 15 or 35 years is an absolute recipe for exhaustion! Many leaders, whether they're willing to admit it to themselves or not, are suffering from years of mental and physical stress, fatigue, and even burnout. Tired people make mistakes, and none of us is immune from this fact.
- Euphoria. With the construction economy booming, many leaders are giddy with their new heights in volume and profits. Because of their euphoria, they don’t see challenges looming before them, and they may be slow to plan. Euphoria can easily morph into fear and loathing. Even in boom times, there is lurking danger for contractors: that big project is canceled, you lose one or more of your best people, that easy job with big margins turns into a loser, etc. Don’t let today’s success blind you to tomorrow’s challenges.
- Planning. Construction leaders are conditioned to always plan for growth – the ascent, in other words. It's hard for them to get their minds around unseen challenges or setbacks. Since most of their planning muscles are developed to contemplate growth (the way up), they may not have quite the same capabilities for planning for downside contingencies. Worse, they may have stopped planning altogether due to the “hurry up” nature of construction projects and the strong economy.
- Relaxation. Many construction leaders have become relaxed to the point of complacency. They rationalize "Business has been so good, and we’re bigger and more profitable than I ever thought we’d be! We’re in a position to turn this company into a marketplace juggernaut! We don’t need to make any changes at all, we just need to keep doing what we're doing.” If these kinds of sentiments have ever been under uttered under your roof, they are dangerous words indeed! It's all too easy, when business is good, for us to believe in our own press clippings. Running a business today is as challenging as it's ever been, and complacency resulting in a failure to objectively and critically analyze your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and barriers could foretell struggles in the years ahead.
Don't fall prey to the “death on the way down" statistic! Now more than ever – for reasons like a potentially softening economy, accelerating technological changes, increasing regulation, and ever-intensifying competition – contractors need to plan, renew, and reinvent.