“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Jun 2014 | Summit Fever in Board Rooms

Dear friend,

On May 20, 2014 Chhanda Gayen and two Sherpas were swept away by an avalanche while descending from Mt. Yalung Kang (8505m), the west peak of Kanchenjunga massif.

Experts do falter

She was a very accomplished mountaineer. In May 2013, she created a world record by climbing Mt. Everest (8848 m) and Lhotse (8516 m), the worlds fourth highest peak, in the same expedition. On 18 May 2014, two days before she was lost, she had been the first Indian woman to summit Kanchenjunga (8586 m).

Fellow climbers had failed to dissuade her from attempting two extremely tough peaks back to back. She was a feisty and supremely confident climber.

Unfortunately, the high-risk decision exacted a terrible price.

Summit fever on K2

Expert and experienced mountaineers sometimes lose their lives to risky decisions made with utter confidence. In August 1995 seven climbers died on K2 (8611 m), arguably the most difficult mountain in the world. They had ignored signs of bad weather and pressed on.

Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary the first man to conquer Everest, had turned back when he saw clear signs of deteriorating weather. He had described their obsession to reach the peak as summit fever.

In its grip, highly experienced mountaineers throw caution to the winds. On K2 that fateful day climbers ignored visible threat of bad weather, drawing strength from each other but also rendering themselves incapable of making sound judgement.

Mountaineers in boardrooms

Summit fever develops in Boardrooms too, especially when making decisions on mergers and acquisitions. In this respect, mountaineers and directors share several traits.

Both are experts in their own fields, often with remarkabletrack records of success. Both are conscious of the risks and consequencesof failure; at least they are supposed to be. Mountaineers use Sherpas, Board members use experts to carry out due diligence, assess and advise them on risks, gains, and fallouts. They both ignore advice that runs contrary to their desires.

Mountaineers knowmost accidents occur on the way down from the peak.Business leaders recognise that the vast majority of mergers and acquisitions fail during integration. Mountaineers are aware they can avoid serious injury or death if they turn back in time. Directors understand no harm is done if a deal is called off. (A KPMG study of deals closed by listed Indian companies between 2005 and 2011 showed that 75% mergers failed to enhance shareholder value.)

Unfortunately, summit fever afflicts both.

Wise beyond years!

Just a few days ago Paulami Das, one of my IIM Ahmedabad students wrote to me about her experience in the Himalayas. ‘6 of us PGPXers tried scaling the Kuari Pass (3720 m) in the Nanda Devi Range this March but got stuck in a snow blizzard for 3 days. We beat a hasty retreat as soon as the weather cleared up, at 7 in the evening no less! We saw snow levels rise from 1 foot to 4 feet in front of our eyes as we were holed up in our tent. And all of us there quoted your lessons when we decided to abandon our trek.’

These young men and women overcame summit fever and returned to safety in pitch dark. Business leaders can too.

Read more in this vein: Overcoming decision flaws from framing and Intuition, boon or bane