Making Conversations about mountaineering on Everest CountEpisode 61 - Cathy O'Dowd
Enjoy a conversation with Cathy O’Dowd, speaker, and the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest from both sides!
“Winners never quit is a terrible maxim. You should absolutely quit in all sorts of situations.…..”
Cathy O’Dowd, Making Conversations Count (December 2021)
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We’re always moving mountains to bring you powerful conversations!
This latest of our series of business success-themed conversations is with a lady who thinks like an explorer and actually speaks about where mountains meet management.
Cathy O’Dowd is known as the first woman in the world to have completed a mission of mountaineering on Everest from both sides.
Mountaineering is like business
“Mountaineering is like business more than it is like sport,” Cathy says.
“You didn’t all get brought in through years of training and selection by experts and supported by a team psychologist and the whole of the team wins together or loses together. Mountaineering is wildly more individualistic.”
This isn’t to say that teamwork doesn’t have its place in mountaineering – or in business. But what Cathy learned from mountaineering is that, ultimately, each individual has to take responsibility for their own success or failure.
“Some people, the people who are weaker in whatever way, are going to need to step down and support. So, it’s a little bit like business.
Yes, you need to collaborate with other people, but also you’re the only one looking out for your personal career.”
But the really interesting thing for us on this podcast for which we’ve become known for hosting conversations that count, is the learning she had around entrepreneurship and business leadership.
Her mountaineering feats taught her some of the biggest secrets to business success.
(Full transcript available below)
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We asked Cathy about some of the key parallels between mountaineering and business, and this is what she came up with:
- Both mountaineering and business are high-risk activities. And you need to know that it’s ok to quit, and when to quit.
- In mountaineering, as in business, you need to be clear about your goals and objectives.
- Failure is a possibility in both mountaineering and business – but it’s how you respond to failure that counts.
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Cathy took her learnings from mountaineering on Everest and applied them to her speaking activities.
She studied the work of author Ken Blanchard and joined his leadership development programme.
Despite being busy on the speaking circuits, Cathy says she’ll never turn her back on the adrenaline junkie inside herself!
“The last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of technical canyoning, so you’re still in the big mountains, but now you disappear into the deep river gorges, and then you go down the river.
We’re talking very narrow, with ropes.
Once you start going down, you can’t get out; you’ve got to keep going down. So, there’s real risk involved and a lot of technical skill around water and rope work. But it’s still what I like, very small teams, risk management, and exploring in these wild places.”
(Full transcript available below)
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Full Episode Transcript
Making Conversations about Mountaineering Count
00:03:30: View from the top of the world
00:04:33: How Cathy got into climbing
00:07:53: Teamwork on the mountain and in business
00:10:34: External influencing factors
00:12:42: Climbing versus public speaking
00:16:06: Ken Blanchard: forming, storming, norming, performing
00:19:41: The changing face of Everest
00:22:48: Knowing when to quit
00:23:29: Cathy’s future plans
00:26:35: Adapting public speaking for online audiences
00:28:24: Final thoughts
Wendy Harris: Welcome back to Making Conversations Count. I’m Wendy Harris, your host and expert telemarketing trainer. So, let’s get to Making Conversations about Mountaineering Count.
What’s new, Wendy Woo? Well, I’m pleased to tell you that in 2022, you are going to be able to work online with me on a one-to-one basis. If you want to find out more, you’d better just hit me with an email or a DM from the platforms of your choice. I’ll be waiting to pick up and carry on that conversation with you.
This week, I promised you a lady that had literally touched the heavens, and I’m so pleased to introduce Cathy O’Dowd. Now, she is a lady who has climbed the mountain; and, by the mountain, I hadn’t realised that was known in the mountaineering world as Everest. Now, she’s climbed it not just once, but she’s climbed it twice, and I saw her do a motivational speaker set online, and she did an amazing job of explaining the parallels between climbing a mountain and running a business. So, sit back and enjoy how being part of a team and having to trust each other in a team can be the difference to your success. And, even if only one person reaches the summit, it’s the fact that you were part of a team that that worked.
Well, here with me to join a conversation is a lady who thinks like an explorer and actually speaks about where mountains meet management. So without further ado, I think it’s only right that I should introduce Cathy, Cathy O’Dowd. Hello, Cathy.
Cathy O’Dowd: Great to be here.
Wendy Harris: Thank you for joining me all the way from the mountain, it’s lovely to have you here. Now, everybody that comes on the show, we talk about how conversation is important and how we can make conversations count in our daily lives. And for those that don’t know you, I think it’s only right that you should let everybody know what you are perhaps most famous for achieving.
Cathy O’Dowd: Well, I guess the thing that’s always going to make the first line of my obituary would be, “The first South African to climb Everest”, followed by, “The first woman in the world to climb Everest from both sides, both the north and the south sides”.
Wendy Harris: And that’s to get to the summit as well, right, isn’t it, Cathy, because that bit’s important, is it?
Cathy O’Dowd: You can’t claim to have climbed the mountain if you didn’t get to the summit.
Wendy Harris: Oh right, okay. So, you’re not a climber — education!
Cathy O’Dowd: You actually do need to get to the top to claim you’ve done it!
Wendy Harris: It’s not just, “We’ve gotten so far and had a rest and decided to turn round and go back”?
Cathy O’Dowd: Yeah, I’ve been to the top twice.
Wendy Harris: Wow. What is the view like?
Cathy O’Dowd: Well, you’re so high, you can see the curve of the Earth, which is pretty cool. Although, most people don’t realise you can see the curve of the Earth out of an aeroplane window, if you actually are in the right place at the right time. But nevertheless, that feeling of still standing with both feet on the ground, and yet being the highest person in the world, looking hundreds of miles out across India and Nepal, and that sense of height and space. Also, the fact that you’re so high, you actually can’t see any sign of human development. The planet just looks incredibly pristine and wild when you’re that high up.
Wendy Harris: Wouldn’t that be a lovely thought, to see a pristine Earth, but that’s a completely different topic, right, Cathy?
Cathy O’Dowd: Yes.
Wendy Harris: It’s something that’s always fascinated me, it’s kind of one of those action movies that you sit in the arm of your chair and Hollywood can take you on an adventure without you having to get cold, or run out of food, or have to make any scary decisions that could result in loss of limb or life. What got you into climbing in the first place?
Cathy O’Dowd: Well, the short answer, summer camps as a teenager up in the mountains doing basic adventure sports. I liked hiking and camping, I liked rock climbing. And then, once I got to university, I got my first chance to really get involved, and I took up rock climbing, which I loved and still love, and that started a lifelong journey through the mountains. And, although rock climbing has been a foundation through all of that, I then explored all sorts of different things, just being curious, and that brought me to high-altitude mountaineering and to ski mountaineering and to canyoneering and to all sorts of different ways of engaging deeply in technical risk-management environments in the wilderness.
Wendy Harris: Was that a result of some of the people that you would meet on your journey that had been to other places and were explaining their experiences of different climbing experiences?
Cathy O’Dowd: To some extent, yes, although I’m very self-motivated, so a lot of these things, I found my own way to them, rather than got introduced by somebody.
One pivotal moment, I was already rock climbing, I’d done some basic mountaineering in Africa, in the Andes. I’m South Africa, so this was happening out of South Africa. Reading a book, called Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, by Arlene Blum, and it was the story of the first all-woman’s expedition to the Himalaya. And before reading the book, I’d never visualised the Himalaya. It was too big, too distant, too masculine somehow. It wasn’t an environment I could envisage myself in.
Having read the book, I thought, “Hang on, it would be possible”, and that’s in fact what brought me to the first Everest trip. Not Everest. I was never motivated by, or focused on Everest. All I wanted was an opportunity to go to the Himalaya. The first opportunity that came up was the first South African Everest expedition.
Wendy Harris: Wow! So it’s a little bit serendipitous then, that what you had envisaged in your mind became a reality, I suppose, by following the journey, following the breadcrumbs?
Cathy O’Dowd: I think luck is a real thing, it’s a real part of success, and we can’t discount luck. But you do have to be in the space, actively working towards the things you’re interested in to get the lucky break.
Wendy Harris: I could not agree more with you there, Cathy. So, from climbing the mountain twice, I know that you impart the thinking like an explorer, you’re not there on your own, are you; you’re there as part of a team, and you’ve got to be able to work together? So, how did you find, I suppose, the right team; and how did that communication relationship evolve for you?
Cathy O’Dowd: Well, one of the interesting things about mountaineering is I think while it makes quite a good metaphor activity for business, it’s not like sport. You didn’t all get brought in through years of training and selection by experts and supported by a team psychologist and the whole of the team wins together or loses together. Mountaineering is wildly more individualistic. You quite possibly end up on a team where you barely know the other people; and once you get to know them, you may not like them. Success does not require every person to get to the top. You are only going to get one person of the team to the top, and hopefully all of you home alive, and that’s a successful trip.
Often, what you’re trying to do is too hard for every single person to get to the top. Some people, the people who are weaker in whatever way, are going to need to step down and support. So, it’s a little bit like business. Yes, you’re part of a team, but you’re also individually ambitious. Yes, you need to collaborate with other people, but also you’re the only one looking out for your personal career. And that team is probably a bunch of people you didn’t necessarily choose, and you may not necessarily like.
It’s the same sort of things that make it work. You yourself need to be professional, skilled, self-confident and constantly learning, so even if you do not have the skills when you join the team, you have the ability to learn, to acquire the skills as you go. You also need the ability to work with other people. I think as long as there’s a certain basic respect and understanding that you’re on the same side and you’re moving towards the same goal, that’s enough. You don’t have to be lifelong friends.
There are plenty of people I’d happily climb a mountain with, but I do not want to spend a week around a tent with!
Wendy Harris: That’s possibly similar to most people in most working environments, isn’t it, as well? And I’m guessing that the mountain is in charge as well, because of the conditions. That’s what business would see as external to the people, because there are things that you can’t control always, moving parts. That’s got to test your honesty with yourself and I guess, your mettle as well, in dealing with whatever may come next.
Cathy O’Dowd: Absolutely. And I think it’s also the foundation of what I think is one of the key mistakes. There’s a great deal that’s out of your control, both on the side of a mountain and in a business environment. And where we can often have the most impact is by putting time and thought into the soft skills, making sure that the team is as good as it can possibly be, making sure a really good team is even better, pushing them right up into high performance.
That’s tricky. It’s hard to put that stuff on a spreadsheet, it’s hard to put numbers to that. A lot of people are uncomfortable with delving into managing people and emotionals and team cohesion, bonding vision, group goals, interpersonal support. They didn’t choose to climb mountains or to run businesses because that’s what they were good at; that’s where you make a difference. You can’t stop the storms, you can’t stop COVID, you can’t turn the economy around single-handedly.
What you can do is build a group of people with a purpose and a vision to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise in the chaos of the mountain or business world, a group of people who have got the agility, the resilience, the perception to bounce back from setbacks and see and exploit opportunities.
Wendy Harris: It’s the irony, isn’t it, that the challenges that you have faced in climbing the mountains has, in effect, grounded you. And I’m thinking of the metaphor where people refer to the iceberg, “It’s just the tip of the iceberg, yet it’s what you see below the waterline”. It’s really set you up, I guess, for what you also do when you’re not climbing, in helping teams in business and those communication skills. Was that part of your professional plan, as a sort of day job, whilst you were climbing as a hobby; or, was it the other way around; which came first?
Cathy O’Dowd: The climbing came first. I actually trained as a journalist, and then stayed on in academia in media studies, mostly to dodge getting a real job, and I was trying to climb all the mountains I could get to. And, in fact, when we first discussed this podcast, two key conversations came to mind, and this was one of them.
I came back from my first ever Everest expedition, so I’d become the first South African to climb Everest. But equally, the expedition was terrible. The team was awful, the in-fighting was just so painful. Three members walked out before we got to Base Camp. Things got quite a lot better after that. But the initial negativity and power-playing was just astonishing from a group of what should have been professionals with a shared goal.
So, I came home with this extraordinary experience, which had been as negative as it had been positive, and did a couple of talks in the style of the Olympic gold medallists. You get invited to give a talk, because people just want to be in the same room, hear the gossip, get an autograph, and you get your 15 minutes and then the world moves on.
The challenges, as a motivational speaker, is how do you stay in the business for years and decades. And at this point, I’ve been doing this since, let’s think; 30 years now, nearly. How do you manage to keep on going after your 15 minutes has long-since vanished? That’s about being relevant to your audience, being able to talk about things that really matter to them.
In my case, I got invited out to lunch by a friend who was a corporate team trainer. He took corporate teams out for these day-long outdoor exercises, doing trust falls and team-building challenges, and that kind of thing. And, he knew the men who’d walked out on the team. He was fascinated as to what had gone wrong, because the media had only got —
Wendy Harris: Curiosity factor.
Cathy O’Dowd: — a sensationalised, very limited version. So, I spent the next three hours unloading about what happened, and I didn’t understand and how had we ended up like that, and it had all felt so exceptional, so unexpected. Chris eventually rolled his eyes and said, “Have you ever heard of a business guru called Ken Blanchard?” who at that time was famous, I think, for the One Minute Manager books.
But he also had a cycle of team development, “forming, storming, norming, performing”. So, getting together, inevitable conflict, surviving the conflict and then, trying to pull yourself up into a really high-performing team. He said, “You guys sound like a total cliché”. I was like, “Oh, right”. There I was thinking we were so exceptional and we weren’t!
So, I went away and read Ken Blanchard’s stuff and it helped with another problem, which is I don’t like talking about me all that much; it makes me uncomfortable.
Wendy Harris: I know what you mean, yeah, I do know what you mean.
Cathy O’Dowd: I was never going to be brilliant as the kind of motivational speaker who went, “Look at me and be inspired”! I’d much rather remove myself a little bit. So, I took Ken Blanchard’s cycle of team development, used it as a skeleton, and redesigned my talk as an illustration of team dynamics. So, it still had all the drama of a true story and, while I was still in South Africa, all the gossip that people had heard in the newspapers; but it was also now based in business team psychology, in a way that both team members and managers of teams found useful and interesting.
I also think the fact that I was prepared to talk quite honestly about the failure and the mistakes we made, and how badly we behaved early on, people found that really quite surprising and refreshing, rather than, “Let me tell you how incredibly successful our team was”; a little hard to relate to that.
Wendy Harris: That’s what resonates, isn’t it, because we’ve all been in situations that we probably don’t want to confess to, but it does add light and shade to the story?
Cathy O’Dowd: Absolutely. And I think people associate more with someone who says, “We were good, but we also made some terrible mistakes, and our failure was almost entirely on us”. People find that refreshing, because most of us are in that space. We’re good, but we’re not perfect, and we’re battling to try and do our best on a day-by-day basis!
So, yes, that conversation with Chris. Then, also my own capacity to take that conversation and say not just, for example, “I can use this structure to structure my talk”, but also, “This solves other problems I’m having about not wanting to talk about myself”. I could use the kernel of the idea he gave me, and then develop it over time into something that I think neither he nor I would ever have predicted.
Wendy Harris: That’s the magic, isn’t it, when a conversation can take you down a road that you never even thought you were going to travel. So, climbing, I imagine, is fantastic; however, for me, in my opinion, Kathy, creating that model, that’s the real story, because of how many people’s lives and perceptions that you can affect change for them to be the better version of themselves, at work or personally. Because, let’s face it, what we learn at work we do take home with us.
Cathy O’Dowd: Oh, yes. Life’s a team sport in that you’re having to collaborate with other people in every aspect, whether it’s friends or marriages or children or work colleagues. If I can give you very quickly a little bit of an epilogue, because of course I found Everest, okay, maybe 25 years ago. A lot has changed. So these days, I don’t even talk about Everest much, because now they’ve basically got a fixed safety line from base camp to the summit; you don’t actually have to be a climber to get up Everest.
Wendy Harris: I saw some pictures where there was a queue to get to the top!
Cathy O’Dowd: Yeah. You don’t even need to bring an ice axe anymore. You just clip into the safety life and make sure you’re facing in the right direction.
Wendy Harris: It spoils it a little bit, doesn’t it?
Cathy O’Dowd: I know, which kind of spoils it for me as a speaker as well, because that’s not that inspiring anymore. But in the mountain space, I was able to use my Everest experience to continue to build, to continue to learn, to continue to grow as a climber; and much later, I ended up on the most difficult expedition I’ve ever been on, where we were trying to climb a new route, so a route that no one had ever done before, on an 8,000-metre peak, so much harder than Everest.
Wendy Harris: Why am I not surprised?
Cathy O’Dowd: It wasn’t much fun at the time, it was very difficult, but it makes for a great story, because it was so difficult.
Wendy Harris: Were there good lessons to take away from it though, because those are lessons that stand you in good stead to try again? What I’m hearing is that you’ve never given up climbing.
Cathy O’Dowd: Oh, no, no. Giving up climbing is not on the agenda!
Wendy Harris: That’s like saying, “Cathy, stop breathing!”
Cathy O’Dowd: But the thing about that climb where we succeeded, two members of the team did get the route done. That has now become my go-to case study, and Everest now becomes an example of the old world: certain, known, predictable, but also you’re in a queue with 100 other people doing the same thing. And you’ve got to move on from early success, you’ve got to reinvent yourself, you’ve got to step out into the unknown, the unpredictable, the unexpected. And you may be doing that by choice, because you’re trying to be an innovator, or you may be doing that because the world forced that upon you, and stuff happened that you didn’t predict, your five-year plan is now in tatters and you’re having to react to an incredibly changed environment.
So, I’m getting challenged from both sides, and this is where the idea of thinking like an explorer comes from, interested in this idea; how do you operate in an environment where you don’t know what to expect, no one else has ever done it before, you don’t know exactly what’s going to go wrong. All you’ve got is your team, your skills and your creativity to try and make this work.
Wendy Harris: And belief that it will work.
Cathy O’Dowd: Belief that you can deal with it, because the thing about climbing, “Winners never quit” is a terrible maxim. You should absolutely quit in all sorts of situations. If the mountain is too dangerous, get out, get home, you could die. In business, if you’ve already lost a billion, don’t lose another billion, call it quits.
Wendy Harris: Give it to charity, it’s called Wendy Harris!
Cathy O’Dowd: But knowing when to call it quits and stop and move on to something else, that’s one of my great skills.
Wendy Harris: You are right there, Cathy. So, what’s next?
Cathy O’Dowd: Well, I’m not sure there’ll be any more big Himalayan expeditions. I think we’ll leave that to the younger generation at this point, because the first ascents are now incredibly technically difficult. On a personal level, I’ve always been interested in continuing to learn and taking my skills and pivoting them.
So, the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of technical canyoning, so you’re still in the big mountains, but now you disappear into the deep river gorges, and then you go down the river. We’re talking very narrow, with ropes. Once you start going down, you can’t get out; you’ve got to keep going down. So, there’s real risk involved and a lot of technical skill around water and rope work. But it’s still what I like, very small teams, risk-management, and exploring in these wild places.
So, that’s where I’ve gone in the mountain space in the last couple of years. That and mountaineering on skis, which is good fun. It’s a lot more fun to ski back down the mountain than have to walk down the mountain!
Wendy Harris: Do you ever record your climbs, if you’ve got a camera on your helmet, to be able to share for teaching, or for just curiosity of what’s down there?
Cathy O’Dowd: Not really, because honestly, it’s two separate projects. Making a decent film of an adventure is really difficult. It requires much more time and much more equipment and more people, partly because everything has to be done about three times, and the cameras have to be set up in advance, and then you do the thing and then you go back to retrieve the cameras.
I’m more interested in the purity of the actual experience. I don’t want to be having to move with the camera at the same time. I try and take photographs as I go, but that’s about it.
Wendy Harris: And let’s face it, if they want to see it, they’re going to have to just learn to climb and do it themselves!
Cathy O’Dowd: I’m not sure we ready to compete for the professional Red Bull camera crews!
Wendy Harris: I was thinking more Blair Witch project!
Cathy O’Dowd: Thank you very much!
Wendy Harris: Well, that would be me anyway, because you wouldn’t really know where I was looking, because I wouldn’t know what I was doing. But it sounds like you’re never going to exhaust the adventures and be able to translate those into lessons for people in business.
Cathy O’Dowd: I will certainly keep adventuring for the reset of my life. For the lessons, I tend to draw on the most interesting and complex of the big Himalayan expeditions, because I think they’re the ones that have real depth and value for corporate clients; I don’t think they really need to know what I did last weekend. That’s on my Instagram, if anybody cares.
With the corporate work, I stick with the big Himalayan expeditions. And of course, one of my challenges, like all of us, was to transition with COVID into doing all of this online, where beforehand everything had happened with the electricity of being in the space with people; now, trying to capture that across a computer screen.
Wendy Harris: Yeah, the energy is different, but it’s still doable.
Cathy O’Dowd: One of the things I’ve done with that is take some of the stories where there were key decision-making moments, and actually poll the audience in the moment, in the talk, “This is the problem, these are the choices, not a lot of information, that’s tough, you’ve got to choose. What would you choose?” and suddenly, they’ve got skin in the game, they’ve actually made a choice.
Wendy Harris: I remember being in the audience. I think I died very early on! But it was a great way to get everybody invested in the story, because from what felt like an obvious choice that was wrong, but once you’d explained why the choice was this, I think most people were just sat there going, “Oh, yeah, of course”, because we screen our brains, don’t we? We talk our brains out of different things for different reasons, so I think it’s great to have that challenge as well.
Cathy O’Dowd: We didn’t always make the right choices. It does reflect the reality. A lot of project management is actually just making a choice and then managing the consequences, while trying to keep on moving towards whatever your ultimate goal is.
Wendy Harris: Well, Cathy, I really, really appreciate you coming and sharing with us the experiences that have taken you on this lifelong journey. Long may you stay safe and keep adventuring. If anybody wants to reach out to you, where’s the best place for them to do that after listening?
Cathy O’Dowd: So, my website, which is cathyodowd.com. You’ll find a contact page there, and that’s mostly information about my talks and just a little bit of blogging. And then, Instagram, which is @cathyodowd, you’ll find day-to-day pictures of all the adventures in the mountains.
Wendy Harris: Fantastic. We’ll put all the details in the show notes. Once again, thank you so much for your time, Cathy, it’s been fantastic to speak to you.
Cathy O’Dowd: It’s been a great pleasure.
Wendy Harris: I’m sure many of you will agree now, after listening to Cathy talking about the tactics of her mountaineering and achieving what she has across the Himalayas and some of those remote parts of the world that I couldn’t even see myself in, there are decisions that you need to make because there are extremities that are going to affect you that are out of your control.
So, do pick up the conversation with Cathy; if you’ve got a team and it feels like you’re climbing a mountain, she’s definitely the lady for you. If you need some other more sort of Base Camp help with your team on a telephone training point of view, do hit me up too.
Next week, I’m going to be Dead Honest with our guest. She won the 2021 Best Interview Podcast, and she’s so incredibly insightful about the journey of podcasting, that we couldn’t help but get Dead Honest talking about it. You’ll want to tune in to hear more insights about that with Georgie Vestey next time.
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