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Peak performance: Adventurer and business coach Adrian Hayes

Peak performance: Adventurer and business coach Adrian Hayes

Adrian Hayes talks to Gulf Business about how his ascent of the world’s most dangerous mountain can provide corporate lessons

It is no small mercy that I meet Adrian Hayes just days after the launch of his latest book, K2: The Tragedy and the Triumph. This way there is a specific focus for our conversation – a blessing given it might have otherwise been difficult to know where to start.

A brief look at his biography starts to explain why. Titles including adventurer, author, speaker, record breaker, documentary presenter, business coach, consultant and campaigner only scratch the surface of the former army officer
and special forces soldier’s activities and achievements.

But it is his new book and the lessons therein that shape our discussion in the aftermath of its launch on the final day of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – an event that confirmed to Hayes that the book was well worth writing, despite some initial concerns.

“It went very well – I had many people tell me that they were in tears at some things,” he says.

“It was never my intention to write a book on this journey. I really thought that there wasn’t a market any more for mountaineering books or adventure
books, because the simple fact is that most of the ‘firsts’ have been done.

“But I was convinced that the story was powerful enough, and what really made me want to write this book was that it was not just a mountaineering book – not just about climbing.

“I wanted to bring right from the start some elements of the book I was hoping to write next – a book about team development and leadership development. I wanted to bring elements of that book into it, as well as a third element – a very personal story that was so intrinsically involved that is became impossible not to bring it in altogether.”

And as the author explains, when the first drafts of the book started to take form, the true essence of the work started to reveal itself.

“It was only when I actually started writing this book at the start of January 2017 that some of the lessons all came out. It became quite a powerful experience – you get the creative juices going and that second part of the book, and the third part, came to the fore.

“The first part of the book – the story – was quite simple; there was a tragedy and a triumph. But I really wanted to get more in there – a sort of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari or The Alchemist, which are both really parables with lots of lessons in them. I’ve got this true story with a lot of lessons in it for everyone attempting to conquer their own mountain.”

The book, published by Motivate Publishing, combines the three elements mentioned by Hayes in a gripping and thought-provoking narrative.

And rather than just focusing on the many things that he learned on the perilous slopes of K2 – the deadliest and second highest mountain the world – Hayes draws on a two decade journey of personal development to explain how he was able to make “big things happen”.

“There are many motivational speakers out there who have done big adventure things and they will say what they did on the mountain, ocean, space, or jungle, and how businesses can use that. Yes, that’s an important part, but where I like to distinguish myself is the opposite: how I took the models, the concepts, the lessons, the tools, the techniques, the mantras and the quotes to make my big things happen.

“I first got into the world of personal development when I did an MBA after I left the army, which was about 22 years ago. And I’ve been studying, learning, reading, qualifying, training, teaching, living and breathing this whole world for a good 15 years.”

So what are the things that Hayes took into his two expeditions to K2, and what did he take out of them?

The list is long, but on both counts he references a Google survey about the key skills people need today and in the future.

“Number one in the survey is problem solving, number two is teamwork, number three is communication,” he says.

“I think number four is critical thinking and number five is leadership skills. These are the sort of skills that you put into an expedition, and they’re also the skills you get out of a big trip like climbing K2.”

Of these, Hayes highlights teamwork as one of the most pertinent for businesses today, and one to which firms pay too little heed.

“One of the key things I brought from the trip was team building – the ability of a group of people to use one person’s wisdom, another person’s skill, another person’s strength, another person’s leadership to solve a problem. We can’t do it on our own.

“It’s a critical skill that computers can’t do, yet most corporates only pay lip service to it. On expeditions it’s not lip-service, it’s absolutely fundamental and is key to everything we do. It’s the same for top sporting team, such as the New Zealand All Blacks. The same for the Mars One mission that I’m an advisor on. They’re selecting teams, not individuals.

“Whether it’s sporting, expeditions, space, or anything else, team building is fundamental. But corporates tend to think we’re going to get it from a once-a-year teambuilding day. They’re great and there’s definitely a place for them, but the main thing you get from them is fun. That’s very important, but if it’s all you’re doing, you’re not going to create a great team.

“You don’t climb K2 by crossing a swimming pool with a ramp, a float and two pieces of rope. You don’t become the All Blacks by going 10-pin bowling. You don’t get into space by going on a rope course. You’ve got to take these things seriously.”

While Hayes acknowledges that the stakes might be different between the mountainside, the rugby pitch and the office, he emphasises that team building methods are the same.

“If you get it wrong in a sporting sense you lose championships. You get it wrong in space and you have a problem if you’re going to be there for a long time. You get it wrong on an expedition, people lose their lives.

“The stakes are different, but the lessons are exactly the same when it comes to creating a great team – including a great corporate team. And who can argue that losing profits and sales is not important?

“One of these lessons is ‘team agreements’, which are a fundamental part of everything I do. We get our cards on the table – not just what people’s roles are, but what does trust mean to us? What support do we need from each other?

What are our strengths and weaknesses? There has to be open, transparent communication about admitting our weaknesses, and there has to be an agreement about taking things personally.

“With [climbing partner] Al Hancock we had a fundamental agreement that we could say anything to each other without either of us taking it personally, because it was for the good of the team. If there’s something festering inside you about the other person and you don’t say it, you take your eye off the ball. In the corporate world that means taking your eye off the sales. On an expedition it can cost you your life. But the lesson is the same.”

Developing a cohesive team that is continually working towards the same goal is perhaps the golden egg for most – if not all – team leaders, and something that Hayes believes is again proven by a rugby analogy.

“You get a team as a living entity, with its own rules and regulations, then that thing is unstoppable; like the All Blacks. When one of the team goes into a tackle and pops the ball up, he’s not looking to see if a teammate is there – he knows someone is there. That’s trust. That’s complete understanding, trust, and commitment to the goal.

“How many times does a CEO go on leave, but still need to check what’s being done? Trust is such a big word and you’ve got to develop that. You need to know that somebody is good for the team before they join.”

One of the key components of a great team is its leadership – another important aspect of Hayes’ business coaching and an area that has developed over time, having encompassed a range of styles.

“The spectrum of leader goes from the authoritarian ‘do as I say, say as I do’, to
the other end – the complete abdication of leadership.

“For the authoritarian style, they will get the job done, but longevity is limited. They might not last; they may burn out, or get sick. Around 20-25 years ago you could still do it, but the internet has changed everything. People today want more control of their lives – they don’t want to be pawns or cogs in a wheel. They want meaning, they want direction and they want to be appreciated.

“So what has become more common is a consultancy leadership, with everybody having a voice. And when you get people’s buy-in, with responsibility and ownership of their role and the team, you find that it’s a much more stable and high-performing team than the authoritarian style.”

It’s a topic that has particular relevance to the GCC, where the prevalence of family businesses means that authoritarian leadership has been a mainstay for the region.

“There’s a lot of great things about business in the Gulf, but most companies tend to run on the authoritarian style of leadership. It’s very hierarchical and sometimes delegation is very hard for the leaders,” says Hayes.

“I’ve been living here for many years and have dealt with some top CEOs and chairmen of companies all around the Middle East. Some of these leaders are highly skilled and a lot of them know more than all their employees in all departments. So letting go is hard. You can do that when it’s a small business, but when your business grows you’ve got to empower leaders because you can’t do it all alone.”

The adventurer and coach reveals that leadership and teamwork are among the most common issues that people and businesses come to him for assistance with, though he explains that these umbrella topics cover a lot of things.

“These include things like risk and reward, comfort zones, communication, trust, and other things,” he says.

“Probably the greatest challenges companies come to me for as a business coach is that they have silo mentalities. They’ve got communication problems, they’ve got some people looking after themselves, there’s a lack of gelling or clicking – there’s a disconnect or some upset.

“What I try to bring to my programmes is a practical-based work – pair work, group work, experiential work using the floor. I use systems work – using the systems of teams – and bring in a lot of concepts from spiritual stuff to hardcore business leadership – all with a practical element. We have fun, but it’s fun with a meaning.”

And according to Hayes the key is consistency: “Once you’ve done the real hard work, you need to keep checking in with how you’re doing. Most teams get me in once a quarter to go through on-going matters with the core team. That kind of thing is crucial.

“We appreciate that everybody is busy, but you see the rewards of the understanding, the communication, the trust, the agreements, the mission. The testimonies of the companies I work with is the proof of the pudding: their synergy, how they’re working together, it all leads to better results.”

The results being enjoyed by the teams that work with Hayes are a product of the many lessons learned around the world by the coach himself.

Since his time in the British Army he has conquered Everest, K2, the North and South Poles, travelled the length of Greenland by kite-ski, and crossed the Arabian Desert by camel.

As well as his latest book, he also chronicled his desert expedition in Footsteps of Thesiger – retracing the journey of renowned British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert between 1946 and 1947. A film of Hayes’ 44-day crossing was also produced – one of three documentaries alongside the feature In Inner Mongolia and The Greenland Quest.

His vertical crossing on the Greenland ice cap also brought him a Guinness World Record, as did his achievement of reaching the Earth’s three poles – north, south and Everest – in the fastest time.

“I’ve always had the favourite one, which is Antarctica, and the hardest one was by far the North Pole,” he says.

“But the one that’s taught me the most about everything is K2. The risks are so high, and part of the book is the lessons that I came back with. I came back far more humble, with an elevated consciousness or awareness. That awareness, those antennae, saved my life the first year on K2, and told me to go back the second year.

“On K2 my gut instinct and awareness skills have never been better – not just in terms of climbing, but in reading people, reading a situation. Funnily enough, most business leaders say that they value their gut instinct more than pages of risk analysis reports. We’ve all got gut instincts, but it’s been submerged by technology.”

And it is this degree of separation from technology, and focus on people’s natural abilities that perhaps defines Hayes and his approach to development.
As we go our separate way, he reiterates some of the most important elements that make up great teams.

“In business you’ve got productivity strengths and positivity,” he says.

“There needs to be clear leadership, resources, decision making. All of those are critical. But you’ve got to have trust, fun, camaraderie, and understanding. Those are just as important.

“Top teams have both of these things – you’ve got the have the soft skills as well as the hard skills.”

Given his long list of achievements, in situations where teamwork is a life-or-death matter, it would be churlish not to take on board his advice.

K2: The Tragedy and the Triumph by Adrian Hayes is available in all major bookstores and at booksarabia.com

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