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By Richard Tyson

A few years ago, my business partner and I lead a group of executives down a 14-mile stretch of slot canyons in southern Utah. Our task was to guide them through a team-building experience involving multiple rappels, traversing pools of frigid water and a rigorous hike through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet.

The business objective was to enhance the problem-solving skills of their executive team, providing an experience to help them more readily seek input and support from one another. In the process, their CEO wanted each participant to have a world-class memorable experience.

These objectives were important to us, of course, but we had a higher “mission-critical” goal: to get everyone home alive and uninjured. To assure this outcome, we scheduled a test run two weeks before the real event. With seven rappels to negotiate, we wanted to assess each one one more time.

As we worked our way down the canyon, we tested each anchor to secure our ropes, checking footing and obstacles. Since some rappels would be through waterfalls, we checked for dangers that might be lurking beneath them. At each rappel, we considered the situation that would face our rookie canyoneers, thinking ahead about how they might approach each challenge.

Every rappel appeared straightforward until No. 7. We discovered that a flashflood had wiped out all the good anchors for our ropes. It was a short rappel (10-15 feet) into a pool of water, but we were still concerned. Could we just jump in? How deep was the water? 

We were relieved to hear the voice of a hiker who had been travelling up-canyon. We asked him to test the pool’s depth and, obligingly, he stepped into it. He completely submerged and upon surfacing, assured us that we could make the jump. We did so without incident. 

The time arrived for our client canyoneers. We began with basic training in rappelling technique, a careful equipment check and an orientation regarding what they were about to experience. We assessed both the confidence and competence of each participant. Where we detected either fear or over-confidence, we stressed that by staying true to critical safety procedures and working well together, everyone would have a safe and fulfilling experience.

It was a beautiful fall morning for our first rappel. All went as planned throughout the day, until we hit rappel No. 7. We knew we would have no anchors there, of course, but as my partner and I looked down on the pool below, our anxiety grew. It looked the same as before, but how could we know if it was safe to jump in today?

After some discussion, I volunteered to climb down to the pool. The descent was precarious, but after a few tense moments I stepped into the pool. 

I was shocked when the water only came up to my mid-calf! At that moment, I said a silent prayer of gratitude that we had not decided to jump. It took us considerable time to have everyone climb down, but we did so safely, finishing the full trek about an hour later than planned.

Canyoneering is a perfect metaphor for running a business. You hope to achieve high and noble purposes by working well with your people, solving problems and overcoming challenges. Some of these are “mission-critical,” meaning that if you don’t handle them properly, they can kill your business. 

To avoid business death, you need basic training in what to do and what not to do. You need to be sure you have the resources and equipment required to be successful. And you need to assess the confidence and competence of each member of your team.

You can choose to go it alone, but this accentuates the risks. An experienced guide can be invaluable, especially when you’re faced with dangers you might fail to observe.

According to the American Management Association, organizations that use coaching reported stronger market performance. A global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean return on investment (ROI) for companies investing in coaching was seven times that of the initial investment. A quarter of the companies in the survey reported an ROI of 10 to 49 times investment. 

Business is an extreme sport. Why go it alone?

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting to executives in small businesses.