“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” -Nelson Mandela
What the Mountain Teaches
The sky warms rosy as we ascend through the trees, the crunch-crunch-crunch of spring snow under our clunky boots. Exiting the forest into the krummholtz, the terrain evolves into wind-whipped sastrugi dotted by boulders and stunted, tortured dwarf trees. We kick our way into the Boulder Field, then round the corner into the Chasm Lake basin under The Diamond – the imposing ease face of Longs Peak. Strapping on crampons and rounding the lake, we begin our ascent of Lambs Slide, a famed couloir accessing The Loft between Longs Peak and neighboring Thirteener Mount Meeker. The ascent gradually steepens, but the snow fails to soften. Kicking steps yields little purchase; even in full-shank mountaineering boots, the snow gives little, offering scant security. I have plenty else to focus on, like keeping my heart rate below “crazy,” my legs pushing upward against the resistance of the slope, fueled by puffing lungs and pounding heart. “Let’s head to these rocks and take a break!” my partner shouts. I notice older steps exiting instead to the left; I have my doubts on his route choice, but I’m too winded to protest, and I follow his lead into increasingly steeper, more serious terrain. Soon I’m dry-tooling (using my ice axe on bare rock) on slender, icy holds to surmount the rock outcrop, only to find the going gets more serious from here onward.
I loathe traverses; they are my climbing Achilles Heel. On rock or snow, my mind deals well with moving directly upward or downward, but struggles with the extended tension and prolonged exposure of lateral motion steep on a mountainside. Soon I find myself on the dreaded down-angling traverse, which requires me to make handholds out of the tiny steps I had previously kicked with my feet, moving downward in a diagonal fashion. “This is absurd,” I say out loud to myself. A slip here means rapidly picking up speed for a potentially long ride down a steep, hard-packed snow slope if the climber fails to very promptly arrest. I stare down at the gaping crazy openness under my feet. “Just shut up and focus on what you are doing, you idiot,” my inner voice reprimands, and so I obey my rational self, shut down my fear and push on. Soon the slope angle relents, and I find myself moving on easier terrain toward the high saddle known as The Loft. The remaining ascent to the rocky, open summit of Mount Meeker is uneventful. Also uneventful is the descent down The Loft Route to Chasm Lake (minus me snagging a crampon point on my pant-leg and almost careening to my demise down the cliff face and ledges, which is another matter).
As a climber, it’s easy to stay well within your comfort zone; maybe a little too easy. We become lazy, complacent, a bit too comfortable taking on “challenges” well within our wheelhouse. The only way to become a better climber is to push our limits! In alpine skiing, people say: “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.” Well, climbers don’t really want to fall; falling is one thing, it’s the impact after the fall that can kill you. But what we do need to do is stretch our limits, scare ourselves a bit. Was there anything to be worried about during that steep traverse in Lambs Slide? Possibly. But more importantly, all I had to do was take skills I already had in my possession, combine those skills with the ability to keep my nerves stable, and push onward. To grow as a climber means challenging your fears, not avoiding them.
What This Means to CX / VoC
Maybe you work for a blue chip company with Marketing and Finance at the helm or a technology start-up where Engineering and Sales dominate, but chances are likely that if your title has “Customer Intelligence” or “Customer Experience” in it, you do not wield limitless power within your organization. Despite years of claims of customer-centricity and valuing customer feedback, old habits die hard and new-comer VoC / CX teams are too often understaffed teams of one, under-authorized matrixed guerilla units or officially sanctioned departments that are unofficially at the mercy of stronger departments. The result is many VoC / CX practitioners play a painfully safe hand of cards that can result in slow or no progress to improve the customer experience.
Playing it overly safe may feel comfortable, but it hinders progress. Being timid may keep you out of harm’s way, but how can you knock down roadblocks to customer improvement in duck-and-cover mode? I’m not advocating running out and playing the role of Chief Bull in China shop. Being a rough rider is counter-productive, politically; it rubs people the wrong way. But I am saying you need to step out of the role of complacent order-taker and provider of customer data dumps and be a bolder advocate of customer engagement. If you want to succeed on behalf of your customers, you need to step out on a limb, take chances, and stick your neck out. It’s going to be scary. But getting scared now and then by pushing corporate cultural limits is the only way you’ll make the impactful changes your customer deserves.
I challenge VoC / CX practitioners: If you are too comfortable, growing complacent and not a bit scared – you are not trying hard enough to improve your customer experience. Step out of your comfort zone and try harder. Go ahead and push yourself and others within your organization. I promise it will be scary – and rewarding all the same. To grow as a VoC / CX practitioner means challenging your fears, not avoiding them.
If You’re Not Scared, Try Harder