Reaching the Summit: Rodrigo Jordán’s Leadership Lessons from the Andes

More so than other executives, Chilean entrepreneur and academic Rodrigo Jordán has a right to claim that a tough day in the office is like scaling a mountain. That’s because after leading South American teams to the peaks of Mount Everest and K2, he set up Fundación Vertical, an educational mountaineering non-profit for underprivileged children in the early 1990s, which subsequently spawned for-profit Vertical, a similar program also based in the Andes and aimed at honing executives’ leadership skills.

Jordán — who holds a PhD in organizational administration from Oxford University and teaches leadership and decision-making at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile — says that through the outdoor activities of both organizations, Vertical’s training team use their mountain expeditions to help people develop the "soft" skills — such as teamwork, conflict resolution, crisis management — that are essential on one level for business success and on another — in the case of the children — for climbing out of poverty. An inspirational raconteur, Jordán spoke with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton about the leadership lessons mountaineering has taught him.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start by asking how you got interested in mountain climbing?

Rodrigo Jordán: My parents ended up living in Santiago at the foot of the [Andes] mountains. The mountains were literally in my backyard. My family had nothing to do with mountaineering. My father was a city man, and my mother and brothers [were also city dwellers]. I started climbing without any knowledge about it. To make a long story short, I went to university, and they had courses on mountaineering, which I immediately took. I wanted to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere. That was my dream. That’s what started off [my professional mountaineering] and it’s been long career now, more than 30 years.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you see any relationship between that and your interest in leadership?

Jordán: At the beginning, none whatsoever. At first, I was just a climber. I had parallel lives. I was doing my academic work and my climbing. Actually, I chose to work in academia to a certain extent because you have longer vacations, [which allowed me] to go climbing. But with the help of many people, I saw the connection [between leadership] and putting on a big expedition, which itself is a big enterprise. My fieldwork for the [Pontifical Catholic University of Chile] was in innovation and structuring organizations for innovation. That was my doctoral study at Oxford University. Then I [saw] that elements of social skills — teamwork, leadership, communications, effective solving of conflicts — were mutual to these two worlds, so we started overlapping them.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: At some point, from studying company structures to mountain climbing, you set up a company called Vertical, is that right? How was that founded?

Jordán: Again, the story is not that short. When we came back from our first climbs of Mount Everest, we had our 15 minutes of fame. We were the very first South American expedition that went up the very difficult route, [Mount Everest’s East Face]. I used the fame to establish a foundation, because we realized that the less-privileged schools in Chile, the public schools and their students, didn’t have access to all the knowledge [about leadership and teamwork] the outdoors can bring you. We set up this foundation to offer the possibility for these students to enjoy maybe two or three days of outdoor education. That’s how it started. But then we realized what we were doing with kids could be done with organizations. I left my job at the university and started this company.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Going back to the foundation, does it still exist? Can you tell us about how it has grown?

Jordán: Thanks to the effort of many, many people, the company has grown and we now have a big house in Santiago. Both organizations live together under the same roof. The company and the foundation feed each other. Our instructors, for example, work in both organizations. It’s very interesting to see them work with underprivileged students one week and then with CEOs of big Chilean companies. The foundation takes about 3,000 children to the outdoors every year, so it’s pretty big.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the broader implications of taking children outdoors? Ultimately, the goal is to reduce poverty in society as a whole. How does your activity contribute to that mission?

Jordán: When we started working with … government and non-governmental organizations, we realized that especially in Chile, [students] were technically very competent, but social skills. We’ve done research, and you can see that imbalance. [The students] weren’t getting any training in social skills. We are working in schools to provide [that training]. It’s certainly helping to [educate] a future professional, who has not only technical competencies, but also social skills. If you link that to overcoming poverty, it comes [down to] a need to build a change of [mindset].

We believe you need to give all the tools possible to underprivileged kids to [help them] overcome poverty [on their own]. They can even get a technical degree, but if they don’t have social skills to build networks, [learn how] to lead in difficult circumstances, [and learn] how to seek a better future, you are not giving them all the possible tools. That’s the relationship between all of this. It all happens under this roof.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Could you give an example of how the outdoor activities by the foundation contribute to building social skills that achieve the results you just described?

Jordán: I can give you a specific example. We were running a weekend trip for fifth and sixth grade students from a very poor community on the outskirts of Santiago. We sent buses to take them up to the mountains. I was already at the base camp waiting for them when I got a radio message from my instructor, who said, ‘Rodrigo, we have a problem. Not only did the fifth and sixth graders board the bus, but five kids from eighth and ninth grade have too.’ [The older students] were notorious for being quite problematic kids; all of them boys, I must say. [The bus drivers] were on the radio, asking, ‘What do we do? Shall we send them back?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, bring them over.’

They came along. We knew they [could be a] problem, so I took time to discuss them with my instructors, and I said we are going to turn this to our advantage. We said to them, ‘We are so happy you are here.’ That’s the first thing — you validate them, rather than [berate them]. We [showed that we were] happy to see them and said we needed assistance. We all rehearsed this line: ‘Would you like to be my assistant?’ To tell you the truth, in that program, those who changed their view of life the most were this group of five kids. Afterwards, we received letters and phone calls from their parents asking us [what we did] because [they couldn’t] believe that after just two days away on the program, how [much] their children had changed back home.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Where are they now?

Jordán: They finished school, all of them. I have kept in touch with only two of them and they are both in technical schools. The other three, I’ve lost track of because their families moved out of Santiago.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do social skills work in the same way for boys and girls or have you seen a difference?

Jordán: I’m not sure if it has to do with gender. It’s about how well you manage your social skills. For example, you might be an introvert or an extrovert. Some people tend to think that being introverted is a bad thing and you need to be an extrovert. I am not sure about that. Being an introvert or an extrovert has nothing to do with gender. If you know that you are an introvert. You can convert that to an asset. Independent of gender, I would try to help [someone] find out what his or her strength is in order to build from it.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Very often in a for-profit organization, it’s easy to measure how you are doing. You can measure revenue growth and the bottom line. In a foundation like the one you are running, how do you measure how you are doing, and how do you keep improving your effectiveness?

Jordán: At the beginning, we didn’t have any parameters. We just did something because it grew from our soul to do it. But as the years passed, we said we needed to measure this. Happily, we were associated with schools, so we could. We involved teachers rather than running a program independently of it. We developed one program that starts before we go to the mountains, one in the mountains and one afterwards, and we involve the teachers to work through the whole process. We have a baseline to measure what was going on in a class before and after the program. That has given us the ability to measure how we move from the baseline.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In the course of your career, what has been the toughest leadership challenge you have faced, what did you do to overcome it, and what did you learn from it?

Jordán: The toughest leadership task anyone has [is leading himself or herself] more than leading others. I remember back in 1986, we failed our first Mount Everest expedition and lost one of our climbing friends and companions. It was a very sad moment. Coming down from Everest, you have around a week of just trekking and then taking a bus to get to Katmandu before flying back to Chile. The whole process is about 15 days before you get back home. During those 15 days, I was empty. I thought, ‘I am not good at this. How did I get into the situation of somebody dying because of our desires?’ It was a sort of terrible spiritual and intellectual mess. It certainly was tough. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try again. The very worst challenge for me was that I knew I could fail again. By the way, we did fail again on our second attempt. But first I had to overcome that fear of failure — that if you fail, you are sucked into [the thinking that you are] this guy who is good for nothing. Overcoming the fear of what would happen to me, to my career, my development, if we failed again was the toughest thing I have gone through.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What did it teach you?

Jordán: I think it was Einstein, who said failure and success are two big imposters in what they tell you. You shouldn’t believe that you have failed because you lost one game, and you are not successful because you won one game. Your life is much more complex.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have a personal definition of success?

Jordán: It has changed over the years. Now, success means [being] at peace with what you are doing. ‘This is what I am doing, this is what I like to do, this makes my family and me happy. This is what I am here for.’ That, for me, is success.

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