Key enterprise suggestions that Esther Colwil of Korn Ferry learnt from climbing Mount Everest

Key business tips that Esther Colwil of Korn Ferry learnt from climbing Mount Everest

Park your ego

Perhaps understandably, many climbers have egos. They may have a personal dream of climbing Mount Everest, they have trained for years, risked their life savings and told friends and family about their upcoming adventure. As Colwill says, “You have a genuine interest in being successful.”

As a result, sometimes they’re unwilling to turn back or reevaluate when the going gets too tough — and sometimes they die.

Esther Colwill successfully climbed Mount Everest in 2006.

Colwill makes a conscious effort to control her ego and know when it’s time to change course or admit failure. The Korn Ferry executive recalls a time when she worked on the West Coast of the United States, where big tech companies were highly sought-after customers due to their “cool kid” status. But Colwill realized that pursuing the contracts was draining the team’s energy and it was time to call it quits.

“It’s not good for you. It’s not good for [the team]. It’s not good for business. You go somewhere else,” she says.


The Sherpas, says Colwill, are good observers. At high altitude, Colwill struggled in the mornings, so the Sherpas paid special attention to her in the early hours of the day.

“They really knew me and my patterns and when I needed help and when I was fine,” says Colwill.

She makes a concerted effort to do the same at work, making sure she has frequent contact with team members and that the conversations are as meaningful as possible so she has the best chance of spotting when something is wrong.

Colwill, who is based in Jakarta, has many Zoom meetings and pays attention to people’s body language, including how people sit in their chairs and whether they lean forward or backward. She will streamline the conversations accordingly.

She is also looking for collaborators who do not speak out.

“Sometimes it’s the quiet ones who don’t tell you when something’s wrong. You need to make sure you’re proactive because they won’t call you. Female executives in particular can fall into this category. They don’t want to be high maintenance, so they don’t always call when they need help.”

Treat co-workers like family

Colwill’s fellow climbers on Mount Everest ranged in age from 23 to 65 years old. The older climbers were very experienced but could not match the speed of the younger team members.

As a result, at the end of the day, when there was camp to be built and other chores to be done, the Sherpas would ask the younger climbers to carry more of the load—just as they would ask younger members of their own family to help.

Colwill is ready to push younger members of her team in the same way.

“I’m going to say, ‘You’re really good at that. The team will need you to do this, so do it.’”

Do you have a plan B

It’s easy to learn on a mountain that sudden changes in the weather can thwart even the most sound plans. Many parts of business are also unpredictable, which means leaders need to accept that they’re not in full control — and make sure they have options.

“I can say, ‘Here’s the top of where we’re going.’ But the kind of scenarios you need to be prepared for is the only thing you can control.

“I’m looking at different ways to get there. I know where I think my biggest bets are based on history. And I know I need certain types of leadership to get there, but I don’t know if supply chain problems suddenly crowd out a market or if a line of business suddenly falters because a competitor shows up.”