Home Blog Advice February 2019 Three lessons climbing a mountain taught me about leadership

Three lessons climbing a mountain taught me about leadership

by Jeannette McGill

Marketing Segment - Principal

At sunrise on the 28 September 2018 I became the first South African woman to climb Mount Manaslu (8,163m), the eighth highest mountain in the world. On the surface, the similarities between mountaineering and team management might not seem clear but, on reflection, I’ve learned just as much preparing for my climb as I did building a business unit.

I joined Telstra in 2016 when Telstra Mining Services (TMS) was formed, which meant relocating from my hometown of Johannesburg to Melbourne. When you’re pulled away from everything that’s familiar to you, you really have to immerse yourself in your new surroundings to make it work.

Initially I poured much of my time into work until one of my managers suggested that I needed to improve my work life balance. So, when I was asked what I wanted to focus on outside of work they certainly did not expect me to say, “mountaineering.”

My team were super supportive of my passion and soon I set my sights on conquering the challenge I set out to achieve in 2015 – to reach the summit of Mount Manaslu - but had been thwarted by bad weather.
Growing up in South Africa, I’ve been mountaineering from a young age and developed my skills over the years. In my mid-twenties I was the first female in 26 years to lead a group of people at the Mountain Club of South Africa’s winter camp in the remote Drakensburg. I’ve also embarked on various trips up South American and Nepalese mountains.
Fast forward a few years to my new role and relocation and I knew that in order to scale Manaslu I needed to continue training. In South Africa, when it comes to breaking down massive challenges, we have a saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
With my team’s support, I started walking to and from work each day carrying about 25kgs for an hour each way. While in other locations I would fly with my backpack and empty water bottles to fill as needed. Thanks to our approach to workplace flexibility we can start and finish work at times that suit us.
I knew this wouldn’t just happen overnight, though. Mount Manaslu is only a couple of hundred metres shorter than Everest. Training for these types of climbs is like preparing for the Olympics, it takes time.

Thanks to clever planning, my preparation didn’t come at the expense of my role. With incredible support from my leadership team and the flexibility we’re afforded at Telstra, I was able to balance all my major commitments. While preparing for Manaslu, Telstra Mining Services continued to grow rapidly.

Working on both TMS and training actually helped me see many parallels between my role in leading people and mountaineering. It’s about realising that everyone else has their own personal mountains to climb. Whether that’s family time, or learning to paddle board, or stamp collecting, my role is to help other people find the time in their lives to work on what matters to them. Nurturing your team in this way is what makes us better leaders.

I also learned a valuable lesson about patience. Nothing worth having happens overnight and so developing Telstra Mining Services in itself felt like climbing a mountain.


Like climbing Manaslu, setting up a business unit with the right team, who are enabled and empowered to deliver, can’t be rushed. At times it can be quite tedious to get the details right. It’s time consuming and so that same level of patience is required. If you rush, you’ll burn out.

Just like mountaineering, the challenge in business is more often about endurance and not about speed. You need to be ready for unexpected events, about changes to your wider environment, and ensuring you’ve got the best team around you with the right skills to achieve what you’ve all set about doing. As a leader, you’ve got to know you can’t do it all yourself and as a manager you’ve got to know who to rely on.

Now that it’s all said and done, the biggest lesson for me was embedding the confidence in knowing that when one is patient, has a plan, and perseveres you can achieve a whole range of things. That’s what I saw in my TMS work as well as when I reached the summit of Manaslu.

Have a plan and patiently stick with it.

As for me, some have asked what’s next? For now, I plan to enjoy my accomplishment. I can say that I did it and that I was the first, so I’m going to savour that feeling. But there will definitely be more big mountains at some stage!

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