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Mountain Climbing 651dd67c5afbd

Innovation Is 1 Part Creation, 3 Parts Climbing That Mountain

Oct. 4, 2023
Focus, guidance and fundamentals are all part of the journey.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

One of my favorite quotes is from John Muir, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” While Muir was determined to make a significant scientific contribution as a naturalist, I, too, feel compelled to make a difference in my world.

The mountains have always been a place I long to escape to in order to feel peace and renewal.

But the quote means more to me than serenity. It is also a goal to keep putting one foot in front of the other on this journey to reach a summit that is always ahead of me. For lifelong learners, there is no end to the quest for knowledge.

In this phase of my life’s journey, I needed the mountains to ground me. As I have hiked many miles over the last nine months, I have been processing the business world I exited as the president of a manufacturing company. There, I was responsible for everything from strategy to day-to-day operations. I now serve as a leadership consultant at the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services, advising and coaching manufacturers on strategic planning, building a board of directors, etc.

Today, I find myself in an unfamiliar place. One where I do not have solid footing and where the learning curve is quite steep. I am in a position to learn all about the startup ecosystem full of accelerators, incubators, funders, investors and entrepreneurs.

I am trying to ask curious questions to gain understanding of the current reality. As you can imagine, the reality of the startup world is very different that running a legacy manufacturing company. I am doing my best to not jump to conclusions. Rather, only after connecting the dots and sorting out the details do I feel comfortable offering my experiences in order to hopefully lend a helping hand to the innovators out there trying to build their businesses.

Here is some advice I feel comfortable sharing at this point in my journey.

Find Focus

Innovators, creators and makers love to do what they do best … dream!  Yet, sometimes before they have ever reached their initial goal, they chase another shiny new thing.

You must maintain focus on your goal and vision of the future. All the decisions that you make need to be filtered through the lens of “Does this help me get closer to my goal?”

There are many, many good ideas out there. But it is impossible to do anything well if you are trying to accomplish too many goals. Prioritize your actions and focus your mind on the mountaintop you are climbing towards.

Keep Basic Needs in Mind

If you were camping in the woods, you would prepare your backpack with all the basics for survival. The same is true in business: You need to understand the basics of running a business. I know that you want to keep pressing forward, dreaming of the future, but you cannot ignore the fundamentals.

I always say, “The business of the business remains the same no matter what product or service you are selling.” Every business owner must understand how sales & marketing, finance, human resources, operations and leadership intersect and overlap. Without closely analyzing each area of the business, you will not know where to make adjustments in your journey to success.

Seek out a Guide

If you were going to climb Mt. Everest, you would hire a sherpa. In business, you need to surround yourself with guides as well. You could hire an executive coach. Or ask a business leader to mentor you. You could join a peer group. Or recruit a board of directors.

Don’t think that you have to take the journey alone. Most of the time you will find that people are more than willing to help when asked. It makes them feel good to know that they are needed and provides them with a sense of purpose.

As I search for clarity surrounding the next goal I want to accomplish, I am going to hike to the third largest peak of the Great Smoky Mountain, Mount Leconte. Wish me luck as I head out on my journey!

What goal do you have set for yourself? Are you chasing shiny things? Do you understand the basics? Have you hired a guide?

Ashleigh Walters was president of Onex Inc. through 2022 and is the author of  Leading with Grit and Grace.

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