Reflections on business from the Andes

‘Lookie’ sat next to his bike on the side of the Argentinean motorway in tears. He had reached the end of his tether. Haunted by the memory of a car smashing into him two years previously and overwhelmed by the volume and nature of the traffic, he could go no further.

Minutes later, he was in the support vehicle recovering whilst the rest of the group cycled on towards Mendoza. It was day three of an epic ride from Santiago to Mendoza and back, over one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Los Caracoles is 29 unprotected hairpin bends. The remains of lorries, whose brakes have failed, are a chilling reminder of how a simple mistake could have catastrophic consequences. The reward however, is a stunning vista of high crags and epic Andean landscapes. Everything is on such a massive scale. There aren’t many places in the world where you can spend all day riding 180kms uphill.

Nine riders had met up in Santiago to start this amazing journey. The longest day would see us covering almost 300km and the hardest over 5000m of ascent. What had started out three years earlier as a simple business networking trip for enthusiastic cyclists, had become something far richer than I ever anticipated.

Friendships had developed that transcended the original purpose of the trips. As a group, we had made our first journey, a ride from London to Paris, in less than 24 hours. Buoyed by this success, the next year we tackled Paris to Geneva and the year after that Grenoble to Nice via the giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux.

Each rider has had to deal with their own personal challenge of finding the time to train, scraping in sessions either ridiculously early in the morning or squeezed between meetings. Depending on where in the world they live, some had to find ways of training in the snow and sub-zero temperatures, whilst others had to cope with intense heat. Those of us in the UK might sometimes have been better in a wetsuit and snorkel rather than lycra! The one thing we all had in common was a fear we had not done enough preparation.

Over the years, a kinship of the road has evolved. The aim is not to be the first or the fastest, but simply to make sure we all get there together. A selfless attitude has developed. The strongest in the group put themselves out at the front, sheltering other riders from the worst of the headwinds. Others keep a watchful eye on the group, offering a quiet word to those at the front to moderate the pace to keep everyone together. When someone is in trouble, they are not abandoned, but encouraged and supported with respect and humility. But it shouldn’t be this way – these are hard-headed, red-blooded business men and women who have to, and are capable of, taking the tough decisions to manage under-performance in order to ensure business success, and yet here they are demonstrating empathy, care and compassion for their fellow beings.

Once off the motorway, Lookie re-joined the group. A couple of the group quietly rode alongside, helping him find his confidence and in time his enjoyment of this epically beautiful ride. We listened, we learned about the mental struggle he had had getting back on the bike once his broken pelvis and smashed ribs had healed. The mountain he has had to climb was way bigger than anything the Andes had to offer. He was here, conquering more than the rest of us put together.

After a delightful stay at a vineyard in the Mendoza region, where the view from the outdoor Jacuzzi was the snow capped Andean peaks, we made our way back over the mountains to Santiago. As the miles passed, vineyards became desert scrubland before morphing into rocky landscapes. Descending the other side, we crossed a more verdant landscape fed by weather systems from the pacific. We banked memory after memory as this incredible experience unfolded.

I got to reflecting on the journey home. Business people are often the butt of jokes by comedians and the press. Portrayed as selfish, profit-oriented, money grabbing, self-centred animals. And yet, I had witnessed eight senior leaders from some of the world’s biggest companies doing something together that required an effort money can’t buy; that depended on a selfless, caring approach and a preparedness to show weakness and allow others to help.

I sat in a meeting this morning facilitating a difficult discussion, wishing I could have bottled the experience in the Andes to share with these people. That selfless desire to help others succeed and the determination to do something incredible was a heady mixture.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted

If you enjoyed reading this article, have a look at the article on lessons from the Paris to Geneva ride in 2014.  Read of our experiences of Engaging Leadership here.

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