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A Birds-Eye View of Small Business Risk: An Assessment From 12,000 Feet

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Taking risks plays a substantial role in how I make my living. While I climb mountains chiefly for personal fulfillment, I also guide others up these same peaks and teach them how to successfully summit. It's a tremendous responsibility because the risks I take during any given ascent affect not only my wellbeing, but the wellbeing of my client teams as well. It's not the easiest way to make a buck, that's for sure, but it is very rewarding.

Surprisingly, many of the folks who sign up for my expeditions aren't hardened, extreme sports professionals; they're actually business people - with more than a few hailing from promising positions as small business owners. You lean a lot about the people you climb with, and it's amazing how many of these business owners tell me how important taking calculated risks is for their business success ... and one of the things they hope to accomplish during our climb is gain a better sense on how to take risks responsibly. They realize, as I realize, the mountain is one formidable teacher and the risks you take when you're hanging from a piton are risks you take with great care and calculation.

A week or two after an expedition, I'll invariably receive an email or Facebook post from one of these entrepreneurs detailing how a particular gut wrenching challenge on the climb prepared them to make a similar, if less life threatening, decision back in their office. I've started to collect this feedback and have come up with some key insights about risk taking in business that we learned while getting to the summit.

1) Take Risks With A Specific Outcome In Mind.

Climbing treacherous terrain forces you to focus on single next moves. Sure, there is always an overall objective in mind, but we can't just take one leap of faith and hope we make it across that ice ravine or not. Instead, we concentrate on the first step that will take us across successfully. Weigh the risk versus reward of any single move and then take it. Sometimes this means taking baby steps... and that's fine. There's always a next move, with its own set of risks, to be taken right thereafter. Our success overall is made up a many singular decisions where an immediate outcome must outweigh the risk danger involved in taking that step. Start seeing your goals as a series of carefully measured steps.

2) Make Use of Your Resources When Assessing Risk - Before making a climb, we know the elements and high altitude are going to drain us both physically and mentally. The exhaustion and lapses in judgment affect each climber differently both in terms of severity and duration. This is the time we make use of our instruments and each other, as a group decision body. We consult and check with each other frequently. In business, it's no different. Make sure you've chosen the right key players and instilled them with the confidence to lead and make decisions before you make big moves.

3) Not Every Risk Has To Be Big Or Bold - While climbing, we often see both an easy route and a tough route that can lead us to the same pit stop on our course. It's amazing how, as risk takers, we feel compelled to opt for the more challenging course. Why are we wired this way? On a mountain that's ready to throw you punishing challenges at any turn, you quickly learn not to waste energy when you don't have to. See if it's the same in your business. Try to achieve the same goal without exposing yourself and your business to potential failure or harm. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. Save the real risky choices for when you truly need them!

4) Own Your Risk And Its Consequences - Once you've made a decision that a specific course of action is worth the risk, commit to it -- and don't let anything sway your conviction that it is the right course of action. I have been in many life-threatening situations in my career -- avalanches, storms, you name it. These unplanned occurrences sapped my resources, and left me emotionally drained. Sometimes they even made me question my original beliefs. But when I commit myself to the goal in the onset - I honor that commitment in the heat of battle. You should too.

5) Know When To Stop Taking A Risk - In 2011 on Mt. Everest, my team had worked for weeks to establish itself at 23,500 feet, only 2 days from the summit. But the winds were not matching our weather forecasts and were threatening to destroy tents and cause dangerous frostbite conditions for our climbers. We had accepted significant risk to get to this point, but our intuition told us that going further would be unreasonably dangerous and would risk the entire team. So we bailed and headed back to base. We had made the right choice. The lesson here? It's okay to back off and reassess current conditions against you goals -- and risk-taking initiatives to achieve these goals.

On the mountain, indecision or inaction spell disaster. It's the same inside the wall of our small businesses. Some of our greatest innovators of all time were some of America's greatest risk takers. But you've got to live to tell the tale of your success. Make sure you're taking risks the smart way.