An interview with Alan

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What is leadership in business? A friend recently asked if she could interview me for a leadership class she was taking. Here is our interview:

Interview with Alan Arnette

By Aimee Betts

A bit of background:
Alan is an alpine mountaineer whose travels I follow via dispatches on his website; my mom also happened to be his executive assistant at Hewlett-Packard several years ago. To this day, she still remarks on what a great leader he was at HP and how much she enjoyed working with him. After obtaining a degree in electrical engineering, Alan worked for HP for almost 30 years. After starting in sales, he quickly moved into leadership positions within the company, working in several locations, including overseas. At age 38, he started climbing mountains, not only climbing them, but sharing his experiences with daily dispatches to his website. Since then, Alan has climbed high peaks in North and South America, Europe, and the Himalayas. I started following Alan’s climbs in 2002 on his first attempt at summiting Mt. Everest, and I have been hooked to his writing and photos that he posts on his website ever since. Alan’s website also features several essays on management, leadership, and career.

After taking early retirement in 2007, Alan embarked on a new career – raising awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research through mountaineering and public speaking. Below, I have paraphrased Alan’s responses to my interview questions:

How would you define or describe what a leader is? How would you describe your leadership style?
An effective leader creates an environment where people are self-motivated to do the best job they can, which results in accomplishing the business’s goals. Alan’s management style has three major components. First, he starts with the assumption that people want to do the best job they can; having that confidence and trust in people is important, because assuming people will do a poor job undermines their self confidence. Second, sometimes people really don’t have the skills, time, or budget to do what has been asked of them; sometimes unrealistic demands have been placed on them. Because of this, it is important to create an environment where people can feel free to ask for help without fear of recrimination. Finally, besides trust and respect, being friendly and fun is important; being “terminally professional” undermines creativity. Humor is important for making an enjoyable and productive work environment.

Describe the first time you realized you had a significant influence on others. What influences early in your life helped you become a leader? Who are some of the individuals that have had a significant influence on your life with respect to leadership? Who are your leadership role models and why?
The first time Alan realized he could influence people occurred when he was a Boy Scout. Another father wanted his Cub Scout son to go on the Boy Scout trip. Alan explained why he thought this wasn’t fair, and the man told Alan to step away from him. At that point, he knew he had made a convincing argument and that he had some skill in communicating to get his point across. Later on in college, even though he wasn’t the best student, he had lots of job offers due to his leadership and communication skills. He advanced through the ranks at HP quickly because others could see these skills as well. Alan’s parents were his first role models. The other role models that came to mind were Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the founders of HP and of the company’s corporate philosophy, the HP Way, which directly relates to Alan’s leadership style.

Working in the technology sector, climbing mountains, and raising funds for Alzheimer’s research may at first glance seem unrelated. However, I suspect you have certain traits or skills that have been important in your success in all three. Can you describe some of these?
One of the common denominators between these has been the use of technology. Alan took his background in technology and uses that for his climbing website and his presentations on Alzheimer’s. Once he saw what a following his website had (1 million+ annual pageviews), he realized he could use this personal passion to achieve a greater goal. People regularly email saying that his site serves as an inspiration for doing things they thought they were too old to do, but more importantly for Alan, his website serves as a platform for getting out his message on the importance of Alzheimer’s research. Finally, his public speaking skills have transcended all three of those areas, giving him the ability to communicate with and influence his audiences.

You done something many people dream of but never actually do – find a way to do what you love. How did you make that leap to quit your job and do what you are passionate about?
Alan pointed to an editorial on his website called “Quitting your job” that addresses this question. Basically, he has asked himself three questions at several points in his life: 1) am I getting satisfaction from what I am doing?, 2) am I being acknowledged for what I do?, and 3) am I being appropriately rewarded? If the answer to all three was no, he needed to find something else. Alan had 6 very different careers in his 30 years at HP; he nearly always moved on when he was no longer getting satisfaction from what he was doing. When he was interviewing for a job once, he saw a guy who was essentially “retired on the job” and decided he never wanted to be like that. As a manager at HP in his late 40s/early 50s, his job was becoming less satisfying. So when an early retirement offer came around, he made that jump and left the company. He said this process is easier if you have a clear understanding of your purpose in life. He had long known that he had the ability to influence people and create environments where people can excel; he felt he had a responsibility to use those skills to do something that makes a bigger difference than just staying at HP forever.

In leadership academy, we have discussed the importance of creating a vision, but as a first-line supervisor, I have struggled to figure out how to do this or what vision I should be creating. What is your strategy for creating a vision?
A vision has to be actionable at the lowest level of the organization. It can’t be so grandiose that people can’t understand their role in achieving it. One new CEO of HP created a vision that no one could relate to, and morale was low. Alan had to break that higher level vision down into a concept his staff could connect with – that their purpose was to do what they could to increase revenue, profit, and customer satisfaction. He also told them that the only people who could create the kind of environment that they want to work in are themselves and their peers (i.e., the CEO isn’t the person creating or solving the problems you have with your direct work environment). Studies have shown that a person’s direct supervisor has more influence on their job satisfaction than any other factor, including pay—so first-line supervisors have an important role in creating an environment where people want to work and helping them understand the meaning of their work. Also, people need to have a vision/goal that is a stretch for them but where people can see its viability. The vision should also be positive and constructive. If the vision/work environment isn’t compelling or rewarding, people essentially have three choices: accept it, change it, or quit. If you really can’t do anything to change the situation, you either need to accept it (and then stop complaining about it to everyone else) or move on.

What are some ways you have used to help motivate people? How do you motivate those who may seem “un-motivate-able”?
For those that are “retired on the job”, self-respect and dignity is the key. These folks need to know you are paying attention – if you sincerely ask for their advice on a regular basis, you will see their productivity increase. Create a small focus group with these people, take them to lunch, say thank you, ask them to lead some effort beyond their regular job. They will do much better when they know their efforts and ideas are valued and appreciated.

What books have you read recently that you would recommend to others?

  • Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
  • No Shortcuts to the Top, by Ed Viesturs – the first person to climb the 14 highest mountains without supplemental oxygen
  • The Seven Summits, by Dick Bass – the founder of Snowbird and first person to climb the highest peak on each continent

Do you think a legacy is important? If so, what do you want your legacy to be?
Alan thought that living his life trying to create a legacy would be a mistake. A legacy is the outcome of what your life was, how other people viewed you. Alan hopes his legacy will be that he was a good guy who cared about people, was always fair and honest, and interacted with people with respect. If he ever does summit Everest, he doesn’t want his legacy to be “he summited Everest”, but rather “he climbed mountains to increase funding and awareness for Alzheimer’s.”

Thanks Aimee. By the way, I discuss many of these principles in my "Mountains Are for Everyone" presentation where I combine my mountaineering passion with my 30 years of work experience in a presentation designed for challenging work environments. You can read more at this link.