In 2002, Susan Ershler reached the top of Mount Everest, making her the 12th American woman to climb Mt. Everest and the 4th American woman to climb the Seven Summits (the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents). At the same time, she capped off a 23-year career as a sales executive at several Fortune 500 companies including Verizon, CenturyLink Business, and FedEx.
Ershler gained numerous insights along the way, which she shares in her latest book, Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales: From Everest to Every Business, Achieving Peak Performance. 1to1 Media caught up with Ershler to discuss her experience as a business leader and climber and her next goals.
1to1 Media: What inspired you to climb the Seven Summits?
Susan Ershler: I had never climbed before, but when I was 36 one of my clients introduced me to an international mountain guide, who became my husband. My husband took me up Mount Rainier [in 1992], which is 14,000 feet and it's tough. Some people will do a climb like that and decide that they're done and others want to go higher. The latter happened to me.
How would you apply your climbing experience to a business professional who is trying to push past real and perceived boundaries?
After I had climbed six of the seven summits, I gave myself a goal to climb Mount Everest. At the same time I was advancing my career in sales and wanted to become a vice president of sales [at CenturyLink Business]. To accomplish both I boiled my plan down to three words that I now use for accomplishing any goal: project, prepare, and persevere.
You need a clear vision of what you want. My two visions were I'm going to be a VP of sales of a Fortune 500 company and I'm going to climb to the summit of Everest. I wrote my goals down and looked at them constantly. Doing that drove my activities. It made me hike every weekend and climb up and down the stairs at work with a weighted pack on my back during my lunch break at the office.
When projecting your goals, where do you start and how do you make sure you're not setting unrealistic goals?
When I started climbing, I was a bit freaked out. You have to start slowly. I never thought I'd climb Everest, but over the years, I got higher and higher. The same goes for business. I decided to become a manager, after I got there, I wanted to become a director and so on. If your goal is really big, it might take years and that's okay. Always dream high and then just ride it out. It's important to write down your goals and make them specific. But I also learned to travel light. We're never going to get everything done. To climb Everest, I had to declutter my life. What activities will I work on and do I have time to work on them? We're all in this overloaded world and we don't want to just react to things; we want to work on the big things that'll help us.
But how do you know when it's time to quit?
If we're going to after our higher dreams, we're going to get knocked down. That's where I've seen people give up. We have to keep trying. For example, when we were climbing Mount Everest, it was the the 63rd day, we only had one morning left and we were climbing really strong. But on Everest you can get stuck in a jet stream, which is like being hit by a freight train. We were 1,400 feet away from the summit when my husband said to me, "I can't take you up to the summit, we have to go down."
On the way down, I realized it was the last day of the season but then I saw that he was losing his vision because his eyes had nearly frozen over. His vision came back in a day or two and I knew we had made the right choice. But when I went back to work, I felt like a failure. That's when you decide, do you stop or do you keep going back? For us, we decided to go back and we did it [reached the summit of Mount Everest] the following year .
I've seen the same thing in sales where some people if they're told no, just walk away but others keep going. Maybe the salesperson realized the customer didn't really mean "no," just not yet or didn't understand the full value of the plan. So that person finds another way to present things and keeps coming back until they say yes. The lesson is if we can be successful a different way or at another time, we should keep trying.
What are the mistakes that you've seen business people make in trying to achieve their goals?
It's a lack of self-confidence, giving up after being told no once and not having a clear vision. I understand having a lack of confidence. I'm 5 foot 2 and I'm a girl, but as we climbed higher and higher, my confidence rose. What you have to do is get it burnt into your mind that you can do it. Look at it- it's Mount Everest, it's been climbed before, so why can't I do it? Look at the CEOs, how'd they get there? We should all have confidence in our skill sets and abilities.
What advice do you have on how to prepare yourself to reach your goals?
If you just start climbing as high as possible, without any training, you'll probably pass out. The plan we had was climb to a certain level, go back down and then climb back up, but keep going higher as you condition your body. Having a plan is essential.
The same thing applies to business. What are your objectives? Put a plan together and work on the right activities. So with my sales team, we made a map of the customers we were going to go after and usually that was the highest customers in those markets. We also looked at with whom am I going to work, who are the best customers that I can lead to success, who are the decision makers, and who are the influencers? You need to visualize yourself as a guide. When you're a [mountain climbing] guide, you have to get the people on your team to believe that they can climb higher. If you make them successful, then you're successful, just like in sales.
What advice would you give to women in particular who are trying to climb the corporate ladder?
I was in the data world for most of my career and I learned certain things. One of the most important things I walked away with from that experience was you have to drive results. The first year, I was not achieving my objectives and so I was moved into a lower level position.
I was ready to quit. But I decided not to. My boss gave me great advice: focus, become an expert in one area. So I worked harder to make up for my inexperience and kept up on innovations. I had to educate myself first so that I could educate our customers.
In my opinion, it doesn't matter what industry you're in or your gender, once you learn to drive results, leadership and colleagues respect you and you'll advance in your career. Another thing that's important is networking. Women work hard; I've seen that from day one. But we need to spend time on networking.
Going out and building relationships with customers and other people in the industry is essential. You can't be an expert in every area and so the best thing you can do is build out your network of experts in and outside of your organization. Those people can also introduce you to new customers and help drive more business.
What new goals have you set for yourself?
After we climbed Mt. Everest, people kept asking us, what's next? You get into this low point. Everything was wonderful but once I didn't have a goal I needed to figure things out. I started my own business and traveling the world as a speaker. And when I turned 50 [in 2006], I decided to spend the next 50 years helping people reach their goals. So I started working with the American Himalayan Foundation, which has a program to help girls stay in school and stop female trafficking. And every time I speak, I donate part of that to the program and that keeps me motivated to continue working.