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A long climb to the top

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Few managers can say they've climbed Mount Everest. Jim Whittaker not only reached the summit, but he was the first American to do it. After conquering Everest in 1963, Whittaker eventually became president and chief executive of Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI) in Sumner, Wash., running the retailer of outdoor gear through a fast-growth phase.

From his home in Port Townsend, Wash., Whittaker, 78, shared lessons in managing people:

MPAW: How did you assemble a winning team for both climbing expeditions and at REI?

Whittaker: I learned early on you can't just look at a person and think, "They're good." People can fool you in an interview. I've found the best way to hire is to set some-one to work on a trial basis, give him a project and the freedom to produce results within a set time frame. Monitor him as he goes along. See if he does good work for the organization, not just for his own interests.

MPAW: How about character? How do you assess one's integrity and leadership potential?

Whittaker: You can't measure those things. But you can observe how someone interacts with others. The first time I climbed K2 [in 1975], our 350 Pakistani porters went on strike. Our liaison to the porters was a 26-year-old second lieutenant in the Pakistani Army. Even though he carried a revolver, he couldn't control the strikers. My second time at K2 [in 1978], the porters struck again and the Pakistani Army assigned a retiring sergeant as our liaison. He had no gun but lots of charisma. He'd stand on a rock and address the porters and they'd cheer. I remember one of the porters started arguing with him so he threw the guy over a little cliff. Everyone starts laughing. The poor guy gets up, brushes himself off and limps away laughing. That sergeant could assert his authority and leave people laughing!

MPAW: As you climbed the ladder at REI to become CEO, did your management style change?

Whittaker: As manager, I tried to find good people, let them do good work and stay out of their way. And I listened to them. Before I promoted someone, I'd ask if he wanted a promotion. Some people said no--they preferred to keep their current job. I let them. As CEO, I had to lead more actively. When I climbed K2 [the world's second highest mountain], I took off 3 months, but I had four good vice presidents reporting to me. They did fine, but I was probably away from the store too much. To lead, a CEO cannot stay out of the way and just let people work. You have to set a direction.

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