8 reasons why retail managers should try to climb the Kilimanjaro

Hey, this is not bragging about some sort of achievement! Even because many people were able to go through much tougher experiences and do so much more than I did. So, I don’t have the intention to claim anything spectacular or pretending that I am super human. On the contrary, this text is about normal people who just have fun challenging their own (and not other’s) limits and capacities. As I was climbing the Kilimanjaro, I found that many things that were happening, had an overwhelming similarity with our real personal and professional lives. That is the reason why this article was written.

A couple of months ago, a group of 5 friends decided to climb the Kilimanjaro which is around 5.800 metres high and it’s located in the beautiful Tanzania. We are all normal people, with normal lives, doing normal things. We were not exactly super fit, with the exception of one of us, who interestingly enough, decided to give up at the end of the first day. I don’t think there was any sort of health issues to lead him to give up. It was just his mindset that was not really tuned to keep going. He though we wouldn’t manage to get to the top! I guess the size of the fight in his head was bigger than the size of the challenge itself.

Climbing the Kilimanjaro is a 6-day walking trip and under normal circumstances, I don’t consider it to be outstandingly difficult, although the statistics say that more than 50% of the people attempting to climb it fail to do it.

We went during the low season, meaning that weather conditions are normally more unpredictable and far worse than in other months of the year. You have to walk 8 to 10 hours a day, sleeping in tents, no toilets, and going through heavy rain, hail and snow. There is a particular passage where you need to climb a big rocky wall and you can’t afford to slip as you will have a 600 metres freefall if you step on the wrong place.

5300 metres and everything changes…

So, here we were on our fourth day of our climbing. We arrive at one camp, located at 4.600 metres, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were tired enough as one could start feeling the lack of oxygen, the cold (-3 to 4 degrees) and the heavy hail. We rested until eleven o´clock in evening of that very same day. At mid-night sharp, we left the camp to start the final climbing. Yes… we left the camp at midnight and we walked for 13 hours to reach the peak and return to the camp! When we left the camp, we could see a clear and beautiful dark blue sky, with lots of stars shining all over. But the wind was abnormally strong. As we were climbed along the night, the cold started to become more intense. At around 5:30 am we started to see the first sunrays and we got energised by that beautiful moment.

Climbing kilimandjaro

By then we were at around 5.300 metres, and then, very quickly, everything changed. The weather started to deteriorate and we got caught by a big storm. The guides couldn’t even recall when they got such bad weather conditions and we were asked if we wanted to give up and go back to the camp. That was refused unanimously by the group! The cold, the wind, the snow, everything dropped on us without previous notice, which meant that we started to have similar conditions that one would find at 6.500 metres of altitude. The level of oxygen dropped, the temperature was now around minus 18 degrees and the visibility was very low. I got caught by altitude sickness immediately and my body crashed in a blink of an eye. I started to have headaches, my ears were buzzing, feeling very sleepy, dizzy, and I became intensively nauseated. And for 3 hours, until 8:30 in the morning when we got at 5.800 metres, all I cared was about my … next step! I walked (and I am sure so did my climbing mates) for three hours with just one though: one more step, breathe; one more step, breathe…

Periods of rest were allowed, but not for more than 1 minute. I found myself being awaken by one of the guides as I was already in profound sleep, standing up, leaning against a rock. It took me less than one minute to fall asleep profoundly.

Caught in a storm

We achieved the Stella mountain peak at 8:30 and we started to cry of emotion, and happiness (I guess…). We wanted to keep going to the last final 90 meters, but the guide refused to take us as he would be putting our lives in serious danger.

kilimandjaro in a storm

According to him, that was the worst storm he has ever seen, and he has been doing these climbs for over 15 years. The lack of visibility could cause us lose sight of our guides, and the wind was wiping out their footprints in the snow in just about 30 seconds. As it was supposed to be done, we wanted to mark our presence and we took some photos with the Portuguese flag, but we were so exhausted that we didn’t even notice that all the photos were with the flag upside down! And then, by a firm instruction of the guide, we were forced to start the descending back to the camp.

We didn’t even realise that one of our guides had to go back to the camp when the storm started, as he was freezing and not feeling well. When we arrived at the camp at 4.600 metres, after almost 13 hours of walking under such uncomfortable conditions and with no food, we were told that 2 people from a different group were missing at the top of the mountain (with the lack of visibility they got lost from their group) and another person was on his way to be evacuated.

That day, the mountain didn’t want anyone up there … but I also believe we were in the mood of contradicting mother nature!


I guess by now the reader should be asking himself, how the hell is this story relates to retail in any possible way. I am not surprised by the fact that the has reader doubtful thoughts, as I would probably be asking the same questions if I didn’t have this fantastic experience. Let me then tell you, that I found 8 (eight) fundamental similarities between climbing Kilimanjaro and retail management.

1 You need to learn how to live out of your comfort zone

I have been asking people around, if they would like to go through a similar experience. So far, the huge majority has been saying… no way!! People always say, I would prefer to go to the beach, to a nice five-star hotel or a resort somewhere one can have warm emerald green waters.

The real reason though is that people are not willing to leave their comfort zones. Why should they go to such a cold place, sleeping in a 3 square meter tent, with rain, snow, and having to walk 10 hours a day?

The fact is that this is the same kind of thinking I find many times in retail managers and top managers. A significant resistance to change their ways of doing things, to change their retail strategies, and internal operations and processes. And even more resistance I find, when changes needed require significant cultural shifts.

Sometimes managers simply don’t want to leave their comfort zone. It´s too troublesome. Changes will force them to enter into an uncomfortable daily life which they are not willing to accept. Not because they can’t, but just because they don’t want to.

2 Retail, like the Kilimanjaro, is unpredictable

Getting caught by such a storm wasn’t exactly predictable. When we started our journey, we hoped to get to the top and have a fantastic view. Instead, we went through a tough climb with the fantastic reward of not seeing absolutely anything from the top of the mountain once we got there.

Retail today is going through a revolution which no one, absolutely no one, can predict how it is going to evolve for certain. Consumer habits are changing rapidly, new generations are adopting different behaviours than previous generations, socio-demographics are becoming very asymmetric, geopolitics are in turmoil, energy and environment concerns are leading the world to another industrial revolution, technology is moving faster than the human being can assimilate it, not to mention how quantic computation can bring a new civilisation revolution. The impact of crypto currencies is uncertain and the financial systems are showing strong sign of being outdated to face the new realities. Not surprisingly, when I hear the marketing gurus talking about the future of retail, I tend to run away as I know that whatever they may have to say, there is a great chance of them being wrong. These people are probably the great inspirers to some of those retailers that sometimes come with decontextualized briefings about how their stores should look like in 15 years time, I still remember 15 years ago when many people announcing the end of the offline retail crashed by the new online world.

Living with uncertainty is necessary and retailers need to adapt permanently to the new circumstances which will change every day. Sometimes, like it happened to us, you are caught by surprise and you need to speed up to get your body to adapt to the new weather conditions.

3 The size of the challenge in our mind is not necessarily the size of the challenge itself

How many times we refuse to do things just because we think they are impossible or we are not tailored to do them? Countless times managers leave their retail stores just come to a dramatic end because they think they are trapped by a challenge far bigger than it truly is.

The day we looked at the Rocky Mountain from a distance, and our guide said that the following morning we would have to climb it, we laughed at each other and said “right, you are certainly pulling our legs”. The fact was that from where we were standing, the wall seemed almost impossible of being climbed by amateurs like us. That nigh I slept somehow concerned about the following day. I could sense some risk (which ended up to be real) and we thought that our unexperienced climbing skills were not prepared for that particular part of the journey. Quite frankly it come to us by another surprise. But I guess we didn’t have other option but to try it. As we started the journey to climb that rocky wall, it started to seem easier. As we walked along and the wall we got more and more confident we could make it. There were specific parts of the path where the passage was so narrow that the only way you had to overcome it was by hugging the rock and stick your face against it. We didn’t have more than 25 cms of firm land to step on. And of course, no slipping allowed!

climbing kilimandjaro

For any new idea presented, it is easy to present 20 arguments that will make your challenge impossible. The problem is that in our days, retail can’t afford to think small or impossible. Even when there is a risk of 600 metres freefall.

4 Managing the effort is as important to climb the Kilimanjaro as it is to transform your retail operation

Some people start the climbing journey at a very high walking pace. These people normally end up by running out of energy before time and fail to get to the top. Climbing is not about sprinting! Our guides were very firm and helpful in keeping the right pace. They were always saying “pole, pole” meaning slowly, slowly! It was important, even critical that the group kept a pole, pole pace at all times.

Likewise, retailers will need to manage the effort of their transformation. Many times, it seems that there is no tomorrow! They move in sprints, with their departments moving at different paces. Not uncommonly, they take ages to start the decision process and then they want everything done for tomorrow 9:00 am.

The fact is that the most successful organisations are not the ones that move forward in sprint waves, but those who move onwards and upwards consistently in a pole, pole pace!

5 Acclimatisation assessment during the climbing is as important as it is for retailers during their transformation process

Every person has his own acclimatisation point. When you are climbing you don’t really know when you will start to feel the impact of the altitude. I have seen people in very bad shape at three thousand meters, and people not having the slightest symptoms of altitude even above five thousand meters. The fact is that even after my adventure in Kilimanjaro, I am not sure what my acclimatisation point is. That is because I got altitude sickness at around 5.200 metres, but I am not sure what was the impact of the storm on that condition. So, acclimatisation at various altitudes is highly recommendable if you want to climb high mountains. Exactly in the same way decompression is absolutely fundamental when you are making deep dives, with diving dwell times longer than your safety curve allows.

Not considering these fundamental steps will put you and your organisations under the stress of unnecessary risks, jeopardising great ideas that can lead you to phenomenal achievements.

As I was climbing up and down to get acclimatised to higher altitudes, I realised that is exactly what needs to happen in retail organisations that want to go through a process of changing. Innovation requires new processes to be assimilated progressively, and cultural changes to be infiltrated in all departments with enough time for those new realities to be interiorised.

6 The team work required to climb under such tough circumstances created an unforgettable bond … which retailers need desperately!

What is it that you do most during the 6-day climb? You share! You share a good mood, you share tools and utensils, you share gear, your share jokes, life experiences, advice about best ways of doing things, knowledge, bad moments, pains, medicine, snacks, drinks, you name it…!

Without that sharing, not only does the journey becomes absolutely mentally unbearable, but also reduces the changes of success.

We all know that the beauty of retail organisations is, like it happens in an orchestra, the need of everybody playing impeccably synchronised and well-tuned. This requires a very strong spirit of internal cooperation, and no need to say an outstanding process of sharing. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see how inefficiencies proliferate within retail companies due to the lack of sharing.

When you are climbing these mountains, specially under such negative circumstances, the concern about the others in the group as much as about yourself is key. Team work is about sharing and communicating, and looking together to the peak of the mountain!

7 Overcoming the obstacles … the power of mind

After my adventure, many people asked me how did I prepared physically for the climbing. It is interesting to see how much importance people put on the physical aspect of the preparation. Everybody I have been talking to, were very surprised with my very modest answer … none!

I am regular guy, not super fit at all, with bad back and even with bad knees. I practice regular exercise, but I do not do it with the specific purpose of climbing mountains, Instead I practice regular exercise to maintain my mental sanity and contribute to my anti-ageing process (I am over 55 years old now, so, I need to start thinking about these small details).

The thing that most surprised me is that absolutely no one asked me anything about my … mental preparation! It is even more surprising when the consumption of antidepressant pills has never been so high as it is nowadays, and psychologists and psychiatrists haven’t been so busy as they are today.

I found that mental preparation is by far more important than physical preparation… which again, has as undoubtable parallel with what retail managers need these days.

Climbing under such difficult circumstances was only possible with the power of my own mind. The adversity could not be fought back with muscles. I had to seek mental strength beyond my limits and overcome the stress that was invading me with something that I had never experienced before. I needed to keep focused and sharp despite my poor health condition and all the sickness I was feeling. And that was the key, otherwise I would definitely have gone to the statistics of those who give up before they start.

Now think about all the stress retailers are under these days. Many without knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it. They know they need to change but they don’t know how. Sometimes they are so suffocated with their daily lives that they forget the basics, lose focus and get despaired.

Many are in a countdown process for their retirement plan, and some are lost about their future.

We live in mistaken assumptions as we were educated by our parent’s generation. But things are changing very dramatically. Our retirement will not be at 67. Our retirement plans, most likely will not allow us to keep the same living standards. Many professions may disappear. Many others will raise and start needing a completely new set of mind skills.

The power of the mind, I discovered, is our most precious asset which needs to be explored and stretched … in life, in climbing, and in managing the present and the future in the retail industry!

8 If you think that descending the mountain is the decompression stage, you are fundamentally wrong!

Five days to climb and 1 day to descend means that the descending phase is far easier and more relaxing, right? Wrong!
Descending the mountain has some fundamental challenges:

  1. It is when you get more pressure on your knees and other joints causing many time, long-term injuries;
  2. It is when can lose toenails;
  3. It is when you fight against a negative force of your mind, because the rush of the climbing is gone;
  4. It is when your pace speeds up increasing your chances of an injury;
  5. It is a part of the journey that you don’t enjoy the landscape anymore because you are more concerned about where you stepping on. Often, if you want to enjoy the landscape, you need to look behind your shoulder instead of looking ahead which is unpleasant.

The journey really ends when get to your hotel where everything started and you finally get a shower! And as in retail, reaching the top doesn’t mean your task is done.

Retailers need to fight every day for their piece of market share, ensuring their margins are aligned and profit delivered to shareholders as promised. So even when we think, great I got to the top, task over … you still 20 hours of walking back under snow, hail and heavy tropical rain!

In conclusion

hope this article makes sense to the reader and somehow motivates to embrace challenge with a positive and fresh spirit. Again, I don’t think climbing the Kilimanjaro, even under the terrible circumstances that I had the unluck fortune to face, is a superman achievement. I really don’t think it is. But as I suffered, I also enjoyed the journey as an unforgettable experience of life. I learnt to deal against adversity better and knowing my limits a little bit more. And when we can export our life experiences to our daily lives that is in my modest opinion, absolutely fantastic. I think that most of the reasons why human beings fail, is not because they are uncapable of achieving great things. Ii is simply just because they don’t even give the chance to themselves to know their limits better.

8 reasons why retail managers should try to climb the Kilimanjaro (to start with…), is an article to promote and tease challenge, limits seeking and push people to leave their comfort zones. That is the reason why my next trips will be to the Island Peak in the Everest (aprox. 6.200 metres) and the Aconcagua in Argentina (aprox. 7.000 metres).

I believe there is a parallel between the findings and reflexion during this fantastic trip and how managers should face the present and the future of the retail industry, which has undoubtably exciting times ahead.

Joao Barbosa

With 30 years of management experience has experienced the needs of all businesses, regardless of size, having worked for both local and multinational organisations. Experience in a wide range of industries, products and services including consumer goods, telecom, pharmaceuticals, sport, home entertainment, consumer electronics, clothing and food retail, among many others. Specialist in Consumer Research, Category Reasoning, Space Planning, Retail Design and Retail Management having worked with many retailers and brands in more than 40 countries around the world.

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