Faire la trace

'Faire la trace' was written by Rémi Engelbrecht and printed by Pearson in 2008. It contains seven lessons for managers which can be learnt from guiding aspiring climbers in the European Alps. The author is both a qualified, alpine mountain guide and a management consultant so he writes with authority. It is written in French and costs €22. A PDF is also available for €18.

This book must have been very tempting to write because the author has acquired unusual expertise in two very distinct occupational areas. Any reader who has spent time climbing or ski mountaineering in a high mountain range and who has held a management position will understand the author's temptation.

Review by Malcolm Parker

Malcolm Parker is a Associate Professor of HR Management at SKEMA Sophia-Antipolis in France . He teaches Organisational Behaviour, International Management & Human Resource Management in the Bachelors programmes and is Director of Studies of SKEMA's three-year undergraduate degree in Marketing and International Business.

A Ski-mountaineer, snowboarder, XC skier, rock climber and qualified mountain leader, Malcolm is also the author of a walking and ski-ing guide to the classic Grande Traverse of the French Alps.

The challenge, however, is to put his conclusions into words for readers who are unlikely to be experienced alpine mountaineers – he pulls this off.

The book has seven chapters and each one begins with an account of a professional mountaineering experience which mainly takes on epic proportions before ending happily. The author states that he is telling stories rather than writing an academic textbook, in fact he writes a book for the practitioner.

From each experience, lessons are drawn by the author and these lessons serve to identify a theme for the chapter related to managing people. These themes are easily identifiable for the reader and the bulk of each chapter is then devoted to a discussion of the theme which is followed by a description of a practical management 'tool' of which some are novel, others not.

The interest in the book resides in the conclusions that the author comes to which would not otherwise be accessible to people who do not spend time leading others in the high Alps.

For example, the author argues that a manager, sometimes an engineer, passes from the role of an expert to one of looking after others without any formal training. To succeed in this, s/he should improve his/her people skills and continue to maintain high levels of performance. He suggests managers should enjoy their work, be more visible and learn to 'let go'.

He argues convincingly that to climb a mountain and to manage successfully, a person needs to understand the environment and set visible intermediate markers to reach objectives. A marker is hence a means to an end as well as an objective in itself; when circumstances change, he argues, strategies should be more like scenarios. In a mountain scenario, making different attempts up a route will often help a party attain a given objective. In organizational planning, he has learnt that discussing different scenarios with teams gives more meaning to set objectives.

This is all relatively basic yet it is written in a way which makes the principles recognizable rather than remaining theoretical. From time to time there are in-text boxes and diagrams to illustrate points as well as critical thinking questions for the reader to consider.

Less convincingly, he has invented the GPS tool based on using the principle of triangulation in orienteering to improve teamwork. By identifying three known organizational 'landmarks', he maintains a manager can draw back bearings to pinpoint his/her true position. Geographical landmarks, like summits or cols, are far more permanent than organizational landmarks such as vision, strategies, technologies and measurement systems as these are subjected to on-going changes in levels of investment, legislation, consumer tastes and senior management, to name just a few.

He also explains that a manager must learn not to be himself/herself and use impression management techniques but his argument is weak here as a mountain client party is usually passive and conforms to the guide's requirements in the name of safety in the short-term.

Employees are not passive, often do not conform as willingly and usually have medium to long-term ambitions. More interestingly, however, he discusses managing energy levels in team meetings and the necessity to change speeds.

The author is insightful in a story about a fellow guide who takes a risky, unorthodox decision in the name of party safety thus calling on personal qualities such as critical analysis, intuition and courage. He also explains that people with strong commitments outside a given activity, i.e. work, have shown to be better survivors. This is an insightful lesson for all those workaholics out there!

Another valid point discussed in the book is that managing paradox is a new managerial competence to be acquired and he provides clear examples such as managing stability rather than adaptability, or people as opposed to outcomes.

The author seems to suffer from burn-out when he describes five successful ascents (and descents!) of the Matterhorn in Switzerland and learns nothing in particular, seemingly, only epic mountain situations are meaningful.

The book loses its way somewhat with its discussion of coaching which reads as if the publisher told the author to add it to make the book more saleable. Having said that, the prescriptive advice shines when the author says a coach/manager needs to behave like a wild animal through the keen use of his/her senses and a little later, his/her emotions – a traditionally taboo subject in business and management.

A book which addresses taboos, provides practical advice and tools for managing people in a changing environment, advocates enjoyment, managing energy levels and paradox is well worth reading; it will appeal to our animal instincts for survival.