What climbing Everest taught me about accountancy
20 March 2020: Scott McNaughton has reached the summit of Everest, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, and skied across the Greenland icecap.
He took up fell walking as a hobby, but when a career secondment took him to Auckland, New Zealand, he began much more adventurous mountaineering. When he returned to the UK, he dedicated most of his weekends to scaling peaks in Scotland and the Alps, culminating in his completing his first Himalayan expedition in 2003. With his first glimpse of Everest fresh in his mind, McNaughton made it his goal to climb it. He spent the next two years planning the expedition, working to mitigate the risks and being mentally and physically fit to reach the highest point in the world.
“My approach to that challenge is the exact same approach I take to my work,” he says. “I always aim to be overprepared: prepared for the worst, but expecting the best outcome.”
At the same time he was also preparing for a professional challenge, working towards becoming a partner at BDO. “That involved two years of demonstrating that you were ready to lead the firm, and being challenged about it. It went hand in hand with my Everest challenge. Both made me clear about what I wanted to achieve on both counts and preparing for both was mutually beneficial.”
In 2005 he reached the summit of Everest and found it tougher than he had expected – three quarters of the way up he hit a huge ice wall – but he said it still wasn’t as tough as the mountaineering training he’d done. He felt an incredible sense of achievement and almost immediately started planning his next challenge – something completely different, but that he could apply the same approach to in terms of preparation and training. He decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean. He’d never rowed or been to sea before.
This time, the planning was even more thorough and meticulous than for the Everest expedition. In 2008, McNaughton and fellow rower Neil Hunter successfully completed the crossing. It took them 68 days during which time they battled major storms and 60-foot waves that at one point forced the boat underwater, washing McNaughton completely off the boat. His preparation had paid off to allow him to deal with the unexpected.
“When things go wrong it’s that preparation that keeps your mind clear and enables you to put your plan into action. At work, things can get pressured and difficult to handle, but if you have a plan, you know what you need to do.”
Two expeditions weren’t enough for McNaughton however, and he followed his transatlantic adventure with a plan to visit the South Pole. Preparation for this included skiing across the Greenland ice cap in 2010. However, by this time he had three young children who he wanted to spend more time with, so he put his Antarctic adventure on hold. McNaughton has always drawn close comparisons with his extreme sporting adventures and his day job, but recalls a crucial interview during the partnership process when he was questioned about his attitude to risk.
“I was being interviewed by two partners who questioned my desire to climb Everest,” he says. “They couldn’t reconcile my goal of becoming an audit partner with taking on the challenge of Everest, whereas I always believed the skills for both were actually quite similar. My response was that both can be extremely challenging, with the need for you to be prepared to react and often change strategy quickly. And whilst different, you need to be meticulously prepared and focused on the end goal. I still believe the two are more similar than people might think!”
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