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Mountain or career: Getting to the top

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Climbing Everest requires a clear path for success. So does a career. (Garrett Madison)

Climbing Everest requires laying out a clear path for success. So does your career. (Garrett Madison)

Every couple of days, Gordon Janow receives a phone call or email from someone with plans to hike Mount Everest.

When he says it takes two or more years of training to prepare for the trek, Janow, director of programs at the Seattle-based mountaineering school Alpine Ascents, loses most of those prospective mountaineers.

For those still serious about taking it on (maybe one out of the 15 or so who call him every month), he sets out a series of goals. First, they’ll need to get in shape, perhaps by hiking and running with heavy packs on their backs. They’ll need safety training, such as practicing to rescue a companion out of a crevasse. And they’ll need to take on relatively smaller hikes, like a three-day expedition to the peak of Mount Hood in the state of Oregon.

Through it all, Janow emphasises the objective: reaching the top of the world’s tallest mountain.

“It keeps them focused to think about that mountain,” Janow said. “They hit the treadmill harder, they train more days.”

In mountaineering, the summit is a visible reminder of the reward for all that work. But for the rest of us, it’s often challenging to lay out such a clear path to success.

It can be particularly challenging in workplaces since, even now, relatively few companies have created a reliable system that rewards employees who reach company goals. That’s changing, though. A new management model that gives employees increased flexibility is gaining favour. This model breaks down traditional reporting structures and gives employees more say in an array of company decisions or processes, from new product development to production.

Spelling it out

Before you jump into changing the entire management structure of your office, be sure to clearly define your goals. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, said workplaces often fail to give workers an idea of what success looks like.

“The only way to get things done is if you know what done means,” said Allen, who lives in Amsterdam. “There is no big mystery to how to do that, although I guess the mystery is that it’s so simple.”

For many managers, “done” can be as simple as keeping track of deliverables, or other tasks that employees can readily finish. If your company isn’t good at defining what it expects employees to finish, take that step for yourself and your team. Allen said it’s common for lower-level management teams to develop the best way to get something done. That’s because they deal with the company’s challenges on the ground — a far better place to solve them than a boardroom.

Once you have goals in place, it’s time to figure out if you need to revamp your management model. Most offices run on a system called waterfalls management, where ideas originate only from high-level managers.

With all the orders coming from the top, nobody at the bottom feels empowered to dream up new ideas. Worse, some lower-level workers and managers fear repercussions if they try to change the existing system.

“Under a waterfalls system, you often fail to accomplish anything,” said Jackson Nickerson, professor of organisation and strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St Louis. “When you aren’t accomplishing anything, you lose morale, and that creates a downward spiral.”

Instead, companies in California’s Silicon Valley designed a system called agile development. The system allows managers to formulate a challenge and ask employees collectively to solve it. While once just in software companies, agile development has begun to spread to all types of offices.

The key for managers in the agile development system is regular checkups. Nickerson suggests daily meetings with your team that last 10 to 15 minutes to see how things went yesterday and what’s on the schedule today.

“These daily team huddles make sure your employees are collaborating with each other and staying on track to accomplish their goals,” said Nickerson, author of Leading Change from the Middle: A Practical Guide to Building Extraordinary Capabilities.

Getting to the summit of a mountain may seem like the most obvious goal to climbers, but Janow said it’s not always about getting to the top. Sometimes it’s just about hiking to basecamp or getting to a certain altitude and turning back.

And when climbers are struggling on the mountain, sometimes their goal is to simply make it to that next rock, Janow said. When they reach it, then it’s about getting to the next one. Sometimes that’s the way they’ll reach the top, a series of small goals right on the horizon.

“The summit is a great metaphor, but it’s not always available,” Janow said. “Consider that any goal you set for yourself and achieve is significant.”

Whether your company has its sights on the summit or just that one little milestone in front of you, staying agile will help you hit your goal.

What do you think? Do you think there would be repercussions if you spoke up at your company suggesting a better way to do things? Does your company implement an agile model? Would you like the chance to have more say in how your company does things? To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.