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Cathy O'Dowd on where mountains and law firms meet—their people

4 min read

Throughout March, we are celebrating the achievements of women and calling on our colleagues to challenge inequality.

We were privileged to learn from Cathy O'Dowd, the first woman to climb both the North and South faces of Mount Everest. She spoke about teamwork and having a collective goal, the importance of building skills, and measuring success your own way.


Creating a support team

Cathy spoke about the importance of teamwork and the importance of having a collective goal, particularly "a goal that is measurable and that is not invested in any one person," she said. The only way for there to be real team success is when the goal is not "owned by the superstars of the team," so everyone has a chance to contribute to it.

Only once those goals are determined and agreed should action be taken. But what happens when teammates can't agree on which steps to take?

"People think the moments of failure will be the high points of drama, but you know what happens to you every day? Your teammates," Cathy said. "In the moment, the things that tear teams apart, all of it means nothing.

"Success or failure on Everest wasn't about the mountain—so much of people's failures lay in themselves, in poor choices, emotional reactions, short-sighted behaviors, or crumbling in the stress. But so much of the success lay in the people. What made a huge difference was how supportive your team was—collaborative rather than competitive—when they reached out to help each other. That made a massive difference."

To keep moving toward the goal, despite those challenges, we need to recognize that we all respond to stress differently and create space for people to dissipate stress.

"Strength is about the ability to pull together as a group, and support each other," she said. "Get a team, a supportive team. You might not get that in your workplace, because you won't have that much of a say, but find it in other places—people who are supportive of who you are, people who can help you move forward, mentors.

"As soon as you are even one step up the ladder in your career, somebody is already looking up to you and wondering how you did it," she said. "There is a lot to be gained from being somebody else's mentor—so give back to those down the ladder as you continue to climb up."


Building skills and side-stepping perfectionism

When Cathy stood on the summit of Mount Everest for the first time, she said, "I looked around at that view and I said 'I am not being ambitious enough—I need to ask more of myself.'"

"Confidence comes to you from inside, but it's very helpful when it comes to you from outside as well," she said. "When we look to motivate people, recognition is often overlooked. The power of having the big names in your organization know who you are, know what you do, and publicly recognize you—that's extraordinarily powerful."

So, how can you build confidence to do more, and to ask more of yourself, from inside?

"For me, a couple of things," Cathy said.

"Rather than ticking off goals, build skills, because that builds confidence, and then you need to take the skills and actually use them to have confidence in your skillset.

"And, sidestep perfectionism—a problem a lot of women have—the feeling that you can't accept the project until you know 100% what you're doing. Be confident that you are good enough to start, and be confident that you are good enough to learn, and then just go. By the time you get close to the summit, you'll probably be good enough to deal with anything you face."


Measures of success

"I was too concerned with failure. That's very limiting. You get much more done if you try a ton of things and fail a ton of them," said Cathy. "You don't have to make it to the summit to have achieved something.

 "We grow up being told measures of success, but as an adult, it is up to you to decide whether those measures mean something to you. Sometimes you just need to earn a wage, but it is worth thinking about whether you are pursuing the right mountains."