(By Gil Gerretsen) I have spent most of September exploring and hiking in the Austrian and French Alps. There were many wonderful adventures, but I experienced an important business lesson at the top of a mountain in Austria.
Vicki and I went to revisit a quaint town called Hallstatt (a world heritage site) and decided to take a tour of the area's ancient salt mine. This is the oldest known operating salt mine in the world and dates back before recorded history.
To get to the mine's entrance high up the mountain you now ride a funicular (a cable railroad in which ascending and descending cars are counterbalanced). It is quite a thrill and the views from the top are quite amazing. After the funicular ride, you hike another 20-30 minutes to reach the entrance and beginning of the mine tour. Yes, it is a tourist draw, but it is a very unique experience.
The lesson came after we finished our hour-long tour of the mine.
As we made our way back toward the funicular for our ride down the mountain, we were mesmerized by the amazing vistas around us and took a few minutes to enjoy and photograph the view. But when we arrived at the funicular entrance, the doors were closed and locked tight. There was nobody around.
It took a while to figure out what was going on. My German is passable, but reading is still cumbersome. I finally found a poster which declared that the last ride down the mountain was at 6:00pm. We had arrived at 6:03pm and the funicular was already gone, as were all employees and other visitors.
We were stuck at the top of a mountain about an hour before sunset! It was starting to get chilly. Our gear was still in the car at the bottom of the mountain.
We knocked on doors of various buildings seeking help. We couldn't find a soul.
I tried to phone for help. The numbers I could find all went to voice mail.
I was irritated. I wondered to my wife how "they" could let something like this happen. They had not told us that the last ride was at 6pm. We had not seen it posted anywhere. Didn't they care about people? Wasn't a courtesy announcement in the area perhaps appropriate?
Can you picture us at that moment? Frustrated. Bewildered. Worried!
But after a few minutes, we realized that we needed to take command of the situation. We were certainly not prepared for a night on the mountain. We began searching for other alternatives. We found a map on a wall showing some "roads" as well as a trail down the mountainside. After translating it, we understood that it would take about an hour to descend to the community over 1,000 feet below.
We decided we better hustle!
We found the top of the trail and began walking. We are relatively experienced hikers and in good condition, so we made faster progress than most people might. It was also downhill, which was not as physically demanding.
So, as we made progress, we came to recognize that we'd arrive in town before sunset. The worry disappeared and we started to take greater notice of our surroundings. We found a beautiful waterfall that we never knew existed. We took time to take a few photos. As we descended further, we were blessed with some amazing views of the community, lakes and mountains.
We realized we would never have seen these things had we followed our original plan.
When we finally arrived back in the village, we found a cozy lake front restaurant where we enjoyed a memorable dinner and view. It was a noteworthy reward and remains a fond memory.
What began as a perceived disaster became one the best experiences of our entire vacation.
I've always told people that the best and most memorable parts of a vacation are often the things least expected. This experience reminded me of that truth. This "change in plans" ended up being one of my favorite days on a journey with many great days.
In the days that followed, I contemplated this little adventure. I was tempted to get angry at the venue operators, but ultimately I had to admit that I was the one primarily at fault. The web site and venue signage all indicated that the last run was at 6pm. I had just missed that piece of information. Sure, the venue could have done things a little better, but ultimately, it is my responsibility to do the research and plan accordingly. My preparation had not been adequate and the consequences were mine to own.
One evening a few days later, I recognized that this experience also contained a great business lesson.
As we launch our businesses, we generally have a particular course of events in mind. We rise up the side of the mountain and enjoy the journey and view as we go.
At the top, we look for the next target and move in that direction. We have some great fun and then embark on our exit plan. Time to go home and relish the adventure we had. We begin moving towards our planned destination which we assumed all along would be there.
Sometimes, things change. The exit plan we had is disrupted or eliminated.
After the initial shock, we have to start thinking about a different way out. We may have to find (or make) an entirely new path because the original plan is no longer an option.
Sure, it might be frustrating and bewildering. Perhaps even scary! There are likely some painful or unknown risks, but sitting still cannot be an option. That would be even more painful. We have to move in a new direction and face the consequences.
I've seen that happen to some entrepreneurs and professionals whom I have coached over the years. Their business grew and they had a thrilling ride to the top. They prospered and had much to celebrate.
Then, as they planned for a grateful and gracious exit, the world changed. The easy ride down was taken away. They had to rethink how they would move forward.
Frankly, some people respond it more elegantly than others, but ultimately, it had to be handled. Almost universally, these entrepreneurs and professionals rose to the challenge.
And when their journey was finished, they looked back at this phase with contentment and pride. It gave them a story far better and more meaningful than if the ride had been smooth and easy.
So, my thought for you today is to remind you that it is indeed important to have your plans. However, it is also important to recognize that your plans may not happen as expected.
Be open to a different adventure ahead. You may have to dig deep and fight for the desired outcome, but in the end it will be a journey worth remembering and celebrating.
After the initial shock and anger, look for a new road. Take it. And as you go, take time to look around and savor the experience. It may well be your finest moment!