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Ride the High Country

Last year, Kim Clark, then dean of Harvard Business School, talked about how he learned to ride the high country with his father when he was a boy in Southern Utah. He emphasized how being on the tops of the mountains allowed a person to see the broad vistas of life.

During the past year, I have contemplated those words over and over as I have ridden my horse in the mountains.

All my life, I have loved the mountains. When I lived in California as a young boy, my family spent vacations in the High Sierra Mountains. I love hiking, fishing, rock-climbing, skiing—just breathing the fresh mountain air. When I lived back east, I yearned for the mountains. In 1964, I came to BYU as a freshman. I hiked Mt. Timpanogos that first September and have many times since. I go to the mountains when I want to reflect and think.

Today, I not only love to hike in the Wasatch Mountains but also ride horses and snowmobiles in the high country. Both horses and snowmobiles can get bogged down in the swamps and fogs of the lower valleys. Of course, I have to earn the view of the high country by hard climbing or riding and a certain amount of sweating. When I arrive, I feel the exhilaration of looking out over wide vistas. When I get to the top of Hoyt’s peak, I can look out and see Park City and Mt. Timpanogos on the west and the Uinta Mountains on the east. My world becomes large and expansive, no longer hemmed in by dense forests, rocky cliffs, or even the sides of the mountains themselves.

For me, there is a poignant analogy between being in the mountains, riding in the high country, and having a business career.

Take the High Road with Decisions

As you leave BYU and start exciting and challenging business careers, you will have the opportunity in many decisions to either ride the high country, to take the high road, or spend your time in the bottom country where it is easy to get mired in the swamps and mists of life.

My first full-time job after finishing school was with the Boston Consulting Group. I remember after meeting the CEO of a very important client, I was asked to have a drink with him and the rest of the senior management group. We went to a bar. It was dark, the members of the management team overindulged, and I felt very uncomfortable. I didn’t drink any alcohol, but I decided that I didn’t want to spend time in bars anymore. I needed to stay in the high country.

Later that same year, I was asked to work on two different consulting assignments. The first was helping a company that made the machines used in horse-race betting. The second was an assignment to work on the marketing strategy for a cigarette company. I declined both assignments. Even though there was some risk to my career, I’m thankful I chose to ride the high country because decisions to participate in questionable ventures became non-issues. Later, I was on the board of a company that faced some financial challenges. During the crisis, I was made chairman. When the other directors and management decided to direct the company toward offshore gambling, it was easy for me to resign.

Each of us will be presented with opportunities to be involved in businesses that are perfectly legal but have little or no morally redeeming value. You should ask yourself whether you want to participate in these businesses. Would you like to spend your career promoting gambling, pornography, alcohol, tobacco, pawn shops, bars, illegal drugs, or anything that might be either immoral or unseemly? When we choose to work in businesses like these, we are riding the low country and risk being bogged down.

On the opposite extreme, think of the businesses that have brought forth products of great value to mankind. Think of the medical companies that have invented and marketed lifesaving drugs and devices, the housing companies that have built beautiful homes, auto companies, airlines, computer companies, consulting firms, and on and on. The list of businesses that provide valuable goods and services to our society is nearly endless. When you take your first job, and as you consider opportunities for the future, choose to work in a business where you can ride the tops of the mountains.

Take the High Road in Transactions

Of course, riding on high ground in business involves the way we work, not just where we work or the industry in which we work. It’s who we choose to be. We are trying to follow the example of the Savior.

When I was in graduate school, I had a close friend who maintained that there are two types of people in the world: those who take advantage of others and those who are being taken advantage of. What a hollow view of mankind and interpersonal relationships. How different from our understanding that we are all children of God, and we want to help everyone return to live with Him. Yet, we see so many people whose total world construct is that they can get ahead only by pushing someone else down.

Too often in business we are given the opportunity to take advantage of someone or some other company. As a real estate developer and contractor, I have seen many men take advantage of others. Many times, the larger developer or contractor will not pay a smaller contractor, just because he has more power and knows the small contractor does not have the resources to fight him. We have recently read in the media about the law firms who sued various companies in class action suits for silicosis based on the totally fraudulent medical diagnosis of patients. Those who participate in these behaviors are a sad reflection of the greed of men. These people are riding in the lowlands, and inevitably they get caught in the bogs and the swamps of life.

Early in my career, I worked for a very successful businessman and church leader named Glenn Nielson. Originally Glenn was a cowboy and rancher from Alberta, Canada. He learned early in his life how to ride the high country. Glenn Nielson was the founder of Husky Oil Company and a successful entrepreneur. As a young businessman, I was in many meetings with him as we discussed business transactions and strategy. One of the questions he would always ask was, “Is this transaction fair to the other side?” Not is it legal, but is it fair? This has been one of the most important examples in my business career. Now, when I enter into a business negotiation or transaction, I ask myself, “How can this be structured so it is fair to the other side as well as me?” Glenn taught the same lesson the Savior taught two thousand years ago: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This teaching applies to business as well as to other aspects of our lives. We can choose to ride the high country by applying a standard of fairness to our business dealings.

The real test of riding the high country comes when we are in dire circumstances. In 1987, I signed a contract with Public Storage to guarantee the income of a property I sold to them. By 1990, I owed them $275,000 and had no way to pay. I tried to rationalize to myself that the shortfall was Public Storage’s responsibility because they were managing the property. But in my heart I knew we were in a recession, and the problem was caused by a disastrous real estate economy—the worst we’ve had since the 1930s. I actually thought about trying to somehow weasel out of my responsibility. But, in the end I signed an agreement to pay or work off the debt. It was tough, but I did it. It’s who we are that determines if we are riding the high country.

You might be interested to know that, years later, Prudential Insurance Company initially invested $90 million with our company. Seven years after that they made a $1.8 billion investment. Prudential made the initial decision to invest after its executive had called Public Storage to check up on me. They were told that I was the only person who hadn’t sued them or tried to weasel out of the contract and that I would do what I said I was going to do. Prudential told me that this reference was the reason they decided to make the first investment. Later I was told the decision to invest the larger amount was based on the reliability and integrity of our company.

There is no guarantee that this kind of result always comes from doing the right thing. In fact, many may get ahead by cheating, and in your career you will work with some of them. However, we all know that if you are a person of absolute integrity, you will be blessed and your life will be much happier for it.

Take the High Road with Your Attitude

It takes a positive attitude to stay on the tops of the mountains. About thirty years ago, I was director of a start-up company centered on an exciting new identification technology. This company, called Identronix, was founded by Norman Lezin, who ran the only profitable leather tannery in the western United States during a declining period. In its infancy, Identronix was developing an electronic identification tag for cattle. Eventually, this company developed the technology we use today in the identification of all sorts of vehicles and other products.

Norman Lezin was one of the most optimistic and positive men I have ever known. If there was a problem, he would always say that it could be worse, and problems were there so we could learn how to solve them.

On the other hand, for a few years, our company president was Victor, a brilliant engineer and a founder of Intel. He left Intel a few years before because he had disagreements with his partners and didn’t think Intel had much growth opportunity (this was around 1980). Like Norman, Victor also found problems everywhere: financial, technological, and people problems. The problems were real, but Victor persisted in viewing them from the bogs of the low country. In fact, he became emotionally overwhelmed by all the problems. As a consequence, he was unable to lead the company. His negativity paralyzed him and made it impossible for our organization to succeed. He was mired in the swamps of negativity and despair.

Our optimistic chairman, Norman, finally made a change and brought in new management with a positive attitude to lead the company. Norman rode the high country with his optimism and willingness to see the opportunities rather than just the problems. When you choose to be positive in your thoughts and in your communications, you will be riding the high country and enjoying its beautiful vistas.

Staying in the high country provides not only a positive but a unique point of view. I can see the valleys of problems below but also other mountain heights of success in the distance. From a position on the mountain top, it’s easier to see the storms coming. I can see the clouds rolling toward me, and I can figure out how to weather the storm before it hits. Such is life—staying on top helps me anticipate problems while focusing on the future. Concentrate on looking to the future. Look for opportunities to grow your life and your business. Don’t limit your perspective by spending all your time being blinded by the canyon walls of what you know today. From the high country you can be a creator who has a great chance to see and shape the future.

Take the High Road with Others

When I ride the high country, I never ride alone. You will need partners and business associates to help you on the way. I have always had a partner in every one of the businesses that I have started. My partners and associates are there to share the vision, successes, and hardships. Partners make it possible to enjoy the journey through life. Your partner in marriage will be your most important partner, and of course, no business success can compensate for failure in that relationship.

Choose your partners and associates well. Choose men or women of integrity who also want to take the high road. Associating with partners who do not have your high standards can drag you into the swamps of life.

If you find out that your partner or business associate does not have your ethics, I believe you should follow the example of the ancient prophet Joseph who, when confronted by Potiphor’s wife, fled and got him out.

So here you are. The whole world is open to you with unlimited opportunities. Business is an exciting and rewarding career. You are future leaders. You will have great success as you choose to ride the high country through good decisions, ethical transactions, positive attitudes, and great partners.

I wish you well in your endeavors.


Article written by Kenneth M. Wooley

About the Speaker

Kenneth M. Woolley is founder and CEO of Extra Space Storage, a NYSE, nationwide self-storage company. Woolley has also acted as a developer of apartments and condominiums in Las Vegas, been an associate professor of management at the Marriott School, and worked as a consultant with Boston Consulting Group.

This article is adapted from his convocation address 18 August 2006.

Artwork Cottonwood Lake, Park Lake 1906, and Cottonwood Bridge by James Taylor Harwood. Courtesy of Brigham Young University Museum of Art. All rights reserved. Photography by Bradley Slade.

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