developUs Blog

March 28, 2024 in Blog

Climbing New Heights: A Conversation with Kelly Irons

I am so excited to bring you this interview with Kelly Irons, our CEO here at developUs Worldwide. This interview will not only recognize her thoughtful, intentional, and strategic leadership, but also her latest venture that extended beyond the boardroom and into the formidable terrains of Mount Kilimanjaro. This remarkable endeavor has not only been a test of her endurance but has also refined and even solidified her approach towards leadership and development.

In our conversation, I explore the depths of Kelly’s experience and how it aligns with her vision for enhancing personal and organizational growth. With a sharp focus on experiential learning and its profound impact on leadership, we sift through Kelly’s insights to distill wisdom beneficial for professionals across the spectrum. 

Inspiration and Challenges

MF: Can you share with us what inspired you to embark on this journey with Mountains and Marathons? 

Kelly Irons: I was looking to level up and focus on a disciplined routine around fitness.  When you add to the fact that hiking Kilimanjaro has been a bucket list item for me for years, engaging with Mountains and Marathons just made sense.  The six months of focus on being the architect of my own destiny, and identifying what was standing in my way, was coupled with physical training, and culminated in a retreat that included a Kilimanjaro climb.  Once I met with the coaches, I quickly realized this program was the real deal (and as a certified coach with 15 years of coaching practice, I’m really picky about coaches!).  They had me at, “You’ll be epically confronted and beautifully transformed.”  

MF: What specific challenges did you encounter during your climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, and how did you overcome them?

Kelly: It was hot.  And it was cold.  And my tent leaked.  And my sacrum slipped out of place causing excruciating back pain.  And I was coming down with a sinus infection before starting the climb that just got worse.  And worse. And worse.  But I have this amazing gift of focusing on the positive.  It was hot, but I was climbing Kilimanjaro!  It was cold, but gosh was my warm coat comfortable!  My tent leaked, so I asked for a new one.  My back hurt so I found a pace that worked for me, rested when I needed to, and maybe cried a few times after sneezing (true story – please refer to Exhibit A: Sinus Infection).  I had a wicked sinus infection, so I took Tylenol, and Sudafed then finally decided that taking care of myself was far more important than being a high achiever and summiting under miserable health conditions (please refer to the above promise to be “epically confronted”), so I requested a helicopter to take me to off the mountain to seek medical care.

Moments of Personal Growth and Leadership Insights

MF: Can you elaborate on any key moments or realizations you had during the journey that significantly influenced your personal development?

Kelly: During the time that I was deciding if I should go on or go back, I truly was “epically confronted” with the choice to determine what I wanted my life and story to be, right there in that moment – or more realistically those hours.  I wrestled with what I wanted my story to be.  Did I want to be the leader who pushed on, through the hardest of the hard, taking risks, putting myself last to be able to say, “I did it!”?  Or did I want to be the leader who takes care of herself?  Who knows when to say no?  Who manages boundaries effectively for the greater good?  And who knows when enough is enough and doesn’t run herself into the ground?  

Option one… been there done that.  Over, and over, and over.  And who the heck was I proving it to, anyway?  Myself?  I already know I can do epic stuff.  I’ve lived that lesson and have been able to motivate and coach people through some really tough times because I am, as more than one person has told me, a complete badass.  Throw it at me and I’ll figure it out with one hand tied behind my back with 45 minutes of sleep in the past week, while baking a cake.  But option two is where the personal growth was.  I sat there with my coaches and said, “Going down feels like the ultimate embodiment of self-care and taking a stand for a new me.  I feel like I need to have a funeral for Superwomen, and choosing to go down is a great way to put my money where my mouth is and make that real.  And if I choose to keep going, I’m going to need to find another way to live into, “No thank you. I don’t need to take this on.” And I’m probably going to need some help figuring out how to make that shift some other way.”  

“Either way you decide, we’ve got you,” they said.  Gosh they were good.

As I discussed the decision-making process going on in my head with my coach, she said something to the effect of, “This isn’t usually the conversation we have with people about going down.  Usually, we’re dealing with people feeling like they’ve failed somehow, but you’re sitting in a place of completely empowered decision making – no matter what you do, you win.”  Enter the “beautiful transformation”, stage right.  

I slept on it, saying I’d decide in the morning.  Overnight the fever set in from the sinus infection.  I had raking chills most of the night and was generally miserable.  They warned us that the mountain doesn’t always give us what we want, but always gives us what we need.  I guess I needed a little nudge to choose option two, and the mountain didn’t disappoint. So, down I went in a helicopter where I was treated at the local hospital in Moshi.  And while I was super sick and already missing my colleagues as I hiked to the helipad, I still found time to take in the scenery and snap some photos of the incredible landscape, once again, choosing what to focus on.

MF: How do you believe this experience has impacted your leadership style and approach within developUs Worldwide?

Kelly: It’s made me realize that not everything has to be hard, sometimes (most of the time), ease is the best way.  I’m more gentle, more appreciative of the small things, more balanced.  Overall, I feel more grounded, and I think the people around me feel that too.  Leadership after all, like happiness, is an “inside” job.

Lessons Learned and Organizational Strategies

MF: How do you see the lessons learned from this journey translating into actionable strategies or initiatives within our organization? 

Kelly: A leader’s job is to pour into others so they can be the best version of themselves and do the best work.  Simply put, none of us can pour from an empty cup.  Recharge before you run out.  I’ve always said that our jobs should allow us to have the life we want, not get in the way of the life we want, and I truly believe that.  I think we all have something to learn about leadership, starting with asking everyone on our team what they want their life to be life, and how we as leaders can help them achieve that.  If you pour into them, they’ll pour back into you – so don’t get lost in the weeds.  Recharge, refill, refuel, so you can be ready to pour.  Do they want to spend more time at home with their kids?   Get promoted?  Take care of their aging parents?  Pay for their kids’ education?  Climb Kilimanjaro?  We’ve got to start thinking about people as whole people, not just as employees.  If we want to see beyond the immediate work that needs to be done to the bigger picture, we must rest.  We must clear our vision.  We must build relationships with the real people that work for and with us day in and day out.  Check in on your archaic policies – “because that’s the policy” is no longer a valid nor is it a smart way to lead.  Purpose over policy every day.  Find out what works for people, and they’ll contribute to the company’s success in ways you haven’t imagined yet.

MF: Climbing Kilimanjaro is often described as a test of physical and mental endurance. How did you prepare yourself, both physically and mentally, for this challenge?

Kelly: Funny you should ask this.  I’m a sprinter not a marathoner.  I worked out like crazy for the first two months.  I climbed stairs with a 30-pound pack on my back.  I went to the gym religiously.  I stretched relentlessly.  And then I went out West for Labor Day weekend and hiked 30 miles in a weekend.  And then I hiked a Rim-to-Rim on the Grand Canyon (down and back in one day, 17.5 miles and 9000 feet of elevation change) in October.  And then I got a little too big for my britches.  I thought, “Well heck!  If I can do that, I can climb Kilimanjaro!”  And I was right.  I had zero muscular issues, and despite the sinus infection, I was cardio-vascularly pretty much fine.  Some slight tightness in my calves on day 4 of 6, but all in all it wasn’t that much of a physical challenge.  There was one day that was only a few miles in distance but felt like 15 miles (one of our coaches called them “A$$hole miles”, and I completely agree!), and while that day felt like an eternity, physically, it wasn’t a problem.  

Mentally?  I’m generally well-balanced and mentally strong, so I’m not sure how to answer this question, but it’s got me thinking now. Hmmm. I guess I would have to say that I was committed but unattached.  I was going to do the best I possibly could and whatever that was I was going to be okay with it.  Afterall, life really is 10% what happens and 90% how you respond to it.  I accidentally signed up for a half marathon many years ago having run 2 miles once in my life, and my goal was to go as far as I could and hope to not be picked up by the medical team.  I had the same approach here.  I’m just going to go do this thing, do my absolute best, see what happens, and be okay with it whatever it is.  

So, to answer your question, I did what I always do – start strong, slack off, and then surprise myself at game time.  Needless to say, consistency is still my learning edge. 😉

Experiential Learning and Diverse Perspectives

MF: What role do you think experiential learning plays in leadership development, and how can organizations leverage similar experiences for their teams?

Kelly: Experiential learning is the real deal, for two reasons.  First, putting people in real experiences, triggers real things.  There’s no hiding behind a textbook or being directed with the theory.  Second, it’s easy to say what you might do in a situation, but the real learning comes from being “in it” and seeing if how you react is in alignment with what you thought you would do.  Training, and other forms of learning are designed to change behavior, and you can’t think our way to new behavior – you must behave your way there. 

But there’s a catch.  Experiential learning, in order to be effective, has to be completely psychologically safe, and has to be extremely well coached to maximize the learning, and the lasting of that learning.  It’s why I love our year-long Catalyst leadership program so much – it’s an experience, not a class, and it really changes people at their core.

MF: Can you share any insights or perspectives gained from interacting with the diverse group of individuals participating in the retreat?

Kelly: The group of incredible people that I shared this 6-month journey with reminded me of what I’ve known to be true for as long as I can remember (I credit my parents with this life lesson).  No matter how different we are, if we focus on the commonalities, we find we are more alike than different.  Everyone has their own “stuff”, including me, and yet, what we choose to focus on determines our life experience.  There were people that I initially thought, “Oh boy, this is going to be interesting!” who became some of my favorite people on the trip.  Once we as leaders, and as people, stop expecting everyone else to be like us, think like us, react like us, talk like us, dress like us, etc., we can see the unique beauty that they bring to the world.  When we spend time, real time, with people who are different from us, we transform judgement into understanding.  We benefit from the perspectives that expand our own, and the lessons we learn about ourselves and others from being immersed in diversity.  We learn from their stories.  Exposure to diversity makes us better leaders, better parents, better conversationalists, and better humans. It really is quite beautiful if we could all just open our eyes and see it.

Encouraging Transformative Experiences

MF: Lastly, how would you encourage other leaders or professionals to embrace similar transformative experiences in their personal and professional development journeys? 

Kelly: Just do it. 😊

Kelly’s expedition reinforces the belief that leadership and development transcend the confines of conventional spaces. Her story is a testament to the empowerment that awaits on the other side of challenges—both personal and professional.

Leaders looking to foster growth must consider the unconventional path that experiential learning paves. Kelly, through her experience and developUs Worldwide, showcases that the summit of success is reached by valuing the climb just as much as the view from the top.

Join us in celebrating Kelly’s achievements and considering how similar challenges could propel us all towards enriched careers and lives. Embark on your own Kilimanjaro; the lessons are invaluable, and the perspectives, endless.

It is my hope that this interview with Kelly struck the chords of inspiration and motivation within you. We believe in the power of shared experiences and the transformation they can bring forth in personal and corporate spheres. If you’re looking for a transformative experience like this, we recommend our Catalyst program, a truly one-of-a-kind experience that has positively changed the trajectory of professionals like you, catapulting them into the very best versions of themselves. Send us an email to get started:

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