What I learned when I stepped off the edge

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As the leader of a Northern Nevada-based financial institution and its subsidiary mortgage company, industries rife with challenges the past several years, I finally went "Over the Edge." Significant financial losses, necessary downsizing, unprecedented regulatory pressures ... it seemed daunting for many as we all wondered when the local economy would improve again. At times it could feel like being in a freefall.

It was during this time that I committed to the inaugural "Over the Edge" event to support Special Olympics of Nevada. I would need to raise at least $1,000 for the privilege to rappel down a 27-story building in Reno. A thrilling opportunity - except I have an extreme, lifelong fear of heights. So, I thought, perhaps some epiphany might result in taking part in the activity leading to a life lesson that would help to make some major business or personal breakthrough. Then, I could share some pearls of wisdom that would encourage others to face their fears and seek to overcome them.

So, in early June I arrived at the Grand Sierra Resort, where the event was held, and completed a series of forms that documented all the risks and released all parties from liability. With dry mouth and sweaty palms I was then ushered to the top floor of the building. Next, a group of event staff and volunteers again explained the risks of rappelling, as well as the various safety precautions that had been taken, before harnessing me in to my gear, providing the necessary training run-throughs, and escorting me to the edge of the roof.

There I was, standing on the roof with my back to the ground and my heels dangling over the edge of the building, while my co-rappeller, our company Chief Financial Officer Joyce Whitney-Silva, stood just a few yards from me, all strapped in and ready to go. Then just like that, we were "Over the Edge," and for the next half-hour I did my best imitation of someone rappelling. Trust me, by all reliable eyewitness accounts, it wasn't pretty.

Nevertheless, Joyce and I made it to the bottom without incident, and while it would be great to report that the experience conquered my fear of heights, that isn't the reality. Instead, I did my best to face my fears while working toward achieving a common goal. And therein lies the real lesson for me.

Like going "Over the Edge," it has been important to recognize the differences between the business challenges we have faced, versus those in a true business freefall. By doing so, we have effectively dealt with the fear of "How much worse is it going to get before it gets better?" using a similar set of tools:

• Understanding the risks: Being involved in a business in which the biggest assets are loans makes it pretty simple to understand the most prevalent risk is that the loan may not be repaid in full. That understanding allows us to plan for the various scenarios that could occur. As in most businesses, determining the most central risks and assessing the likelihood that they will occur enables you to devise a plan to mitigate them if they do.

• Highly qualified team: At Greater Nevada we are truly blessed to have a leadership team staffed with bright, talented and dedicated people with a diverse set of experiences. As a result, it has been my good fortune to work with people who were capable of helping navigate us through rough economic seas; they were not deterred by choppy waters.

• Necessary training: Like many in the world of commerce, my team and I had never consciously prepared for an economic period such as this. However, it turns out that careers spent learning through both formal training and by going through various business cycles really did equip us for what we had to face. It helped us recognize what measures were necessary to address critical issues, execute them effectively, and still prepare for the future.

• Appropriately outfitted: As we worked through this period of economic uncertainty, our companies were well harnessed in to the core values that allowed us to be in business for more than 60 years. It was those core values that represented the gear upon which we entrusted the entire weight of our corporate body, and that kept us focused by providing a solid foundation for decisions.

Fortunately, we now have reason to hope that the worst is behind us, even as we remain vigilant in case that does not prove true. Certainly this experience has tested us in ways we had not previously imagined possible. And yet, much like the "Over the Edge" experience, the investments in preparation and precautions taken over the years allowed us to work through our fears and anxieties, and helped prevent us from experiencing anything approaching a freefall. As a result, we've ended up with our business feet firmly on the ground, and have already started our next climb.

• Wally Murray is president and chief executive officer of Greater Nevada Credit Union and Greater Nevada Mortgage Services, based in Carson City. This column originally appeared in the July 11 edition of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.


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