Mondelez head of IS Marcelo de Santis on a mission: Climb Mount Everest

Taking the Unicef flag to the top of the world is a way to raise awareness about the issues affecting children, says Marcelo de Santis of Mondelez International.

Climbing Mount Everest has become a metaphor for leading difficult projects.

Executive teams can now attend a course that simulates the experience of scaling the world’s highest peak – with the goal of transposing the lessons of teamwork and resilience back to the workplace.

For Marcelo De Santis, climbing Mount Everest is not part of a business school case study or an executive course.

The director, information systems and business process excellence for Asia Pacific at Mondelez International, will scale Mount Everest in April next year to raise funds for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The expedition, Climbing for the Children, aims to raise US$250,000 to support Unicef’s campaign to help bring down the number of children who die from preventable causes to zero.

Every day, 19,000 children under five years of age die of things that can be prevented through a simple vaccine, access to clean water and protection from mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases, he says.

We did the training in the same area that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his Everest expedition. Marcelo de Santis, Mondelez International

The seed for the expedition was planted during a trip to New Zealand five years ago, when De Santis joined his first alpine climbing course run by Adventure Consultants.

“Interestingly enough we did the training in the same area that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his Everest expedition,” says De Santis, who is based in Singapore. “The technical challenges of these mountains are a good training ground for Everest and you can learn without the need to face the oxygen deprivation that you find above 7000 metres.”

“I loved the experience and came back to New Zealand two more times to climb other peaks before attempting Manaslu in 2012,” he says, referring to the 8200 metre high mountain in the Himalayas, the eighth highest in the world (Mount Everest is 8850 metres high).

He admits it is a challenge to integrate his training and travel schedule with his work at Mondelez, the snacking and food brands of the former Kraft Foods, whose products include Cadbury and Oreo. He says Mondelez encourages employees to give back to their communities, and has been very supportive of this project.

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“My travel schedule is very dynamic and days are long with evening conference calls with my colleagues in other regions. But I managed my schedule in a way that I can train almost every day either early in the morning or late at night,” says De Santis.

“I save my vacations to do climbing trips plus have a wife that understands and support this effort.”

“After dealing with several life challenges; my wife and I decided not to have children,” he says, on how he got involved with Unicef. “We felt that despite those challenges, we should give back our energy and love to a cause close to our hearts.

“Taking the Unicef flag to the top of the world is a way to raise awareness about the issues affecting children,” says De Santis. “These children deserve to have an opportunity and the solutions are not complex; we just need to believe and work hard to make zero [deaths from preventable diseases] a reality.”

Marcelo De Santis in a camp in Manaslu, showing the flag with the names of supporters to the campaign.

The undertaking is not entirely divorced from his work as regional CIO.

“Climbing Everest to support a charity is about planning, flawless execution and engaging people with your dream,” he says. “As a business technology executive, you are used to planning large business transformational efforts and executing these under tight business conditions. You also are required to engage support from different business colleagues across the company to deliver change that ultimately impacts positively business results.

“Nobody can lead large business transformations without the right support,” he says. “As well, you cannot climb a mountain like Everest by yourself or fundraise US$250,000 just talking to your neighbours.”

De Santis learned how Unicef programs helped reduce the number of deaths from preventable diseases for children under five years of age by nearly 50 per cent – from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.

This figure demonstrates it is possible to radically reduce child mortality, even bring it down to zero, says de Santis, who is paying for all the expedition related expenses.

All funds raised by his team will go to Unicef.

So how can CIOs undertake a similar project?

“When you have a leadership position in a company; you are gifted,” he says.

“You have decision making power, you naturally become the reference for many people in your organisation and that gives you one opportunity to lead above and beyond your job,” he states. “Engage your colleagues and partners in something bigger than delivering revenue and profits; you can actually change the world.”

You will be amazed at how much you and your teams will learn from it, says De Santis. “Delivering business results will become easier since you have connected yourself and your colleagues with a higher, larger purpose. As a leader and business executive you should give it a shot; it is truly transformational.”

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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