Leading on Thin Ice

by HCA06 Feb 2014
Think you operate in a tough corporate culture? Try leading a team of 18 strangers into the wilderness of Antarctica for an entire year. That’s just what Rachael Robertson did. She shares some of the most powerful leadership insights from the most extreme workplace in the world

HRD: It’s a jump to think your experience in Antarctica might have relevance to the workplace, but obviously there are some correlations. Can you briefly outline what those correlations might be?

Rachael Robertson: Antarctica is just like any other workplace in the world – except we lived together around the clock for a year. So the interpersonal pressure was intense. 

We had a very diverse team from various backgrounds – engineers, scientists, IT, trades – and my job was to shape these individuals into a high-performing team because our lives depended on our teamwork. I didn’t recruit the team; in fact I first met them in pre-departure training.

Because of the incredible diversity of this expedition and the enormous pressure of living together for so long in such extreme conditions, it was unrealistic to think we’d live in perfect harmony. I didn’t expect everyone to love each other, or for that matter to even necessarily like all 17 other people, but I did expect they’d show respect towards each other. Respect trumps harmony. We treated each other with the utmost professionalism, acknowledged very honestly and publicly that we were all different, and showed respect – for professional ability, personal space, individual opinions and idiosyncrasies. In high pressure environments that rely on collaboration, you need a strong foundation of mutual respect. Harmony will follow.

Like most workplaces we also had business cycles. Summer [November to February] was a time of extraordinary activity, with 120 people living on station delivering 22 science projects and a comprehensive construction and maintenance program. Project reporting, risk management and compliance were front of mind. When things are frenetic and major goals are achieved it usually means working long hours, but it’s easier for people to stay energised and motivated. When things quieten down it’s a lot more challenging for leaders to inspire. From February to November the 18 of us were on our own, with no sense of urgency or burning platform, but we still had work to do.

Every workplace has small, seemingly irrelevant issues that impact morale and productivity. In Antarctica it was a ‘Bacon War’ – should it be cooked soft or crispy?

In some offices it’s dirty tea rooms, or people arriving late for meetings, or texting while someone is presenting. They appear to be small things but they are nearly always a sign of a deeper issue around respect. Managers need to deal with these behaviours expediently. Our bacon war turned out to be a dispute between two teams whose relationship had broken down due to a lack of respect being shown; it manifested itself in the bacon war. Take care of the little things.

HRD: How do you achieve true leadership? Can you provide examples of individuals who have inspired you with their leadership vision and why they inspired you?

RR: True leadership is about creating more leaders, not more followers. It’s about inspiring people to take up a challenge, to keep going when things are tough and to know exactly how they contribute to business outcomes. I’ve worked with many incredible leaders, but most recently one person who really inspired me is Guy Russo, CEO at Kmart. Guy has a great strategic mind but importantly he can articulate and communicate the steps needed to implement the strategy. It’s no good coming up with the best action plan in the world if you can’t engender support for it and your people don’t understand it.

At the start of the Kmart turnaround I watched Guy address 400 store managers and tell them ‘this is who we are; this is who we are not’. His clarity around the brand was very strong, and it showed courage to address these key staff, in person, and tell them, very clearly with no ambiguity, ‘this is the future of Kmart’. Tough decisions were made to delete certain product lines, but Guy stood front and centre and explained the rationale very simply and professionally.

HRD: They say a fish rots from the head. Does the same hold true in organisations? Do people look to the business leader to demonstrate appropriate behaviour?

RR: Leading in Antarctica was a stark reminder of the scrutiny of leadership. We are being watched the whole time and everything a leader says carries extra volume and gravitas by virtue of their authority.

For an entire year I was under intense scrutiny – where I sat for meals, who I greeted in the morning, what time I left the party, even when I chose to wear a hairclip because my hair was hanging in my eyes – no hairdressers for a year! It was all noticed. It came home to me that as leaders our behaviour is often interpreted in ways we cannot imagine.

I was very conscious of this and relied on my self-awareness to monitor and manage my own behaviour at all times. I also made sure my decision-making was consistent and transparent. I would also never deride or ridicule the staff at head office, my peers at the other stations or other members of our expedition team as this type of contempt is unprofessional and breeds dysfunction. Any organisation that has silos needs to take a long hard look at the behaviour of their senior management.

Keeping with the fish analogy I’d also point out that fish live in schools and improve their own chance of survival by sheer numbers. That’s a good thing, but the downside is if a virus hits one fish it can soon spread through the entire school.

I’ve seen this contagion in teams where one person spreads their negativity and dysfunction to the rest of the team. These people can be demoralising and exhausting. But the most important thing a leader can do is manage this behaviour before it spreads. Like fish, these people try to gather numbers, and you ignore this behaviour at your peril.

HRD: Business today is about agility and moving swiftly to both take advantage of opportunities and adapt to the times. What did your experience teach you around that context?

RR: In early December we had a plane crash. The landing gear failed and it stranded four of my people 500km away, with no way to fly the plane home. I had 116 people back on station watching me, worrying about the safety of their colleagues and picking up cues about the issue from my reaction and my behaviour.

I knew my immediate priority was to ‘manage’ the search and rescue for these four people. But I also needed to ‘lead’. I had to ensure the other 116 people were informed, confident and optimistic and that we continued to deliver our works program. 

There were four important rules I followed to effectively lead through this crisis:
  1. VISIBILITY – I had to be seen about the place so people could ask me questions and be confident with our emergency response. My initial reaction was to hole up in my office and manage the search and rescue, but I realised it wasn’t enough to be leading; I needed to be seen to be leading.
  2. COMPOSURE – My body language needed to build confidence and optimism. I had to be calm and poised.
  3. CHOOSE YOUR WORDS – I spoke about a retrieval not a rescue; an incident not an accident. I had concerns but I wasn’t worried. Concern and worry are different words and they create a very different response.
  4. COMMUNICATE – I sent out regular updates, every few hours, to inform people about the situation. If you don’t provide regular information during a crisis or a change, then people fill in the gaps themselves. Often these gap fillers are worse than the reality.

HRD: Experiential learning has made a comeback in corporate L&D. Your experience is perhaps the ultimate in experiential learning. Would business leaders benefit from something similar (perhaps not as extreme) by getting out and trying something totally unrelated to what they do day-to-day?

RR: People have told me this expedition was like 20 years of CEO experience truncated into 12 months. I dealt with every issue you could imagine, and some you can’t, but the difference was I had no choice. I simply couldn’t ignore emerging issues, or delegate to someone else, or even take the weekend to consider my options. The buck stopped with me and I had to find ways to deal with things. Sometimes I got it right; other times I got it wrong.

The value of experiential learning comes in the reflection; that is, what did I learn there? What worked? What didn’t?

Because I had no one to talk to or discuss options with, I decided to keep a journal. The journal became the best leadership development I’ve ever had. As each new challenge presented itself I’d capture my thoughts and ideas and decide what to do. Afterwards, I’d go back to the journal and reflect on how things panned out.

The discipline of reflecting on your performance and behaviour as the leader builds self-awareness. It’s like standing on a balcony looking down and watching yourself. The best way leaders can develop their ability is to honestly and critically evaluate themselves and their performance, every single day.

We learn by doing new things. New experiences – secondments, higher duties, relocations – are opportunities to learn and add new skills to your leadership toolbox. I’d take on almost any opportunity to develop my leadership, even if it didn’t turn out, because I would rather regret what I did do than regret what I didn’t.

HRD: You’ve said that all businesses encounter their own Antarctic winters at some point. What do you mean by that? What are your tips for coming through tough times in one piece?

RR: Every business has periods of time where work is just work. Capital expenditure is curtailed; there are no big exciting projects on the horizon – it’s all just business as usual. This is the Antarctic winter.

Similarly, many projects, especially in pharmaceutical, construction and IT, have long lead times, years and years. The launch is exciting, the project completion or product launch is fantastic, but often the time in between is plain hard work with incremental progress. Just like Antarctica, the leaders need to keep people inspired through this period.

I used three simple tools to keep us motivated, connected and effective:

1. THE RULE OF NO TRIANGLES – The practice of only having direct conversations built respect within my team and resulted in very high performance. We had a simple rule that went: ‘I don’t speak to you about him, or you don’t speak to me about her’. No triangles: go direct to the source. It’s a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability. It also shuts down ‘answer shopping’; that is, people who keep asking the same question and go over people’s heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.

During the Antarctic winter, when interpersonal pressure increases and the focus turns from the work to the people, it’s even more crucial to have no triangles. Personal conflicts are magnified in quieter periods, unlike the heady times where we often overlook or put aside another person’s annoying behaviour. During these times open and direct conversations are even more critical. Go direct to the source.

2. FIND A REASON TO CELEBRATE – Recognise milestones and important moments. If you don’t have one readily apparent then create one. Find a reason. In Antarctica we celebrated big events but also the smaller successes such as a month without a power blackout, significant scientific data collection or uninterrupted internet access with a fully functioning server.

Usually it was just a notice on the whiteboard in the dining hall, but it was important to find the time to stop and celebrate, because these moments create momentum. They give a sense of progress, moving forward and getting closer to our

During long projects, or even times when it’s business as usual, an inspiring leader will find a reason to stop and salute even small accomplishments. Whether it’s with an event, a reward or a simple thank you, the acknowledgement and recognition will reaffirm their purpose and demonstrate progress, two of the most important motivational domains.

3. CHECK IN ON PEOPLE – As you receive reports and updates on projects, take a moment to check in on people and ask, “Are you OK?” Not the project, not the tasks, but you – the person.

People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution are valued. To show people they are valued, check how they are travelling. Make it spontaneous and often. These moments will create momentum.

As Maya Angelou put it so succinctly, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

Rachael RobertsonRachael Robertson is the author of Leading on the Edge, published by Wiley and available in bookstores across the country and through Rachael’s website at rachaelrobertson.com.au  RRP $29.95