Rachael Robertson spent 12 months in Antarctica on an isolated station. She has recently written a book, Leading on the Edge, about how to take charge in such extreme situations. Here she gives Jonathan Jackson insight into how lonely it is to be a leader while sometimes feeling like there is no support and how to overcome those feelings.
Jonathan Jackson: How did you find yourself in Antarctica?
Rachael Robertson: I saw an ad in the newspaper. I had been in leadership roles for 15 years and the recruiters were looking for leaders. You didn’t need to know anything about Antarctica, they figured they could teach you about Antarctica and the Antarctic treaty with three months of training. So I thought, “Yup, I’ll have a crack at it.” I didn’t expect to get it. Then I was offered Davis Station and I thought I’d rather regret what I did than regret what I didn’t do, so I took the job.
As a leader, was it what you expected?
Every issue I dealt with was an issue that any leader or CEO of a business will deal with; it’s just that I had it truncated into 12 months. The other big difference is that I had to deal with situations as they happened. I didn’t have the luxury of saying, “Oh, I’ll deal with that on Monday when I get back from holidays.” Or, “I’ll get HR to deal with it.” It was me alone and I had no one to turn to for advice. That’s when I started keeping a journal. I would make a record of, “How did I handle that? Could I have done that better? That worked really well. That didn’t work.” It was through that reflection in the journal, that I learned what I was doing.
How do you cope when you are so isolated?
Any leadership can be lonely, regardless of geography. With the book I wanted to reach out to leaders and emerging leaders and send the message that it is okay to feel lonely, but they are not on their own. Using your peers for support is really important. The only thing I had to support me, besides my journal, was my friendship with the other station leader at Mawson Station. I could pick up the phone and talk to him and he could talk to me. So the key for business owners and leaders to get through that isolation is to have peers who understand what you’re going through – it’s just so important.
You also had to manage a variety of people, hired for a variety of jobs. How did you bring everyone together to work towards the same goals?
People think because I was the expedition leader I must have picked the team. That wasn’t the case. It was like any other job. You have people with totally different personalities, ages that vary from 24 to 64 years old, people who’ve only been self-employed and have never reported to anyone, people who’ve only lived in rural and regional towns and you have to make it work. I was the only one who had lived in capital cities. We had engineers, traders, scientists, professionals; it was a huge diversity of people who all had to live together. And this is a situation where your life depends on your teamwork.
So how do you bring everybody together when there are such vast differences?
I worked out pretty early in training that we weren’t all going to love each other because we were so different. So I said, right, instead of love we’ll go for respect. And we decided that respect trumps harmony. If we had harmony, beautiful; but we were not going to aim for harmony, we were going to aim for respect. And so what we did was create a few little tools. One was No Triangles, which was, “I don’t speak to Jonathan about you or you don’t speak to me about Jonathan.” If you did something that upset me, I’d go directly to you and I’d say, “Mate, can I have a word to you about that?” There were no third parties involved. We took about two months to develop that culture.
Yes, because it’s almost human nature to avoid the direct conflict?
We don’t like the post-conversation, so I spend a lot of time coaching on how to have the conversation because it’s not as simple as saying, “Right, from now on you’ve got something to say, go directly to the source.” Because they’ll avoid it. So I spent probably two months coaching people on how to take the emotion out, deal with the facts, pick the right time of day and don’t get in first thing in the morning. Eventually we got to the point where if someone did come to me and said, “Ah, Jonathan said…” I’d say, “Hang on, why are you telling me? Why don’t you talk to him about it?” We got to a point where those honest and direct conversations were part of our culture. It was great in building teamwork from complete strangers because we had that respect, but for me as a leader it took the pressure off as well. You feel like sometimes you have to listen to it, but you haven’t the energy or the time. And in small business, you haven’t got the luxury of wasting an hour a day on those sorts of things. It wouldn’t be productive. So as a leader, it actually spares you a bit of that exhaustion from the human element. So we had the rule “respect trumps harmony”.
Do you feel respect creates harmony?
We had a situation called the Bacon War, which was a fight over whether bacon should be soft or crispy. When we got to the bottom of it, I found out it was actually a fight between the plumbers and the diesel mechanics. They thought the other team was deliberately cooking the bacon the opposite way to annoy them. I learned this Bacon War was not about bacon, it was about respect. When I started talking about it in my speaking engagements, other people would come to me with examples from their offices. It was things like dirty coffee mugs, people late for meetings, people texting while you’re speaking or presenting. In one of the investment banks it was pizza boxes. They had their own Bacon Wars, but I say there are deeper issues around respect. When people leave things lying around it is disrespectful because it implies someone’s time is more important than another’s. Once I had caught on to that, I realised those small things really matter. They’re actually bloody important. They’re not just a small irritant; there is a deeper issue. So I had to manage all of those things as soon as I heard about them, because it’s not just about a dirty coffee mug, it’s about respect.
And you also have to deal with respect in terms of hierarchy. I am sure the engineers felt they were more important than the plumbers?
That was one of my biggest challenges. The biggest clash was between the engineers and the trainees, because they’ve got different brains. We had an electrical engineer from Germany and a plumber from Mali living together. Preferences and personalities are way more challenging than gender or age or cultural background.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable leading in that environment?
It took me a good two months, and in hindsight, I wish I had the confidence earlier on. It was only when I got through the busy summer, when we had 120 people on the station and then we had 20 men on the science program flying in and out on planes and helicopters. We had a plane crash. No one was hurt, but the plane was disabled so they couldn’t fly home. They were stranded 500 kilometers away and I had to manage the search and rescue. We brought them home successfully, but managing that while managing the other 116 people who were still on station and watching me and asking, “Is everything ok?” was daunting. I actually wanted to stay in the office with the search and rescue team, but I thought, “If I’m not telling them about the planes, people will fill in the gaps and the speculation will be worse than the reality. So I forced myself to have lunch and dinner with them and reassure them that everything was going to be okay. They’re not hurt, they’ve got 10 days worth of food on board… Afterwards, about seven weeks in, I thought, “Well that’s probably the worst thing that could happen and you nailed it. You got through it with a great team.” That’s the moment I thought: “I can do this.”
I guess it’s equally important to be seen as being the leader as it is to be the leader.
That’s a big lesson. I learned that it’s not enough to be just leading the crisis; you need to be seen to be leading. And my crisis was a plane crash. It could be a financial crisis. It could be a natural disaster or it could be the debt ceiling in the US. There’s always going to be some challenge, but it’s not enough to be leading, you’ve got to be out there seen to be leading and choose your words. I said to my team, “I have concerns. I’m not worried.” So I chose my words carefully. I made sure I was very poised and composed, even though sometimes I felt like I didn’t know what to do. There were four people stranded, 500 kilometers away.
There were so many different elements to the project and they would all require different management styles. How do you manage different projects all at one time?
It’s fascinating that to me 20 years ago, they actually recruited scientists for my job because they felt they were managing a science program. And then the penny dropped and they realised they were not managing a science program, they were managing people. That’s why they specifically recruit leaders and general managers now. At first I thought I don’t know a thing about glaciology, I don’t know a thing about construction, but then I thought, “Well, actually I’ve managed scientists before, I’ve managed trainees before. I don’t need to know the detail, that’s their job. I just need to get the best out of them.”
The toughest thing was when there was competition for resources. All the scientists wanted to get on the plane on the same day as the engineers. I needed to know the project detail to be able to prioritise those decisions. I didn’t need to know the detail of all of the projects, just enough to make the resource calls. And I think a lot of leaders make the mistake of getting into the detail and it’s a challenge particularly for the technical people like engineers, IT, or accountants in finance. When they get promoted, they still think that they’re selling financial services and products. They are not managing products or projects anymore, they are leading people. It’s a different skill set. And so to move into that role is really challenging.
So how did you see yourself at the end of the 12 months as a leader compared to when you started?
There was a massive difference. One of the big things I learned, which I had never done before, was the importance of checking in on people. I thought I was a fairly approachable boss and if something was wrong, people would come and tell me. However people don’t do that. We don’t tell the boss that we’re struggling. And I realised then that it’s an issue. It’s an issue everywhere, but we don’t have access to support networks. I implemented a three-day rule where if I see someone on the first day and they’re not themselves, I’ll clock that. I would do the same on day two. By day three, if I still had a concern, I actually intervened privately. I follow them and asked them if they were okay. I said, “You’re doing a great job, but you don’t seem yourself.” And every single time, there was something wrong. They knew I could do nothing about it, especially if it was family-related and they didn’t expect me to, but I actually saw the reaction when one person had cared enough to even notice and ask the question, “Are you ok?” And that changed my life. I’m now an ambassador for Are You Ok? Day. But it made me realise that as a leader, even though I had always cared about my staff, I had never shown that. I had never once gone up to any one of my people and asked, “Are you ok?”
Do you think in general business terms, a lot of businesses miss out on that?
Research shows overwhelmingly, the biggest motivator for a stranger at work is feeling valued. We want to feel valued. We’re not motivated by salary. I think if you want to keep your good people, you’ve actually got to value them otherwise they’ll leave. And I’ve realised that’s so simple. It’s a simple thing to just check in on them. Occasionally, ask, “Are you ok?” Let them know that you value them. We get so caught up in the project and delivery that we forget to just pause and check in on the person. And it makes such a difference if they’re thinking, “Will I stay? Will I go?” And someone says to them, “Are you ok?” That could be enough. One of the really important lessons that I learned was during my performance review, all 17 of my staff met with a psychiatrist and gave feedback on me. She gave me their feedback and she said, “Oh, they found you really inspiring.” And I said, “Oh, was it that I worked 16 hour days in summer, every day?” “No.” “Was it how I managed the plane crash?” “No.” “Was it that I changed policies around resource?” “No.” “What did they say?” Then she said, “One of them mentioned that his son had a school concert at home. And the next time you saw him, you said to Patrick, ‘How was Lachey’s concert?’” And she said, “Sharon mentioned that you knew the names and could pronounce the names of all 120 people on the station. Allan mentioned that he was on dinner duty, cleaning out the kitchen one night, and he was still going at 9pm when you came in to get a cup of tea and you put some chairs on the table to help him out. You didn’t speak to him, just helped him out.” And I said, “Really? That’s what they told you? That’s what they say?” And she said, “Yes.” And I realised, it’s all about the moments. They didn’t mention the big stuff, the strategy, and the vision and crisis. What they recognised were those small moments.
When do the moments turn into momentum?
How do you keep people motivated when they are so isolated? I couldn’t give them a voucher or any comfort. I realised we had to find reasons to celebrate, otherwsise it would be a long nine months through winter. So we started celebrating 100 days without the server going down, or 50 days without a power blackout. And it wasn’t a party, we had a whiteboard and I might write, “Nice work IT, 100 days without the server crashing. Good job.” Celebrating those little milestones built the momentum, so we felt like we’re going somewhere, we were progressing and moving. Every job has an Antarctic winter, and every job has a period of time where there’s no capital around and it is just work. So how do you keep people motivated? Well, you actually find reasons to celebrate. And that was really important learning that…
Excerpted from an article originally published in the April/May 2014 issue of Think & Grow Rich Inc. magazine. If you are a subscriber to Think & Grow Rich Inc. magazine, you will receive this article in your April/May 2014 issue of TGR. If you are not a subscriber, click here to subscribe.