Rachael Robertson (pictured) led 18 strangers into the wilderness of Antarctica for an entire year through nine months of darkness, with no escape from the cold, howling winds or from each other. Today, Rachael shares some of the lessons she learned while leading a team in what is arguably the world’s harshest working environment.
Antarctica is the most remote workplace on the planet. The temperature hovers around minus 35 degrees, through months of darkness, constant blizzards, and no way in or out. But for all its differences the role of the leader is exactly the same as any workplace. The scrutiny is relentless and the challenges are the same – they are just magnified due to the intense nature of the environment.
As expedition leader to Antarctica’s Davis Station, with my head office colleagues available over a patchy email connection and a satellite-phone,
I had to turn a random group of complete strangers, with incredibly diverse backgrounds, into a highly productive and functioning team, because our lives depended on it. As the Station Leader I was it… there was no one else.
We worked where we lived; I was on duty 24 hours a day for a year so my behaviour and decisions were under constant scrutiny. To manage this intensity and to build an effective and resilient team I developed and relied on four key tools.
1) No Triangles – the practise 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.
The practise of No Triangles also ensures that as the leader your time is spent dealing with issues that matter. Those have the most impact on the organisation, not handling personal disputes that simply burn energy.
It also shuts down “answer shopping”, people who keep asking the same question and go over people’s heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.
2) Manage your Bacon Wars – A major dispute once threatened to shut down the station: Should the bacon be soft or crispy?
Every workplace has their Bacon Wars. They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people but build up until they become distractions and affect productivity. It may be dirty coffee cups; people who are consistently late for meetings; people playing on phones while someone is presenting…they appear to be small offences but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue.
Leaders must identify and probe their Bacon Wars. Find out what’s underneath and resolve it.
For us, it turned out the Bacon War was a manifestation of something deep and important: respect between two teams.
3) 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 outcomes.
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.
4) 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 them – the person. People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is 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.”
Written by Rachael Robertson, author of “Leading on the Edge” published by Wiley and available in bookstores across the country and through Rachael’s website www.rachaelrobertson.com.au. RRP $29.95.