“Men wanted, for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
Ernest Shackleton’s famous advertisement for Antarctic companions in the Times more than a century ago is still mostly relevant, Antarctic expedition leader Rachel Robertson told the SMSF Association conference delegates at the concluding luncheon on Friday – with some modern tweaks.
The first is that the Australian Antarctic Division is an equal opportunity employer, welcoming – and seeking – women. The second is that there are now OH&S requirements: “they’re obliged to bring us home,” said Robertson. The wages are fine, and modern equipment and technology lessens – without totally removing – the element of danger. But the bitter cold, and long months of complete darkness definitely still apply.
In 2005, Robertson was a humble park ranger on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road: her “office” was the 12 Apostles. Robertson loved her job. But one day, she saw an ad seeking a “station leader” in Antarctica. She was intrigued.
“The ad described the qualities they were looking for in a station leader: empathy, resilience and integrity. What really interested me was how they would look for these things in a job interview – what do you ask to find empathy? I really only wanted to sit the job interview to find out those things, to bring them back to my ranger team.”
There was no sit-down interview. Instead, Robertson found herself on a mentally and physically gruelling boot camp in the hardship of the Tasmanian wilderness, competing with 10 men for the role of station leader at Davis Station. To her surprise, she got the gig.
“They were looking for leadership, because they could teach me the technical stuff later on,” she said. “I’m an accidental expeditioner – I’m more Bridget Jones than Indiana Jones. But they noticed I could lead.
“They could teach me waste management, fire safety (the grand-daddy of all Antarctic risks) environmental policy, the Antarctic Treaty, and a ton of other stuff, in three months, and they did – but they can’t teach leadership in three months. Leadership is about bringing people with you and knowing what resources you’ve got around you,” said Robertson.
Pitched into a year at Davis Station, during the summer months Robertson led a team of 116 isolated scientists and technicians. Then, in the winter, she led a team of just 16, through four months where they never saw the sun.
No matter how bad were the physical conditions, she said, the human interactions were always the most challenging thing to control.
From that experience, Robertson honed her idea of leadership down to several key lessons – from which the assembled finance professionals could take plenty of real-life relevance. Here’s a sample:
Never be afraid to listen to the people around you – “it’s really important that leaders act when they have the expertise, but listen to others when they don’t.”
Leaders should be available – but not absolutely all the time. “As a leader you need to look after yourself. Sometimes that means saying ‘no, I don’t have five minutes now.’ I’d never had to do that before, but when people were asking me to sign paperwork at breakfast, I realised I had to establish boundaries.”
Not everybody has to love everybody – but people must respect each other. There was no way, said Robertson, that the 116 people at Davis Station would all get on, all the time. “We had a very diverse staff, with everyone from tradesmen to engineers and scientists, and we had a very broad demographic range – we had a 24-year-old death metal fan living with a grandfather.
“Everyone is never going to love each other, but we insisted on common professional respect – people could disagree, but respect always governed how that disagreement was expressed. That led to harmony in the end even though we didn’t specifically aim for that,” she said.
One of the key strategies to embed respect, this rule stipulated that no-one could complain about a colleague to another person. “It builds respect and a strong culture where you have direct conversations when people talk to each other and don’t go behind each other’s backs,” said Robertson.
“That worked really well. It was really honest, and became part of our culture. It seems obvious, but I don’t think enough businesses do that. The smaller the team, the more critical it is,” she said.
Control the bacon wars
When Robertson was in Antarctica, there was a stand-off over the bacon, whether the bacon should be cooked crispy American-style or soft English-style. She found out it was related to a dispute between the electricians and the diesel mechanics, originally over a vehicle: each group then came to believe that members of the other were, in their turns on the cooking roster, deliberately cooking the bacon the way the other group disliked.
The “bacon wars” became a metaphor for all of the petty arguments that plague any workplace. “Every workplace has a bacon war,” said Robertson. “It might be arguments over coffee mugs or people who are habitually late to meetings or people who work nights and leave pizza boxes lying around. These kinds of things are not just a small thing – it’s a deeper thing about not respecting people’s time, and about respect. That’s why, as a leader, you’ve got to manage the bacon wars.”
Celebrate the little things
The isolation and distance from home and families certainly made Davis Station a unique workplace, and it was considered inevitable that many staff members went through tough patches. With morale critical, Robertson made sure that the station found reasons to celebrate.
“We’d throw celebrations for things like 100 days without a server dropping out, or 50 days without a power outage. Those things build momentum, and a sense that we were moving forward and progressing,” she said.
Every workplace has the equivalent of an Antarctic winter – a period of time where work is work, and the place gets a bit down. “Leaders always need to find reasons to celebrate.”
Keep the tribe strong
To illustrate this concept, Robertson mesmerised the conference luncheon with a description of the colossal huddles of male Emperor penguins during the Antarctic winter. No-one knows where the females go for two months – it’s believed that they are off hunting – but the males huddle together in vast crowds. Robertson said scientists had established that individuals rotate in long journeys from the extremity of the huddle to the core: spending time warming up toward the middle, then serving their time at the perimeter.
“Keep the tribe strong, and everyone thrives,” is the simple lesson, she said. Even if it costs each person a bit of discomfort at times.
When it’s time to lead – lead.
Robertson’s worst moment came when four of her team crash-landed their plane, and could not take off again. All survived, but they were stranded 500 kilometres away from help, with 10 days’ worth of food.
For three days after they crashed, bad weather kept everyone at ground.
“I wanted nothing more than to hole up in my office and plan the search and rescue,” said Robertson. “But I couldn’t. There were 116 other people watching me. It wasn’t enough to lead the search and rescue. I had to be seen to be leading it. I had to be out there, so people could ask me questions. Because people watch the leader, and pick up cues from that about how serious the problem is,” she said.