“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.”

Establish boundaries