Your office is perpetually dark, windy and isolated from the rest of the world, the temperature hovers around minus 35 degrees, and you hate the cold. You are responsible for a team of 18 people in winter, 120 people in summer, and a $20 million science program all year round. It’s the ultimate test of leadership.
That was the experience of Rachel Robertson, the Antarctic Expedition Leader who led a diverse team on a year-long expedition on the remotest corner of the earth. Now an author and international keynote speaker, Rachel took to the stage at Australasia’s largest accounting technology conference, Xerocon South, to share the leadership lessons that have distinguished her career ever since.
Lead through adversity
All industries, especially those required to pivot to fast-moving innovations, need to nurture clear-headed leaders. Working in such extreme conditions, Robertson learned to contend with new levels of adversity – like when their team plane crashed and stranded four people in a blizzard, 500 km away.
“That’s when my team really saw that leadership isn’t a title. Leadership is seeing something that needs to be done and doing something about it.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a plane crash, a natural disaster, a financial crisis,” Robertson said.
“Whatever the challenging time is, the rules are the same.”
Get rid of triangles
Whether your team is remote, office based, or stuck with you in the wilderness, a poor culture has the ability to undermine your best work. The art of building a strong culture was intensified on Davis Station, where you couldn’t go home at the end of the day.
“You can’t physically get in and out of Antarctica in winter, ever,” Robertson said. “We had an electrical engineer from Germany living with a plumber in Mudgee. You can’t focus on harmony, you have to focus on deep respect.”
Robertson had a simple rule to build integrity within the team. “Integrity means no triangles. We all agreed, ‘You don’t speak to me about him. I don’t speak to you about her.’ If someone has done something at work to upset you, you must have the professional integrity to go to that person to their face.”
Deal with an Antarctic Winter – every family, workplace and team has one
Only 18 members of Robertson’s team worked through a literal Antarctic winter but many different types of social circles are likely to experience her metaphorical version: a time when there is nothing bright on the horizon, and the daily grind seem dark and relentless.
To combat this, Robertson creates moments of momentum. “You have to find things to celebrate. When in you’re in the middle of a hard slog, you need to be able to say, ‘We are still achieving; we are still doing important stuff’.”
Stick together in the dark times
The penguins of Antarctica are a fantastic metaphor for any team. “Penguins survive because they literally huddle together to keep warm. Everyone needs to take turns on the edge,” said Robertson.
“And that’s what it has to be like sometimes: you protect your tribe.”
Robertson finished on this. “The big stuff is important, but what makes the difference is the small stuff. “It’s showing big leadership in small moments.”