Rachael led the Australian expedition to Davis Station, Antarctica - the second female to lead a team at the Station and the youngest ever leader.
She managed a team of 18 people through the long, dark, Antarctic winter and through trial and error built a resilient and highly successful team based on the foundation that ‘respect trumps harmony’.
Since returning Rachael has completed her MBA, written a best-selling book, Leading on the Edge, and has presented at over 1000 events around the world.
What strikes me about my own story is that it is full of these sliding doors moments. It wasn’t a career which I had planned out from start to finish. Instead it was more so a career built around seizing opportunities, I suppose the most significant one happened after spending some 20 years in a corporate role. I remember flicking through a newspaper and coming across a penguin in the careers section, I remember that’s what caught my eye as I was wondering what penguins had to do with careers. When I looked at the ad I realised it was from the Australian Antarctica Division who were looking for station leaders for Antarctica. What struck me was the fact that they were not necessarily recruiting for experience but for qualities, they recruit for resilience, empathy and integrity. You do not need to actually know a thing about Antarctica as they figure in the three months of training they can teach you all the technical knowledge around things such as waste management and the Antarctic treaties. They know that they can’t however teach those qualities so they recruit their leaders for personal attributes. That intrigued me as at the time I was managing customer service staff and I was struggling to get customer service people with empathy. I was getting all of these bright people but when I put them in front of a customer they just lacked that empathy. I remember thinking well what if I could recruit for the quality of empathy. Originally, I only applied for job as I wanted to learn how you do that, I was intrigued as to how you recruit for that and what questions you ask in the interview to do so.
Lone behold I got the job and I remember thinking wow, I don’t know if I really want to live in Antarctica for a year. I thought about it and decided that I would rather regret what I did than what I didn’t do, that has been my mantra ever since. Honestly, I could not stand the thought of looking back in 10 or 15 years and thinking what if I had done it. I did it and it was life changing. I was down there with 120 other people during the summer, when most of the logistical work takes place, and with a core group of 18 who remain during winter. This core group then maintains the station and keeps everything running until the next summer. It becomes a significantly different role from Summer to Winter. The environment was harsh with minus 35 degree temperatures, blizzards and months of darkness but it is all about the team. Being given 18 strangers who I did not recruit, to unite them in order to be able to function given that there is no way out was the biggest challenge.
When I returned from my 12 months in Antarctica my boss invited me to give a presentation at the Variety Club’s fundraiser at Crown Casino. I had been given leave without pay for the whole year and though the least I could do to show my appreciation was to give this presentation. I gave the presentation and not that I knew at the time, but in the crowd was a gentleman from the Speakers Bureau. I had not even heard of a Speakers Bureau, I had no idea what it was. He approached me afterwards and asked if I was interested in telling more people about my story. He told me that we don’t have enough leadership speakers in Australia who have actually led and then on top of that there are very few female leadership speakers.
I decided to have a crack at it, I started speaking at breakfasts, dinners and all the in-between events. It just took off, last year I did 150 events. That’s my job now, travelling the world and speaking to people. Yesterday I was in Perth, last week I was in Shanghai and next week I am off to Singapore. All this has come from the sliding door moments where I have thought I would simply have a go.
I would say that a third of the presentations I give are for opening or closing of conferences, these focus on the funny stories of what happens when 18 strangers are living together. Another third would be in-house for big corporates doing leadership training where I come in and offer an external perspective. The last third would be association events in the form of lunches and breakfasts . They are all around the same issues, whether for the NFP sector or for large corporate multinationals that I work for overseas. It is very similar issues around how you keep people inspired and how you keep a team working together in the volatile environment that we now have in most businesses. I talk about some of the tools that I used to get my team functioning. I do not come in and say that this is what they should do, I simply share what I did and in turn what I found worked and what didn’t work. It can be the really simple things, for my team the mantra was ‘respect trumps harmony’, that was everything. We recognized that we weren’t always going to be best friends, in fact some of them did not even like each other, but our lives depended on us working together. We took the pressure to be mates off the table by saying we don’t have to be mates, its great if we are but as long as we respect each other. The foundation is respect.
We had simple rules to support this such as the rule of no triangles. The rule being that you don’t speak to someone about someone else and that person doesn’t speak to you about that other person. The idea being that if you have a problem with someone else that you go to that person directly instead of a third party. It was about recognizing that we might have clashes, if you want innovation you need diversity and that difference of opinions or ideas. But sometimes, that diversity can create challenges. The no triangles rule was probably our biggest tool in building the trust in our team. It was really funny when the first person came to me and said ‘he did this to me’, I responded well do you want me to go and speak to him, is that why you are telling me? He said no, I am just letting you know. I replied well if I don’t talk to him and you don’t talk to him, we are just going to be having this same conversation in a weeks’ time. When we said this outload, it crystalised, we realized that we needed to avoid these triangular situations. I was more than happy to intervene but of course when the boss gets involved it only escalates the situation and makes it into something bigger than it needs to be. The triangle rule started from that. The benefit for me, as any leader would know, is that once you become involved in those sorts of conversations they quickly become exhausting. You will spend so much time and energy in those whingy conversations. You think you are doing the right thing by empathizing but it takes so much time out of your day and so much energy, you then need to find the energy to do the real strategic things and you can’t.
I loved the summer season in Antarctica. There were over 100 people there and my daily role would involve prioritizing the science projects. Whether the people doing the ice coring or the people doing penguin biology needed to be the priority for that day. I only had two helicopters and one plane so I needed to allocate the resources based on priority . I needed to understand their sciences well enough to know things such as who needed to take samples at approximately the same time every week and who could go at any time. We also had a capital works team so I was managing a team of 40 male and female tradespeople who were building things such as the station, waste management facilities and a reverse osmosis system. Our biggest threat whilst we were there was actually fire. I had expected it to be blizzards but it is actually fire because we have no water to put a fire out and equally we cannot physically leave the station as because of the temperature you cannot land planes as the hydraulics freeze.
Winter is quite different as the interpersonal pressure is huge. In Summer there are 24 hours of sunlight and plenty of people to spend time with if someone is annoying you. However, in Winter there are only the 17 other people who you didn’t choose. That was my biggest role as the most senior person, to keep them motivated and functioning as a team. You are talking about being in a situation where you have taken away people’s ordinary coping mechanisms, whether that be talking to a partner, riding their bike, taking the dog for a walk or reading the paper. You are on your own, it is up to you to monitor your own emotions and feelings. The ability to be self-resilient is something that you can’t predict, we do have some psych testing but that cannot predict how someone is going to cope when you take away all of their support systems. Some people did not cope whilst other people coped remarkably well, probably 4 out of the 18 people did not cope well at all. It is about looking after those people and helping them to deal with their problems. In terms of performance management, I did not have the usual tools available to me. If someone did something exceptionally good I could not go out and by them a bottle of wine or equally I could not give someone a letter for disciplinary reasons. I had to come up with these creative ways to execute performance management without any external or extrinsic tools. I built strong connections with most of the team, however there are a few that if they walked into a room today, I would be walking straight out. The hardest thing, as any leader would know, is the scrutiny. Knowing that I was being watched at all times, that even something as simple as where I sat for meals was being analysed. I had to be careful not to have any favourites, I made sure that I spread myself around and that I greeted everyone the same in the morning. It is exhausting but you can’t have favourites in that environment, it is too small of a group and too close knits. I had to then be careful to manage my own emotions, knowing that if I was feeling homesick I could not walk into a room and be grumpy because of my homesickness. For me the key to my emotional management was a journal.
One of my mentors was Diane Patterson, the first female station leader from Australia. I asked her how she looked after herself whilst at the station, she told me that she had kept a diary. At first I thought I don’t have time for a diary but then I thought no this person has actually been there so I should take on their advice. So, I kept a diary for the time that I was there and that was what kept me sane. It allowed me to get the emotions out, to process the emotions and in turn allowed me to get a good sleep which helped to keep up my own resilience. Before I left for Antarctica, I read widely and I spoke to former station leaders to get as much advice as possible. It was one of those situations that you have to be in yourself before you can appreciate the things that they have told you. I had two major concerns; the first being anybody exploding with anger and the other anybody spiraling into depression. I did not have the ability to deal with either of those situations, I had no emergency services available, as it was just me. That was why I had to come up with ways to deal with issues at the source, to prevent things from building up. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I got it wrong. I did not have the luxury of saying I will get HR onto that or I will go on holiday and restructure that team when I get back. I had to deal with things in the here and now. From this I learnt so much, it was like 20 years of leadership experience over the course of 12 months. If something did not work, then I needed to come up with an alternative approach immediately. The journal further helped with this, setting aside that time to consciously reflect on my leadership. I had no one to tap my on the shoulder to tell me what I was doing right or wrong, so the journal allowed me to do this for myself.
For example, we had a role called slushie, a person who helped the chef by washing dishes, peeling the potatoes and the like. Every day one of us would have to be the slushie so part of the sweetener to being the slushie was that you got to choose the music to be played around the station from an mp3 player. A couple of the guys from Melbourne and a guy from Fremantle had decided that when the football was on, that they would live stream the football instead of listening to music. Three people came up to me and complained, saying that the slushie got to choose the music and the football was not music. The following day I had three different people come up to me and say no it was the choice of the slushie. I had to think about what to do, I canvassed all 17 people and asked them what to do. I somehow managed to turn it into the biggest issue that had ever hit the Antarctica and I could not work out how. I was writing in my journal about how I could not understand why everyone was fixated with such a little issue. Then I had this epiphany, I realized that the reason that everyone had an opinion about it was because I had asked them their opinion. I learnt from that, that my natural style is very collaborative and democratic but that sometimes you need to just make the decision. That from the start that I should have just made a decision, ultimately I did make the decision. I decided that if you did not want to listen to the football on the radio from your bedroom, turn off the radio. It was that simple but I made it into this saga that lasted 5 day. The only reason I learnt what I did was from writing in my journal and reflecting on my actions as a leader.
Living in those conditions really puts things into perspective. One of the most noticeable things is definitely noise, when you live somewhere totally silent and Antarctica is totally silent. Even when you go camping there are birds tweeting or the sound of the wind. Whereas Antarctica is completely silent unless of course there is a blizzard. To go back to a city where there are sirens, horns and just noise everywhere. It took me a long time to readjust to the noise. The other big thing was choice, for 12 months we were told what to wear, what to eat and when to work. Coming back I was just overwhelmed by choice, I remember having a moment in the breakfast cereal isle of a supermarket just looking at all the options.
The other thing that was that when I returned I rented an apartment, it was one of those apartments that has security cameras to let you see who was at the door, a concierge desk and a lift which required the guest to press the same button that I was pressing. It was only 6 months later that I realized that there were now 4 barriers, being the camera, concierge, lift button lock and door locks, between me and the world. I think I subconsciously did this as a reaction to having to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was a part of reclaiming my privacy and my time. No one was ever going to visit me unexpectedly and could only do on my terms, I didn’t mean to do this but I think there is a connection.
The experience has also changed my view of time management. When I was working in a corporate role I had always thought I had poor time management, being the first into the office and being the last to leave. I did every time management course available and did all the things that they tell you to do, such as to-do-lists. It was only in Antarctica that I realised that the problem was not my time management, the problem was around my setting of boundaries. I took the attitude that if my team needed me, I was there. They would knock on my bedroom door at 10pm at night because they could see the light under the door. I would stop what I was doing, put on my dressing gown and then go out. After 6 weeks of doing this, I realised that I could not be this available for 12 months as it was killing me. The next time this happened was when I was having breakfast on a Sunday morning, I was interrupted to sign a permission form allowing someone to leave to photograph penguins. I told them that what I was doing was urgent, that I needed to look after myself. I said I would finish my breakfast and would meet them in the office in 15 minutes. Once I set the boundary they respected it, prior to this I had no boundary so they would come to me at any time. I realised that the whole time during my corporate career, every time that someone asked me whether I had a minute my default answer had been of course even when I didn’t have a minute. I should have said no I don’t at the moment, could you come back? People can tell the moment you have checked out. By saying I had a minute when I actually didn’t, I did more damage as my staff would have been able to tell that I had checked out as my mind ticked over all of the things that I needed to get done. I damaged the relationships more than I would have said no I don’t, can you come back in an hour and I am all yours.
Coming back from such an adventurous and isolated period was quite difficult. A couple of the members of my team really struggled with the transition back, particularly those from regional cities as they had become like celebrities in their towns. To begin with the media wanted to interview them and the schools wanted them to come and give talks. For the first few months this was great but then of course the celebrity wore off and they returned back to their normal jobs that they had been in for 20 or 30 years. I was lucky in that I got married and had a child which distracted me and kept me busy. But it was still hard coming back, I have to stop myself from getting on the webcam and watching the people who are down there at the moment because I could spend days just watching them and emailing them. I have to remind myself to let them get on with their lives and to get on with my own life. You can only stay there if you are working there, there is no tourism and there are limited ships all of which have to harbor off the coast. No amount of money can buy you a week in Antarctica and that is what makes the experience so unique and special. It was knowing this that kept my so resilient over the 12 months when I was thinking about wanting to come home. Coming home is really difficult, you have to set new goals for yourself and keep your morale up.
The biggest piece of advice that I ever got was around regretting what you did and not regretting what you didn’t do, to actually look for those opportunities. In terms of leadership, the biggest thing I learnt came from my performance review whilst in Antarctica which was conducted by a psychologist privately. On the ship going home the psychologist met with each of my team members who give her feedback about me, she then gave that feedback to me. Not many performance reviews are conducted by a third party so it was really honest. She told me that they had found me really inspiring. I asked her whether it was due to my response to a plane crash that we had, whether it was because of my dedication working 16 hour days or was it because of my detailed excel spreadsheet rosters. She said no it was not any of these things. She said, Sharon mentioned that I knew the name and home town of all 120 people on my station over the Summer. Patrick mentioned that he had a son at home in Sydney who had a school concert on and that the next morning at breakfast I had asked him whether he had called home and how his son’s concert had gone. I was amazed that this was what they had told the psychologist after a year of living together. It blew me away and it taught me that people do not remember what you say or do, they remember how you make them feel. I thought to be an inspiring leader you needed to be the Richard Branson type, the charming extravert. I had always envied people who are naturally like that. But I learnt that people who are a little more introverted or a bit more shy can still be great leaders as they can still create these moments. The other thing that really helped me was my belief that leadership is about creating more leaders, not about creating more followers. When I refrained it like this, I thought that I could mentor people and develop people into becoming leaders themselves. For anyone out there who isn’t sure whether they could be a leader, because they are a little bit shy or introverted, I would say it has nothing to do with that.
I now get to travel around the world talking to people about my leadership experiences. As part of this, after every talk I make the conscious effort to reflect upon the questions that were asked at that particular talk. This helps me to identify what it is that people want to hear about. A few years ago the big interest was around change and then it was about mental health. Now the hot topic is probably innovation and getting diverse teams working together. There is an expectation now, especially in customer facing roles that you will look, think and be like your customers. That you won’t all be white, young and tertiary educated because that’s not what your customer base is. This is a great thing but we also need to recognise that with this there may be some misunderstanding, particularly cross-cultures. I am hearing more and more around the idea that change is business per usual, most companies recognize now that there will always be disruption and there will always be technological changes. How do you make your team resilient and get over the change fatigue? Whether I am on a plane home or in the car, I reflect on the questions asked. The second thing I reflect on is how I went, I will rate myself out of 10. I am my own harshest critic but it is critical to build your own self-awareness. I would say that self-awareness is the most important skill in a leader, you need to know what you are good at, what you need to work at and what sets you off. You can learn the strategic stuff, decision-making, risk-taking and assessment but self-awareness is key.
My favourite quote still has to be ‘it’s better to regret what you did, than to regret what you didn’t do’ as this is something I truly believe in. Throughout my earlier career I moved around a fair bit and took jobs that no one else wanted but that was deliberately designed to to give my skills and to broad my skill set. I just think that you have one shot at life, besides from having children as that’s forever, there are no decisions you will make that you can’t undo. If you make a decision such as accepting a promotion or starting your own business and it doesn’t work out how you expected it to, it is as easy as then making another decision. You aren’t stuck, you have choices.
We read heaps in Antartica as there is no TV there, there are movies but they are all going to be at least a year old as they have come over on the ship. We do not have the bandwidth to live stream videos. I read heaps but a book I have read recently which I loved is The Third Space by Dr Adam Fraser. I love practical books and this is a really practical book about how you get yourself mentally prepared when you are going from meeting to meeting, back to back. The third space is actually that time between the meetings, Adam studied a number of elite athletes. What he found was, if we take tennis for example, it was not the person who was best at the tennis stroke who won, it was the person who mentally prepared in between each shot. He said whether it is going from meeting to meeting or from work to home, that transition time as the third space is critical. You have to reflect on the meeting or the day, you have to rest for a few seconds and you then need to mentally reset yourself for the next thing. It really works, it is just about drawing that line and recognizing that shift. It is such a simple concept but I just love it because it is so practical.
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