Antarctica boss did not freeze during a crisis
LEADERSHIP is never an easy task but few environments are harsher than what Rachael Robertson experienced as a station leader in Antarctica.
It was tough coping with the intense physical conditions of around minus 35 deg C, months of darkness and constant blizzards.
But managing a diverse team in an isolated, pressure-cooker environment for months was even harder.
"Antarctica is one of the world's toughest workplaces," said Ms Robertson.
As only the second female and youngest expedition leader to the Australian outpost in Antarctica, she managed a group of up to 120 people in the most extreme environment on earth.
After her return, she wrote a book based on her experience, Leading On The Edge, in which she explains how to create a resilient, successful team even in the most trying of circumstances.
While the weather in Singapore is quite the opposite of polar conditions, Ms Robertson says that there are similarities in both work environments.
"In many ways, it is similar to parts of Asia, in particular Singapore, where there are large expatriate communities and people from dozens of different countries working side by side," she said.
Managing cross-cultural differences alongside people adapting to a new home is a challenge that leaders here can probably identify with.
Ms Robertson's team in Antarctica was the most diverse she has worked with, from vastly different backgrounds: scientists, engineers, IT specialists, pilots and weather specialists. She had no say in the recruitment of her team members.
"As workplaces become more and more diverse, it's absolutely critical that respect trumps harmony," she said. This means that instead of expecting everyone to like each other, the team aimed for professional courtesy and respect.
"With such a mix of people, it was impractical to think we would all get along with each other all the time.
"It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony so I didn't."
She has grave concerns for any team that expects team harmony, describing it as a "dangerous" mindset. Ms Robertson said dysfunctional behaviour will still continue - but underground; so the illusion of harmony remains.
She also believes it stifles innovation as people are too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view because they do not want to "rock the harmony boat".
One tool that her team used to build trust and respect was the rule of "no triangles".
This meant having direct conversations only with the source. "We had a simple rule that went 'I don't speak to you about him', or 'you don't speak to me about her'."
Such a practice reduced conflict and clarified accountability. It also ensured that time was spent dealing with issues that mattered, and not wasted handling personal disputes.
LEADING IN A CRISIS
One of the toughest challenges Ms Robertson faced in her role was leading through a crisis. In her case, it was a plane crash that left four team members stranded in the Antarctic wilderness 500km away.
While the entire episode had a happy ending with the team returning safely after more than three days, she gleaned some valuable lessons about leading during a crisis.
Firstly, staying visible to the team was crucial. "It's not enough to be leading; you need to be seen leading," she said.
Ms Robertson explained that while it is natural to huddle with the leadership team, leaders need to be seen front and centre.
Communicating all available information as quickly as possible was key.
"If you don't send regular updates, people will fill in the gaps themselves, and often these 'gap fillers' are worse than the reality."
Keeping the entire team in the loop also created a sense of solidarity where all 116 expeditioners pulled together to work towards a common goal.
Lastly, Ms Robertson said, leaders need to choose their words carefully and mind their body language.
For example, following the plane crash, she had "concerns" but she was not "worried". The two words meant different things: While it is normal for a leader to be concerned, a leader getting worried will create only panic.
She also made sure she appeared calm and poised to instil confidence in those around her. Every leader will face such a situation at some point, be it a financial crisis, a merger, a large system failure or a product recall, noted Ms Robertson.
Yet, there were many times when she questioned her own ability.
"Leadership can be a lonely road as we must retain a strong boundary between ourselves and our staff."
One thing that kept her going was having a trusted peer she could confide in - for her, it was someone at one of the other Australian stations.
Whenever she ran into problems, she would phone the station leader and explain what was going on.
He, in turn, would also call her and receive the same empathy. "A peer who understands the challenges of your role is someone you can relate to and can discuss options with, is something to foster, nurture and treasure," she said.
Reflecting on her year spent in Antarctica, Ms Robertson noted that it taught her resilience, self-awareness and how to innovate.
But, most importantly, the experience gave her the tools needed to thrive in the ever-present scrutiny of executive leadership.
THE BUSINESS TIMES