Managing Teams, Strategy, Technology

365 Shades of White

Day 2 at XeroCon started with more inspiration from Rachael Robertson. Rachael spent 12 months in Antarctica as leader of the winter team. 18 people, 4 women and 14 men, who remain at the Antarctic base to essentially keep things going over the winter. They are there on their own for 9 months, almost non-stop darkness, minus 35 degrees outside and there is literally no way out. There is no plane, helicopter, ship or any mode of transport capable of accessing the area in winter.

Interestingly enough Rachael didn’t set out to get the position. She applied for the job originally as she was intrigued by the job description which was looking for personal attributes and values as opposed to skills. The logic being that these things cannot be taught, but to the right people skills can be transferred easily. Rachael was struggling to place suitable staff in the area she was working and wanted to participate in their interview process to get some ideas. It turns out there was no interview, just a week-long boot camp in the Southern Highlands of Tasmania. Herself with all men and she was offered the position.

“Respect trumps harmony every time”

This was a quote I think we could all relate to. Rachael went on to discuss how if your focus is simply on harmony then the cultural and respect issues between staff will still be present, just pushed down and not acknowledged. That to have true harmony there needs to be a high level of respect for those you work with, their skills, personalities and choices. And as obvious as it may seem if there is not a high level of respect Innovation will be stifled. No one will feel truly comfortable putting up their hand if there is a fear of rejection or being ridiculed.

Integrity was also a big part of ensuring the 18-people left to ‘keep the lights on’ in Antarctica maintained a great culture. There was 1 rule regarding this, ‘No Triangles’. If there is an issue, you are to discuss it with the person directly, not a 3rd party.

“Every job has an Antarctic winter. It’s still busy, but work is just work.” 

Who hasn’t been here? It was certainly refreshing to know this is ‘normal’. I can only imagine many a moment feeling like this during 9 months with just 17 others in Antarctica. Rachel mentioned how it was the small things to celebrate that inspired the staff, be it a staff ‘ball’ or someone’s birthday. These were things to look forward to, create conversation and put smiles on people’s faces. It’s so important to always be inspiring your staff, keeping them feeling good about what they are doing. It’s also important to accept that even though all this happens, sometimes they are just in their ‘Antarctic Winter’ at work, and that is ok. As long as it doesn’t last forever.

Collaboration was also discussed and compared to the way male penguins survive the winter storms. In winter storms the penguins all huddle together, they take turns of being on the edge where the storm is fierce and they bear the full brunt of the storm. They also take turns in the middle where it is warm and protected. Imagine if just 1 penguin refused to go to the outside, do you think others would take their place or they would all argue? What would be the outcome? Possibly death if they don’t work together.

“Protect the tribe so the individual thrives”

Finally, Rachael discussed leadership and the ‘bacon wars’, essentially the wars over crispy or soft bacon that could have imploded the team. Leadership is all about the small things, it’s these small actions that gain people’s respect. It’s knowing people’s names, remembering they told you it was their child’s birthday the next day and checking if they managed to speak to them, it’s listening and taking a genuine interest in their lives and being aware how some changes or issues may affect them and finding a positive way to handle that.

Rachel was inspiring in so many ways. A woman in a traditionally ‘man’s world’ who managed to keep 17 others and herself being respectful and caring for 9 months in one of the most isolated parts of the world. A true leader who inspired others and bought out their strengths and their own leadership abilities. It was great to see such amazing speakers at XeroCon.



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