Leading a team of 18 on an Australian Antarctic station through the depths of winter helped Rachael Robertson hone her leadership skills.
Respect, integrity and looking out for your teammates were some of the keys to ensuring the team survived and thrived in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, Ms Robertson told Gardiner Foundation’s Dairy Leaders’ Luncheon in May.
But harmony could be a dangerous primary goal for any team.
Ms Robertson said she was an ‘accidental’ Antarctic expeditioner, having applied for a position as team leader at Australia’s Davis station after being intrigued by a job advertisement seeking applicants for their qualities, not their technical skills.
“The attributes they were after were things like resilience, empathy, integrity, and I just thought what a ripper idea,” she said.
“So without a word of a lie, the only reason I applied for this job in the first place was I just wanted to get to the interview stage, so I could find out what the questions they were using and I could copy them and I could bring them back to Parks Victoria.”
Instead of an interview, Ms Robertson found herself in a week-long bootcamp in central Tasmania with other applicants, subject to situations to test how they worked under pressure.
She landed the job.
“When they rang and offered it to me … I thought I would rather regret what I did than regret what I didn’t do,” she said. “That simple.”
Respect trumps harmony
Ms Robertson said there was a lot of diversity in the team.
“We had a 24-year-old death metal music fan living with a 64-year-old grandfather,” she said.
“We had married, single, gay, straight, had a couple of parents, had a student, had different religions, had different cultures.”
So for this reason the number one rule for the team – and one they chose together – was respect.
“You can’t take that mix of people, throw them together 24 hours a day through months and months of darkness for a year and say you’re all gonna love each other, ’cause that ain’t gonna happen,” she said.
“I didn’t think we would all necessarily even like each other and to be really blunt, we didn’t, we still don’t. But what I did expect is that we treat each other with respect.”
That respect was not about titles or people’s roles, but common professional courtesy and respect for each other as colleagues.
People were entitled to their opinions but respect was about how they gave it.
“So the rule for our team, the mantra, was respect trumps harmony,” Ms Robertson said.
“I worry about teams that strive for harmony, I really do.
“I think if harmony is your number one goal above everything else, that we all get along and we all see eye to eye, that we are all great friends, if that’s your number one goal you’re in trouble.”
When harmony was the primary goal, a few things happened.
Bullying or harassment still occurred but it was driven underground and people wouldn’t raise it as an issue because they did not want to rock the boat.
“Secondly if you focus just on the harmony you won’t get innovation, you can’t innovate for the same reason,” she said.
“People don’t want to offer a difference of opinion or a conflicting view or a different view ’cause they don’t want to rock the boat.”
Thirdly, and most importantly, it was dangerous.
“If you focus just on harmony that’s when people get hurt, either physically or mentally,” Ms Robertson said.
“Because if someone is doing something unsafe, if they’re not wearing the correct PPE or they are not following the correct procedure, people walk past.”
Harmony was an illusion.
“A team built just on harmony when it’s put under pressure, it will shatter,” she said.
“My team was brilliant in a crisis. We had a plane crash and they were fantastic, not because we all loved each other and we were all best mates but because we had a deep respect for every person on the team.
“Respect trumps harmony every time.”
Ms Robertson said a perceived lack of respect could be the basis for some of the annoying little things that happened in teams – like the ‘bacon wars’ she experienced in Antarctica.
“The bacon wars – I didn’t even know this was happening,” she said.
“The plumber came up to me and said we need to have a meeting to decide how to cook the bacon on Monday morning when the chef has the morning off.
“Why? Because the plumbers like it soft and the diesel mechanics like it crispy.”
Ms Robertson said she couldn’t believe she was being asked to sort out this problem and told the plumber she wasn’t stopping a $30 million project to discuss how to cook the bacon.
“So we didn’t have a meeting about that nor did we have a meeting about who it was that was putting the milk jug back into the refrigerator without milk in it, who left the lint in the clothes dryer or who left the weight from the barbell in the gym,” she said.
But she did get to the bottom of the issue.
“The relationship between the two teams had broken down over the use of a vehicle and they thought the other team was deliberately cooking the bacon the opposite way to irritate them,” she said.
“It’s about respect – it was manifested in the bacon, they were feeling disrespected.”
Ms Robertson said she started to identify all of these little issues that happen in teams were symptoms of a deeper issue and the deeper issue was a lack of respect.
The only way to change the behaviour was not to talk about the issue but to talk about respect.}
Ms Robertson said integrity was another of the team’s values.
Although integrity was sometimes difficult to describe, for her team it was a simple rule – no triangles.
“No triangles simply means you don’t speak to me about him, I don’t speak to you about her,” she said.
Implementing this involved a discussion at the start of the mission and getting everyone to agree to the rule to help build trust.
“The very next time someone came to me and tried to engage me in one of those ‘oh he did this to me’ or ‘she said that to me’ conversations, bang, I now had a tool to manage it,” she said.
“I’d say I saw you put your hand up and commit to no triangles, so why are you talking to me about it?
“Why aren’t you talking to him about it?”
Ms Robertson said it was a fantastic tool but it took about two months to embed it in the culture of the team because Australians generally did not like these conversations.
“We find them quite confronting but when the whole team is committed to it, when the whole team has put their hands up and committed to it, it takes away that confronting bit,” she said.
“It’s not confronting anymore, it’s how we operate around here.”
Looking out for your teammates
Ms Robertson said Antarctica was an inspiring place.
The Emperor Penguins, for example, were the only living thing in Antarctica in winter, except for humans.
“The only reason these guys survive is their team work,” she said.
“They huddle and every bird has a turn on the outside bracing against the cold and when they have had enough, they move into the middle and the birds in the middle come around the outside.
“It is extraordinary behaviour because they’ve adapted to do that.
“Every other bird species on the planet has a nest or a patch or a turf and they protect their little patch.
“If these guys tried to protect their little patch, they would not survive, there would be no Emperor Penguins.”
Ms Robertson said they were a fantastic metaphor for human teams: protect the team, work together and the team would be much stronger and have more influence.
That type of caring was demonstrated by her team in Antarctica after four of them were stranded 500 kilometres from base after a plane crashed.
The search and rescue team of six – herself, the chief pilots and the weather forecasters – worked away to develop a rescue plan, barely sleeping.
After three intense days and late one night, she decided the team needed to eat, even if it was just a sandwich.
“We walked into the dining room and sitting there on the bench somebody had plated up six meals,” she said.
She tracked down the person who had done this – Sharon the diesel mechanic and praised her for leadership, but Sharon played it down, saying she wasn’t the team leader.
“A title doesn’t make you a leader, leadership isn’t a title,” Ms Roberston said.
“Leadership is seeing something that needs to be done and doing something about it. That’s leadership.
“You saw something that needed to be done and you just did it.”