Every business faces challenges along their journey and sometimes staff have to be continually motivated, and key business decisions need to be taken. Dealing with change and adversity becomes the norm, but not every business is equipped to rise to the challenge.

Polar Explorer, Ben Saunders, is a modern-day adventurer. He completed an astounding 240km solo trip to the North Pole and along with Tarka L’Herpiniere, made a return journey to the South Pole from Ross Island. Ben, is also a globally acclaimed motivational speaker, part of an exclusive group of repeat main-stage TED speakers. His TED talks have been viewed online over three million times. 

At the PageGroup Midlands Networking event, held on 18th October at Hyatt Regency in Birmingham, Ben explained to us how businesses can make use of the key skills and valuable experience that he acquired on his challenging polar expeditions.

Ben, what have you found to be the best way to overcome adversity within a stressful situation?

I think the key is trying to stay positive mentally, and the best way to achieve that is through trying to break the task or situation down into manageable steps. Back in 2013, when we were setting out to walk to the South Pole and back to the coast again, there were many moments where the ultimate goal of walking there and back 1800 miles, seemed totally far-fetched. In those sort of moments, the key was to break down the tasks, so that they felt manageable. For example, our days were quite routine and regimented. We stopped and eat every 90 minutes and I didn’t think further ahead than the next 90 minutes. I’d focus on the next break as the next goal.

You skied solo to the North Pole and faced dangerous, and hazardous conditions. Can pre-planning and a good strategy minimise elements of risk?

Yes, definitely. Pre-planning, preparation and training, are vital to what I do. I’m heading out there with a little life support system - my food and supplies - everything I need to live. Also, I operate in environments where there are so many factors outside of my control. The planning can never eliminate the risk. However, flexibility and the ability to make decisions on the fly, are just as important as having a rigid plan in place. Planning is vital, but the capacity to change that plan is perhaps even more important.

Your TED talks have been viewed online over three million times. What tips can you give to top-level brands delivering content consistently to a large audience?

  • Don’t shy away from telling a story.
  • Focus on creating a genuine, authentic narrative, rather than just factual information.
  • Be consistent with your content and delivery.
  • Don’t get trapped in doing the same thing over and over again.
  • Get genuine feedback. It is the biggest part of the challenge, but once you have that you can work out what to do with it.

How high a challenge should businesses set themselves, and is setting a high challenge a good way to measure success?

I have consistently taken on some of the biggest challenges in my field, but it has also been a 17 to 18-year progression with 12 big expeditions, each one aiming progressively higher. I think you get the best out of people as a leader, and we get better ourselves, through being challenged and stretched. Striking the right balance is crucial. I didn’t start out by saying my adventure would be to Pluto or Mars. I started focusing on something I considered to be realistic, but also extremely challenging at the same time.

I definitely aspire to raise the bar, but actually identifying the parameters and the right degree of the challenge, is crucial. That perhaps, is one of the biggest challenges of business leadership, figuring out the appropriate challenge.

Please tell us one of your most challenging experiences and how you kept your morale up to overcome them.

It was probably securing the funding on a trip to Antarctica back in 2013, the most ambitious polar expedition since the 1980s. It was logistically very complex and had a large, seven-figure budget. We were trying to find funding during the financial crash which was really difficult. For various reasons the team changed a bit and suffered a number of setbacks.

“The other thing: there was a very definite seasonal window to start this trip. If we weren’t fully funded and fully prepared with government permits and insurance documents, then we’d have to postpone by up to a year. In a way, I became more determined, because I had invested so much time and energy. It was definitely about getting the commercial investment. Although the expedition happened in 2013, we were planning it for several years prior and trying to get funding for the budget from 2007/08. In some ways, the expeditions were the rewards for making it through the hard part, which is making them commercially viable.

In terms of raising the morale of those around me, there was always a sense of pride. We were the underdogs, up against impossible challenges. On the Antarctica expedition, my team and I were reliant on each other and had to motivate each other to get through.

What is a key building block of decision making for a C-Suite leader?

Trying to step back from the immediate situation, and being slightly more objective when gathering as much information as possible, is a key building block. Also, often you’ve got a very limited window in which to make a decision, so the worst thing a leader can do is to not make a decision and sit on the bench for too long. 

Many organisations deal with change, whether they are downsizing, expanding, or relocating. What enabled you to deal with a changing environment or situation effectively?

From a practical expedition point of view, it has been establishing effective ways to communicate with my team. The more physically isolated I am, the more reliant I am on the team in the background to look after me. When things are changing for a business, downsizing, expanding and moving into new territories, I think being able to communicate [with each other] really accurately, despite the stresses you are under, is a key thing.

Expeditions require a sponsor, a videographer, a pilot, in other words, a team. How important is teamwork?

There is often an extended team of contractors, pilots, people that make the food, and those that bring the satellite equipment. Looking back, it has been a challenging learning curve for me on how to be an effective team manager. The last time I wrote a CV was perhaps 20 years ago and as well as being the manager, I was also the product. I was so consumed with myself and the challenge ahead, that I probably didn’t do a great job of looking after my team. Teamwork is definitely key in achieving prime objectives.

If you would like more tips on developing your team, browse all of our management advice here. Alternatively, if you are looking to hire new talent, why not get in touch with your local Michael Page office or submit a job spec today?

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