by Karen Gilchrist
When a photo of a penguin drew Rachael Robertson’s eye to a job ad in her local paper, she couldn’t help but read on. No technical expertise required, it said, just three leadership attributes: resilience, empathy, and integrity.
With that, the then 34-year-old’s curiosity was piqued. If she could just find out how those skills were tested, maybe she could apply them to her own work as a chief park ranger for Australia’s Great Ocean Road region.
What she wasn’t prepared for, however, was a successful application that would lead her to become Australia’s youngest and second-ever woman Antarctic expedition leader. She eventually went on to lead an initial team of 120, and later a core team of 17, in minus 35 degree Celsius conditions, achieving a feat few leaders can boast of.
“I’d love to say it was a strategic move, but it wasn’t,” Robertson told CNBC Make It. “I only ever intended to get to the job interview so I could find out what the questions were they were using and I could copy (them) and bring them back.”
Nevertheless, the strategy had the desired effect, said the leader of the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition, revealing the leadership skills required for what she dubs “the world’s most extreme workplace.”
As it turned out, the interview process was in fact a boot camp designed to replicate the intense conditions of the 11-month expedition to Antarctica. Over the course of a week, Robertson and 13 other candidates were housed in close quarters and made to work long, tiring hours together while their behavior was closely watched.
“That tests your resilience,” said Robertson. But the ability to withstand that pressure and remain a tolerant and pleasant manager is vital while working for as long as a year on the cut-off continent.
“It was never about the values,” said Robertson. “They could have given us anything. They could have given us the seven dwarfs!”
She said that it was about whether one could “professionally and calmly” state their case, and then respect the difference of opinion of other people. “That’s how you test for empathy,” she added.
Lastly, as a leader responsible for the well-being of other tradesmen and researchers, as well of the success of the project, trustworthiness, and integrity are vital. To test that, candidates were paired up as mentor and mentee and assessed on whether they would support one another.
Robertson found herself partnered with someone chronically indecisive. In a difficult working environment, she knew that would not do. However, telling her mentee could mean improving his chances.
“I did agonize and think a) would he take it the wrong way? And then b) this will make him a lot better applicant and he might get this job instead,” said Robertson.
But in the end, her integrity won. “If I didn’t have integrity, I would have shut up,” she said.
Landing the job
Though Robertson never intended to win the job (the Australian doesn’t even like the cold), her leadership abilities ultimately won through. In 2004, she was selected to lead the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to the Davis Station research site.
It was an offer she couldn’t refuse: “I thought, I’d rather do it and think ‘what have I done?’ than spend the rest of my life wondering ‘what if?’”
However, she said she was still curious: Why was she picked over 13 far more eager candidates?
“They said: ‘We like your leadership philosophy, which is that leadership is about creating more leaders, it’s not about creating more followers,’” she recalled.
Fifteen years on, Robertson — who is now a keynote speaker on leadership — said that philosophy is even more important now as the workplace changes.
“Back in the day, you might have charged out the front and said: ‘Follow me,’” she said. “But if you try that now with Gen Y or Gen Z, they’ll leave, you will not retain the talented people. By bringing people up and coaching and counseling and motivating — that’s leadership.”
“They figure: ‘We can teach you the technical stuff, but we can’t teach you resilience,’” said Robertson, who later underwent a three-month technical training program. “Under that kind of pressure you default back to who you are; you can’t be anything you’re not.”
Living and working in such close confines also requires a leader with the empathy and understanding to separate employees’ professional and personal personas.
To test that, candidates were presented with seven values — including innovation, loyalty and integrity — and told to pick which they felt was most important and convince the others of their view. That elicited impassioned speeches from many of the candidates, who tried to impose their views, Robertson recalled. But she opted for a different tact.
“I had this epiphany where I thought ‘I’ve got no right to do that … I have no right to tell you that your value is wrong, that’s your value,‘” she said. Instead, Robertson stated her case for her chosen value, but then acknowledged that others’ views may differ and that she respected that.