In January 2009, obstetrician and former decathlete Dr. Ed Coats swapped scrubs for skis as he and two teammates rang in the New Year by embarking on the first organised race to the South Pole. This journey saw the trio, with little experience in cross-country skiing, race nearly 500 miles across the Antarctic in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius with the hope of being the first of six teams to reach the bottom of the earth.
Together with broadcaster, author and adventurer, Ben Fogle, British athlete, rowing champion and double Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell OBE, Coats found himself “On Thin Ice” – as said the title of the BBC series that documented the expedition. The three men battled against not only extreme conditions, frostbite and skilled rivals, but against each other in their efforts to remain a strong, unified team.
Coats recounted his experiences of this taxing trek to a roomful of CFOs and CEOs at an event hosted by Eton Bridge Partners last week. Here, he addressed the importance of leadership, adaptability, honesty and humour as key components in high performing teams.
Three’s a crowd? Forming a team
Following one of his mantras in life to “never be afraid of giving something a go”, Coats found himself finishing a night shift in the Bristol OB/GYN department with an application to join Fogle and Cracknell’s South Pole competition, after a last minute dropout from their former third teammate.
Coats joined the team in July 2008 before meeting up for the first group training session in September. Due to fly to the Antarctic just three months later, this meant the three trainees had to form a team quickly and effectively. “This is quite hard to do under a lot of pressure,” said Coats. “Ben and James had been preparing for months and had already forged quite a strong relationship, while I’d only been in the team for 10 weeks.”
“I came into this very much as a ‘new boy’ in the group, and I didn’t want to be the weak link,” he explained. “I saw these guys as a sort of senior team, and I didn’t have the courage to impose myself on them, and I think that’s one of my big regrets. How we behaved and what motivated each of us individually was different, but having honesty and the ability to challenge people respectfully when you’ve got differences is so key to performance,” he added.
Strategy and keeping an eye on the competition
When it came to the race itself, Coats and his team faced tough competition – particularly from two Ex-special forces veterans from Norway. “I imagine they were conceived on skis,” Coats joked as he described their capabilities in navigating across the ice. The British team, on the other hand, had only learnt to ski one year prior to the expedition.
“Ben is a Broadcaster and adventurer, James is a former double Olympic champion, and I’m an obstetrician. However you look at it, that’s not your dream team for a South Pole race that requires performance,” said Coats. “We were three people who had come from all different backgrounds, were under-qualified, but had an enormous amount of grit, energy, and a shared British determination to succeed.”
In laying out their strategy, the key issue to address was how to win when up against two better skilled and better equipped athletes. The night before the race, Coats and his team agreed they would ski for 16 hours each day with breaks every two hours, before pitching up the tent to have four hours of sleep each night.
“This seemed like a genius plan, and that was the strategy taken care of – the next thing was direction,” Coats explained. “The conventional compass doesn’t work at the South Pole, and in minus 40 degrees GPS lasts about seven minutes. So, we could either use our shadows, or we could rely on the wind… so we followed the Norwegians,” he added humorously. “When you look at the competition, and you’re not as good as them, just copy them!”
Joking aside, this is exactly what they did, until the Norwegians decided to take a break. The British trio decided to plough on, leading the race for five days with the competition just on the horizon. On day five however, the Norwegians caught up and suggested that they ski together. “We were a bit too trusting of these Norwegians,” said Coats. “They weren’t just following us, they were tracking us – charting our day-by-day distances and looking at the colour of our urine in the snow to see how dehydrated we were. They had skied for 16 hours to catch us up, then skied with us all day to extract the information they required, then left us and skid for another 16 hours during the night. So, while we kept looking over our shoulders thinking they were behind, they were about eight hours in front of us.”
Getting the job done
As the race went on, Coats, Fogle and Cracknell saw their team dynamic start to break down. Their strategy of skiing for 16 hours at a time didn’t prove to be working, and their choice to take a “shared approach” to leadership hindered any effective decision making.
“It was this inability to be flexible with what we were doing as a team that caused massive issues,” Coats explained. “The pressure of winning the race caused us to fracture, and we lapsed back into being individuals. This comes down to creating the right structure and philosophy in your team, and these different pressures are translatable, whether it’s at the South Pole or in the workplace.”
In a last push to fix what had fallen apart, the team decided to stray from their rigid strategy and set themselves the huge challenge of skiing the final 75 kilometres of the race in one go. “Sometimes in life it is just about getting the job done,” said Coats. “We just had to haul ourselves over the line, and it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.”
It took the trio 18 days, five hours and 30 minutes to reach the South Pole, finishing in second place, 18 hours behind the team of Norwegians.
“For me, high performance requires honesty and humour,” said Coats. “I think these two things are really key, and I believe that is why we were successful. We were starving hungry, we got a hell of a lot wrong, and we were rubbish explorers, but we gave it our best shot. Challenges are what make life interesting, Overcoming them makes life meaningful.”
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