B School Life

Arctic Dispatch: Trouble Hits


Arctic Dispatch: Trouble Hits

Photograph by Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Collin West is part of a team, including MBA graduates from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Wharton, attempting to cross the Arctic Ocean in a rowboat to raise awareness of global warming. He is blogging about his experience on the Arctic Row team for Bloomberg Businessweek.

July 20, 2012

Have you ever run out of water? As in, have you ever legitimately not had any water to drink?

Well, Arctic Row was about one or two days away from that being a reality this morning, and it was an extremely uncomfortable feeling. Our ocean rowboat is equipped with a watermaker that takes in Arctic salt water and delivers drinkable desalinated water. We use this water to hydrate and cook meals. Plus, we’re big, with each of us over 6’2” and 220 pounds. As you can imagine, we eat and drink a lot since we each row 12 hours a day.

Because of this, we maintain a ballast of fresh water for emergency watermaker failures. And of course, the watermaker broke right away, which, if deemed unfixable, would halt our expedition and force us to call the Coast Guard for rescue. Instead, we dug into our emergency water supply and started game planning our next move.

The irony was lost on no one: We were surrounded by pristine Arctic water while simultaneously running out of drinking water. Some troubleshooting, elbow grease, and a lot of satellite phone calls to specialists later, and we have the watermaker back up and running. Close call.

An uncertain situation like a broken watermaker in the middle of the Arctic, or in the business world—something like a new management team or chief executive officer—can really tear a team apart and kill morale. All it takes is one team member to get really scared or doubtful of our ability, and it’s a downward spiral from there. Our team didn’t do that at all. In fact, we all stuck together, encouraged each other, and stayed on our rowing shifts because we knew we would get the watermaker to work. And I think I know why.

In order to build a strong team, we did two extremely important things:

First, we picked the right people. While forming the team to go on this adventure we ran a traditional interview process, meeting candidates, doing reference calls, and even flying out to visit potential teammates. I often find that face-to-face interviews can be the worst way to pick a person for a job, because the interaction is filled with all sorts of biases. I really like reference calls, however. If you hone your ability to ask the right questions at the right time, you can really learn a lot about a candidate.

Next, we built a culture of purpose. Mission statements, values, mantras, whatever you want to call it. Having a higher purpose and an accepted way of doing business is paramount. It’s like a cheat sheet for your team members to reference quickly when uncertainty rears its ugly head.

Our mission is simple: Explore, educate, inspire. When Arctic Row has an opportunity to get involved with a new project, we can quickly decide if it matches our goals. For example, Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation offered us a project to collect plankton samples for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to study whale behavior. The data collection would cost us nothing but would have cost the university up to $50,000 a day to charter a boat in the same remote area as our vessel. Right away we knew that the project fell into at least the “educate” bucket of our mission statement and maybe even the “explore” bucket as well. So it was clearly a go. Decisions and reactions to uncertain situations in the business world should be just as simple; you just need to make sure you write the playbook for your team members ahead of time.

A few quick observations before I sign off:

• En route to the Arctic Ocean, we rowed past native burial mounds, through storms pushing us onto shore, and over sandbars (getting stuck several times and even breaking an oar). It has been quite the adventure from the start.

• Once in open water, we have been blessed with many beluga whale sightings. They are funny and curious. In fact, it amazes me how interested all the animals have been. Not only have belugas and seals been wandering up to our boat to see what’s shakin’ but numerous birds have been flying out just to circle us four or five times and get a good look at us before moving on. It’s pretty cool to see how rich the Arctic Ocean is with life.

• We have a headwind right now, which means that Scott and I just rowed for three hours and literally went nowhere. It was the most beautiful treadmill I’ve ever been on. I guess sometimes just not “losing” is considered a win.

• Unlike a big metal boat that pushes against big waves, our boat is like a cork floating on top of the waves coming at us from all sides. It’s no wonder that some team members have gotten seasick to the point of vomiting. But I’m lucky to report no effects from the turbulent ride thus far. Fingers are crossed.

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Collin West, an MBA graduate of Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, is part of a team attempting a 1,300-mile journey across the Arctic Ocean in a rowboat. The purpose is to raise awareness of the impact of global warming.

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