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As I reflect on my years as president of IMD and approach retirement in the spring of 2008, I am cognisant more than ever that success within a business school, or any organisation for that matter, is dependent on the collective unit’s ability to learn.
In my mind, nobody personifies effective team building, non-stop learning and excellence in implementation better than Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). Coincidentally a fellow Norwegian, Amundsen defied the odds when his small team of expert explorers became the first to set foot on the South Pole, beating a better-funded English group led by Robert Falcon Scott.
On October 19 1911, Amundsen’s team of six along with 16 sledge dogs set route for the South Pole from their base camp in Framheim, located on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
Skiing across the snow in freezing conditions for 3,000km, the Norwegian team reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911; 99 days after the beginning of the journey. Scott meanwhile, with more government support and more modern technology in the form of motor sledges, arrived five weeks later on January 17 1912. Amundsen and his men arrived back at Framheim without incident, while Scott and his companions tragically died when attempting to return to their base.
How could Amundsen beat Scott with fewer resources? There were many factors involved, but in my view Amundsen succeeded because he had built a more cohesive and efficient team, able to learn and adapt quickly to new challenges.
The following are four characteristics that describe Amundsen’s ability to form a winning team. I am convinced that, for success in today’s business world, the same rules apply.
What impresses me most about Amundsen is his thirst for learning. In his earlier years, he took part in exploration apprenticeships, in which he soaked up anything learnable. More than just an observer along for the ride, he ran a number of experiments to improve equipment and took detailed notes on every aspect related to polar travel. Even after his greatest and most noteworthy success – reaching the South Pole – Amundsen was still penning his thoughts about lessons to be learned.
By the same token, Amundsen learned from failure, which is best exemplified when he left too early for his South Pole excursion. The conditions were still too cold, so Amundsen and his team were forced to retreat. However, he used this mishap to his advantage by restructuring the team and formulating a better navigational route. As with polar expeditions, in today’s ever- changing business landscape, learning from failure and adapting your strategy as you go is the only way to succeed.
Exceptional, especially in Amundsen’s era, were the sources he used for his Arctic exploration education. In 1903, he spent time in Greenland learning from the locals, now known as Inuit, about their way of life. At the time, Europeans tended to see them as primitive, stone-age people in need of influence from civilised society. To win their trust, Amundsen first learned the local language. Afterwards, he was able to gain insights into their technology, habits and culture. The lessons Amundsen learned – which ranged from nutritional strategies to prevent disease, to constructing igloos – proved critical to his success. I can not help but think that many of today’s business professionals often neglect learning possibilities in unconventional groups of people, including those pegged as “less important”.
Minimalism: only the best, no more, no less
Amundsen had no excess personnel baggage. The team that accompanied him to the South Pole consisted of five men: an expert dog driver, two highly experienced sailors, a cook and an internationally-renowned skier. You pay for what you get and therefore team members earned top wages. They were the best and each had a special role to play. Ineffective workers meant a waste of resources – more food to carry – and the potential for dischord. Amundsen viewed team chemistry as making or breaking an expedition. I could not agree more.
Eliminate bureaucracy and hierarchy
Amundsen formed a powerful team of top professionals that had skills he lacked. He eliminated rules and bureaucracy to maximise the group’s talent. He engaged his men and relied on their expertise in making decisions. Plans were scrupulously dissected, leading to fruitful discussions and suggestions for improvement. Like Amundsen, I believe power and influence have to be earned from the bottom up. However, once earned and established, leadership requires decisions from the top and a determined drive for fast implementation. No hesitation, no unnecessary back-and-forth we so often see in large organisations today.
Upon arriving at the South Pole, Amundsen insisted the entire team plant the Norwegian flag together. By doing so, he wanted each to share equally in the historical moment. This may seem like a small detail, yet I believe it is one that is important to note. It demonstrates that the entire team completed the mission, something ambitious executives sometimes fail to recognise when gloating over their latest “personal” triumphs.
While we at IMD cannot claim to have set foot on a new land, we do accompany our learning partners through uncharted business territory. Fortunately we have the comfort of a picturesque location on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, not the freezing temperatures of the Arctic. As dean, I hope I acted according to Amundsen’s principles so that countless flags may be planted by many great teams all over the world.
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