There are two types of people in the world: those who believe that running hundreds of miles across deserts and frozen wasteland is a fun, enriching experience, and those that believe such activities resemble a form of torture.
Mary Gadams and Nicholas Wai fall squarely in the first camp, which is why Ms Gadams, after completing her one-year Sloan programme at London Business School, decided to set up her own company, RacingThePlanet, to create a business out of such extreme activities. It is also the reason why Mr Wai contacted her when he was looking for a seasoned executive to shadow as part of his MBA programme at London Business School.
Until this year, the shadowing project has been a compulsory element of the LBS programme, with students spending a week shadowing everyone and anyone, from British members of parliament and the Lord Mayor of London to members of the United Nations mine clearance service. Some of the volunteering executives are LBS alumni.
Julia Tyler, associate dean of the LBS full-time MBA programme, says shadowing “catches the students’ imaginations” and can be popular with executives, who often repeatedly volunteer to be shadowed. “Serial shadowees” receive a report from the student at the end of the week that focuses on the student’s impressions.
“They may just catch an angle of their personal style which they didn’t realise was so dominant,” says Ms Tyler. This comes from a completely neutral perspective, she adds, unlike 360 degree feedback, which can often be intrinsically biased.
Ms Gadams says her shadower contributed from a number of angles. “It was great having Nick because he chipped in, he turned into a part of the team. And it was nice to have someone look at it all from a business angle.”
For Mr Wai, it was invaluable first-hand experience in working with a different type of company. “Most organisations are structured. Mary’s operation changes every time, as do the people you have to motivate. How do you attract people and retain their loyalty?”
This is because RacingThePlanet has only three permanent employees, including Ms Gadams, and relies on between 20 and 25 volunteers, a medical team of seven (of whom six are volunteers) and a local team of 20 to 40 temporary employees – the drivers, people who put up tents – for each of the four races across the Gobi, Atacama and Sahara deserts and the Antarctic.
Mr Wai felt that working with the founder of a small company gave a different perspective on management. “Shadowing the founder of a business you get a better sense of what is at stake. It’s more pure, less bureaucratic...How do you put the vision into the actual event? You’re physically out here, you don’t go home at five o’clock. You’re giving 24/7.”
The company makes a profit from the entry fees, which are a minimum $2,800 (£1,500), and Ms Gadams hopes to develop RacingThePlanet into a “global lifestyle brand”, with a range of merchandise.
For Mr Wai, who shadowed Ms Gadams during this summer’s Atacam crossing in Chile, it was a thought-provoking, even life-changing, experience, and one he believes more MBAs should experience. “I think they (LBS) should send them out on more projects like this, rather than shadowing bankers.”
Although shadowing is no longer a compulsory element of the MBA programme, Ms Tyler reckons that between 70 and 80 of the participants will take up the shadowing option, and this will enable LBS, as well as supporting the individual students, to develop stronger ties with those executives who volunteer for the project.