EXCLUSIVE: Lead from the back to instil a culture of engaging teamwork

Alan Chambers

Employee Benefits Connect 2018: Leaders should allow the most qualified team member to lead specific scenarios in order to keep individuals engaged with the overall objective.

Delivering the closing keynote address titled ‘The only limits are those of vision’, at Employee Benefits Connect 2018 on Wednesday 28 February, Alan Chambers MBE, former royal marine and polar adventurer, emphasised the importance of leaders managing their team from the back rather than the front in order to demonstrate that over-arching objectives are achieved by efficient teamwork and not a focus on the senior leader.

He said: “Leading from the back became very, very powerful. I think the greatest advantage is that every single team member led this trip [to the geographic north pole], irrelevant of experience, and that kept them emotionally engaged every hour of every day. It wasn’t just them making up the numbers to get [me] to the top of the world. I needed them to take responsibility.”

In order to keep motivation and engagement high within teams, Chambers recommended setting realistic targets that would help engage team members both physically and mentally. For example, instead of following previously tested failed schedules for mapping out the timeline of trekking to the geographic north pole, Chambers devised a new seven-stage plan that bucked previous polar travel convention. “It was the only way I thought I could focus my team emotionally and mentally to take on what was quite a big challenge. There’s no point thinking about the north pole a thousand miles away. If you think about that every day, you won’t go anywhere. I really need you to focus then, and also set some achievable targets, hopefully not just for the team but for myself on the early stages,” Chambers explained.

He added that leaders should provide their team members with the right tools to give them the confidence to complete their roles. “I wanted to make sure that the equipment we chose to take on the trip would actually not so much reduce the risk, but increase the confidence of the team, that they would take on and embrace the risk of walking to the north pole,” he said.

Creating a successful team is also about recruiting the right talent in the first place to ensure that each individual will contribute to the project rather than act as a bystander. Although teaching and practicing relevant skills, such as skiing and how to build an igloo in three hours, can be done easily, according to Chambers, it is the underlying passion and positive mindset that is vital for achieving goals and objectives as a team.

Chambers said: “I find it impossible, even now, doing this 20 years, I find it impossible to instil passion in people if they join the project for the wrong reason. You’ll never get that little bit extra you need. When things don’t go according to plan, you’ll never get that tiny, extra bit you need at the end of the day.”

Chambers, therefore, selected his north pole team based on attitude and mindset to ensure that each individual would be able to deliver under the pressure of the project.

During the session, Chambers also explained how the best project innovation comes once it has been started rather than in the initial planning and scheduling stages. This is due to the fact that not all challenges can be predicted, therefore it is up to team members to think creatively when in the testing situations, and to believe that the path of least resistance is not always the best route. “How do you keep the process of improvement alive when you are under so much pressure?” Chambers said. “I tried to create a culture in my team of embracing innovation. My best learning comes as we go live, not in the planning phase. We get great ideas but when you see it actually open up and come into practice, that’s when our best ideas came.”

For Chambers, teamwork, and the successful leadership of that team, is essential. He explained this using the acronym Opera, which stands for ‘Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results Achieved’. “It’s not just embracing change, but creating your own change, hopefully for the future,” he said.