A holiday on ice

I suppose this was inevitable. 

The Guardian tells us that 67 corporate executives were taken on a tour of the Antarctic, ostensibly to develop teamwork and an environmental conscience.  The story is almost beyond parody.

 The training was led by motivational speaker Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both poles, and according to the course brochure: “the master of how you may change your life”.

The 67 participants learned about Mr Swan’s life, his 11-point leadership plan, the basic tenets of climate change and how to take good photographs in the snow. They were introduced to Hugh, an attitude adjuster, and Pete, a belief builder, who would navigate them through the emotional journey ahead.

An ‘attitude adjuster’ and a ‘belief builder’? It’s a wonder any of the participants kept straight faces.

Mr Swan held aloft a pink handbag with the word “toolbox” taped to the side – a reminder of everyone’s personal skillset – and rewarded individuals who displayed leadership qualities with plastic orange whistles.

It’s back to playgroup for our mollycoddled senior managers then.

That night the ship passed Cape Horn and sailed into Drake Passage, one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world. Thirty-six hours later, pallid faces emerged. A shrill wind battered the windows. Outside, penguins plonked in and out of the water. “Team Inspire! Team Inspire! Team Inspire!” bellowed a loudspeaker.

Noooooo! This is like an episode of The Office, only more embarrassing.

The expedition inaugurated the small hut that Mr Swan had said would “educate the world’s youth” about the continent via daily internet dispatches. It was to be powered by the latest in solar and wind technology which, unfortunately, had not arrived.

A Russian orthodox priest blessed the building, and the crowd scattered, deflated. A BP executive found a penguin waddling alongside 100 discarded oil drums bearing his company’s logo.

So is BP sending its managers on this course instead of clearing up the crap it leaves around the world or as well as? Will this course have given the aforementioned executive the courage to challenge his bosses about it, or will he just go back to his desk and keep quiet?

When they weren’t on ice, they stood on the bow and watched minke and fin whales dance in the water, compared photographs, and took part in leadership workshops. They watched two presentations about the small steps people can take to reduce their carbon emissions – for example, by travelling less……

Not going half way round the world to trample over the planet’s last remaining wilderness would be a start.

The evenings and large chunks of the day were spent in the bar, or on deck, drinking whisky and “million year old ice” hacked off an iceberg.

Hey, Giles, I’ve got prehistoric ice in my Lagavulin. You don’t get that at Corney and Barrow.

For many, the most exhilarating moment was camping on a glacier. Majestic peaks stood guard over the serenity. The campers, cheeks reddened by alcohol, made snowmen, carved pictures into the ice and hugged one another. Then they started to sing along to made-up tribal chants, howling into the wilderness. In the morning, one group played what could be the first game of cricket on an Antarctic glacier.

What a jolly wheeze, eh? Camping, cricket and ging-gang-gooley round the camp fire. It’s a bit like the Scouts and Guides on ice, isn’t it? Except for grown-ups. Sort of.

Finally, each member of the course was asked to deliver a 30 second speech. Nearly everyone said the experience had changed them. They promised to do more for climate change and said they would make sure their boss sent someone on next year’s course.

Well of course they did. That’s what people always do on these courses. The facilitators go around the room and everyone is asked to give a personal commitment to changing his or her behaviour, then they go back to their desks and carry on as before.

I’m sorry if I sound cynical but it still amazes me, although it shouldn’t after all these years, that companies will pay out such large amounts of money for courses like this. OK, I wasn’t on the course, and the Guardian may have given a negative slant on the whole thing, but I’ve been on similar programmes. If I had been there, I would probably have been one of the dissenters:

A disgruntled few complained they had not been told anything about how global warming had affected the places they had visited.

For its critics, including a few of last week’s participants, it is an indulgent booze-cruise on ice masquerading as corporate social responsibility.

Courses like this reflect a more widespread trend. Senior executive development programmes have become less about training or building skills and more about entertainment. My guess is that many of the participants on this course were sent not because their bosses had identified a development need, but as a reward for a good piece of work, or just for being a good-egg in the corporate political game. I would also guess, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong, that very few of the participants will experience any lasting behavioural change as a result of the programme.

This week, the graduates [of the course] returned to their desks. For its corporate supporters, who paid £16,000 per employee for the trip, the course instills executives with teamwork skills and, crucially, an environmental conscience.

But for how long, I wonder. Now that they are back at their desks, with the phones ringing and deadlines to meet, how much of what the executives learned in the Antarctic will gradually be forgotten amidst the demands of corporate life? Will the companies see £16,000 worth of change in their executives as a result of this course?

Typically, people come back from motivational courses on a high and full of energy. In my experience, the after effects last for less than the number of days spent on the course.  A programme lasting for a week may keep its participants on a high for most of the following week but not for much longer.  For last week’s delegates, the effects of Leadership on the Edge are probably already beginning to wear off.

Come on, guys, admit it. This was just a holiday, wasn’t it?

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8 Responses to A holiday on ice

  1. john cramer says:

    Is not a ‘holiday on ice’ rather like gardening leave.
    As a sort of punishment or as a way of getting rivals out the way.

  2. Three Mats says:

    John and Jeremy, what you ‘think’ isn’t really important. I’m commenting to ensure other readers of your comments get both sides of the story. As a member of this life changing journey, I draw your attention to the following retort by a fellow expedition member:


    I get back later from the Antarctic expedition than anyone else, after
    unsuccessfully trying to initiate a peasant revolution in Uruguay–either
    the population was too numbed and fearful of their oppressive government,
    or more likely, judging from the puzzled looks of passers by as I was
    standing on street corners with fists clenched, making inflammatory
    speeches, my Spanish wasn’t good enough to arouse the masses to throw off
    their Capitalist yokes, so I simply ended up drinking beer and people
    watching, which is the next best thing to stating a revolution.

    Anyway, the first thing I see when I arrive back home and check my email
    is a series of messages about Paul’s story that appeared in the Guardian.
    After reading the piece, I have to say, I was certainly taken aback at
    what you wrote, Paul, not in the sense that your story was negative
    (which it definitely was), but in the way that all of us were in the same
    place, yet came away with such different impressions.

    I hasten to add that I’m not appointing myself Robert’s, or 2041’s
    defender, but as someone who has written over 30 pieces for the
    Washington Post, I was surprised at the unattributed sources, lack of
    proper quotes, and inaccuracies that appeared in the story. Frankly,
    what I read (and I assume that what I read online is what actually
    appeared in print) seemed more like a “blog” or “opinion” piece than a
    serious news story, and to be fair, not having actually seen the piece in
    its print version, perhaps this was indeed an opinion piece and not in
    the hard news section. I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by parsing
    every single sentence, but several items leapt out at me;

    First, combining your standard “leadership training” in an environment
    outside the usual office setting with a dose of developing an
    “environmental conscience” may be, in fact somewhat trendy, but does that
    make it any less relevant for that? It would be nice if corporations
    were entirely altruistic and expected nothing in return for their
    investment other than a heightened sense of resolve to protect the
    environment on the part of the people they sponsor on these expeditions,
    but the fact is, companies expect attendees of such expeditions as IAE5
    to come back with “deliverables,” that can be measured in increased
    productivity and energy in the workplace after returning, hence the “pink
    toolbox,” of skillsets, etc.

    And in spite of the “fun” aspect of this trip, it really was a serious
    undertaking, and a bit more than just a “booze cruise.” The Antarctic is
    no place to have even a “minor” accident, and Tobey, Knute, and Jumper
    all did a lot of behind-the-scenes work before the first team member
    arrived in Ushuaia and during the expedition to make sure everyone was
    safe during their various adventures—OK, Tobey Webb, the steam iron
    hitting your head at the bar in Ushuaia was just cosmic bad luck, but who
    in the world saw that coming?

    Concerning the E-Base, it is a work in progress, and the reason that the
    solar panels and the other equipment hadn’t arrived is because we’re
    talking about the bottom of the planet, where you don’t simply call up
    Alf at the local hardware store and have him come by with his lorry and
    drop off needed supplies–one missed connection, one holdup in Customs,
    and you’ve just added a year to the arrival of a needed component. For
    any project in the Antarctic, you have to factor in additional years to
    any schedule–this “small hut” you saw was the result of over five years
    of planning, shipping, and constructing, and it was no surprise, to me at
    least, that the building wasn’t fully operational–I was impressed that
    it was simply standing, after having helped offload the components of the
    building from the ship to shore last year. I don’t think that anyone was
    expecting the E-Base to be ablaze with lights like Las Vegas, with banks
    of humming computer terminals, merrily composting toilets, and solar
    coffee makers chugging away.

    I did find one part of the “pre-opening” of the E-Base quite droll, and
    that was when the Russian Orthodox priest blessed the building. I don’t
    speak Russian, but judging from the lightning-fast blessing he gave
    before crossing himself and hurriedly departing, I’m suspecting he was
    actually saying, “OK, OK, consider this building blessed, now all of you
    get the hell off my damn flyspeck island so I can get back to drinking
    vodka and brooding.” And here is where subjectivity comes into play;
    you and I were at the exact same place, and where you saw “the crowd
    scattered, deflated,” I saw people wandering off in what seemed to be
    good spirits, exploring glaciers, visiting the Chinese Antarctic base,
    etc, and in particular, I recall Marelize cheerfully spending hours
    busting her ass (sorry, American slang) making sure everyone had hot

    Keeping in mind that I’m by nature a dour cynical person who, when asked
    if a glass is half full or half empty, I would normally answer, “It’s a
    glass with some water in it, so what?” I honestly don’t recall dejected
    team members gloomily wandering a shattered desolate moonscape, and my
    “takeaways” from the day were the memory of Marelize hustling about,
    supplying everyone with beverages, and a photo I took of Jessica Captain,
    the young American student, standing on the same beach that we all saw on
    the shipboard documentary video, that years ago had been a wasteland of
    construction debris, broken generators, discarded vehicles, etc, which
    was now a clean beach again, thanks to the efforts of people who rolled
    up their sleeves and did something, a small step at a time, to resolve a

    Now, getting to those pesky oil drums you mentioned. Perhaps this
    reflects the difference between the style of the Guardian and the
    Washington Post, but my editor would ask me to verify that every single
    can actually said “BP,” before I wrote such a sentence in a story.
    Agreed, there were approximately 100 discarded oil drums scattered around
    the vast oil tanks on the beach at Bellinghausen, but there were only six
    that actually bore the “BP” logo, and I have the photographs to prove
    it–the rest of the drums were from several other companies, and all the
    drums looked decades old. I’m no toady to BP, but to state that a BP
    executive “found a penguin waddling alongside 100 discarded oil drums
    bearing his company’s logo,” although picturesque (you could have added,
    “waddling sadly,” or even, “struggling to survive, coated with BP bunker
    fuel,” for even more pathos), was pretty facile, and implies that
    Bellinghausen was some sort of Elephant’s Graveyard of BP debris.

    In the next sentence, Robert miraculously appears on the scene, saying
    that the “drums would be cleared,” as if this were some embarrassing
    tableux that he didn’t want anyone to witness. I can assure you that
    Robert was royally enraged at the littering that was taking place there,
    especially after the years of effort he and others spent to clean up the
    area around Bellinghausen, but since there were several likely
    trash-dumping culprits amongst the various nations that maintain bases in
    Bellinghausen, it’s going to be difficult to get that particular
    situation easily resolved.

    And I suspect that your editor must have excised a sentence or two in
    this paragraph, since I’m not quite sure how Robert went from explaining
    away the oil drums to reassuring the group that the E-Base was a “piece
    of history” to tapping a map of Antarctica to remind us why we were
    there–are we back on the boat at this point?

    Since we’re back on the boat, “the evenings and large chunks of the day
    were spent in the bar, or on deck, drinking whiskey and million year old
    ice.” There was indeed some whiskey consumed at nighttime, but I don’t
    recall substantial drinking going on during the daytime; if there was any
    whiskey consumed during the day, it had to have been brought by team
    members, as the bar was actually closed during the day–perhaps I just
    wasn’t in the right place–Hello, I was in cabin 207–my phone
    worked…why didn’t someone tell me about all this drinking going on??

    Partying on the Ice…. I wasn’t actually on the ice for the camping
    trip, having returned to the ship that evening, but using the Guardian
    style of simply using unattributed sources when needed, Paul, I’ve been
    informed that you weren’t exactly huddling in a lofty mountain snow cave
    like Moses or Solzhenitsyn, glowering at the “red cheeked” revelry and
    howling taking place below you, but you were actually part of the party,
    breaking it down on the Antarctic ice along with everyone else. Maybe
    this is some new sort of “participatory journalism” endorsed by the
    Guardian (and Rolling Stone), but the Post would have had me insert a
    disclaimer in a piece, wherein I mention that I was fully involved in the
    goings on, and not reporting from some Apollonian remove.

    And here’s a newsflash…Partying on the ice follows a rich tradition;
    Scott and his men actually held shipboard parties in which–stop the
    presses!–the men consumed alcohol and even donned women’s clothes! And
    rugby and soccer were played on the ice by Shackleton’s crew–just think
    what the Guardian could have done with this news.

    To a certain extent though, I do agree with you, Paul; to me playing
    one-legged sumo, or whatever, on an Antarctic snowfield does smack of
    playing Hackysack in a cathedral, and if I had my way, for just one day
    and night, I’d confiscate every damn ipod, Blackberry, digital camera,
    and laptop on the ship, I’d have issued survival gear, and would have had
    everyone camped alone on the ice, separated by 500 yards from the next
    person, so they would really appreciate the harsh splendor of the
    Antarctic without the benefit (or filter) of modern technology, but I
    don’t think that would have been greeted with much enthusiasm by sponsors
    or team members.

    I have other issues as well….where are the people who work in the
    bottling plant floor? Where are members of the support staff for these
    large companies who have their leaders on the ship? You can’t have a
    team consisting of just leaders. And there should have been more
    educators aboard, but until corporations loosen up their pursestrings a
    bit further, and perhaps, team up one executive with one teacher, the
    number of teachers and students will always trail the number of
    executives on the ship. But still, I think the goals of the expedition,
    by and large, were delivered as promised.

    So, there it is. The last tribal chant has faded away and we’ve all
    returned to our normal lives. Perhaps to some the IAE5 Expedition was
    indeed, an “indulgent booze cruise,” but to many others I think the trip
    opened up new vistas, and if nothing else–aside from perhaps having a
    few new tools in that pink toolbox–an appreciation of the beauty (and
    fragility) of the Antarctic was gained firsthand, which to me at least,
    made the trip worthwhile.

    Just my two cents…

  3. Rick says:

    Three Mats, I appreciate that the Guardian may have put their own spin on this story but:

    Have you changed anything you do either at work or outside as a result of the programme?

    If so, is the change in you worth £16,000?

    And couldn’t all this awareness, both of self and the environment, have been achieved without tramping over a fragile wilderness?

  4. Betty says:

    I’d like to drop some words. Cool site, thank you for this! diana zubiri

  5. James says:

    Nice design. Please add more smiles to your guestbook stacey keibler

  6. Pingback: De-motivation « Flip Chart Fairy Tales

  7. Jess says:

    This is all so true. Robert Swan’s ‘Leadership’ expeditions are quite humorous. 20k for nothing except padding his pockets. Go with a standard cruise for a quarter of the price and get more out of it instead of being prammed around like an infant.

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