Nick Smith’s interview with explorer and environmental scientist Tim Jarvis, as featured in current edition of E&T magazine

Words with the environmental explorer

As an explorer he’s walked from pole to pole. As an environmental engineer he’s worked on sustainability projects the world over. As a motivational speaker he sets new goals for tomorrow’s management and gives the odd talk about cannibalism. Nick Smith hears Tim Jarvis’s story…

‘Environmental engineering is exploratory by its very nature’ says Tim Jarvis, whose CV says he’s an environmental engineer and explorer. ‘Both disciplines are in some ways looking for solutions to energy and sustainability issues. During the course of my journeys I’m taking water and soil samples, documenting what I see in articles, books and films. It’s the photographic evidence that has the greatest impact of all.’

Jarvis is also a motivational speaker on the corporate circuit, where demand for what he’s learned in the field has never been higher. ‘Ironically, I find that I use my expeditions more than the engineering degrees when it comes to communicating environmental or management messages. This is because expeditions to the Polar Regions throw up so many lessons relevant to the business world.’

Jarvis was for some time best known for his Antarctic expedition a decade ago. This propelled him into the record books with the fastest journey to the Geographic South Pole and the longest unsupported Antarctica journey in history. He is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute’ a book that recounts his expeditions to the North and South Pole as well as the crossing of several Australian deserts. More recently he recreated the Antarctic journey of Douglas Mawson, the subject of a TV documentary and a best selling book entitled ‘Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica.’

He is currently serving under Yale’s World Fellows Program for 2009 that aims to broaden and strengthen the leadership skills of emerging leaders as they work on progressing thinking on global issues and challenges. Jarvis has co-written a course for the Open University on environmental management. The course will be linked in with the BBC’s Frozen Planet series due to be broadcast in 2011. If that weren’t enough, his immediate plans include the recreation of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Boy’s Own’ voyage of heroism from Elephant Island to South Georgia in replica of the original open whaler, the James Caird.

As an environmental scientist Tim Jarvis is used to cold places. An Associate Director at engineering and environmental professional services firm URS Corporation Jarvis says he’s ‘committed to finding pragmatic solutions to global environmental sustainability issues.’

E&T: Describe a typical geo-engineering project you’ve worked on recently…

Tim Jarvis: Last year I was project manager and technical peer reviewer of Environmental/Social Impact Assessments for a number of large open cast iron ore mines in Sweden and Finland. These were situated in sensitive locations adjacent to human populations and sensitive river and wetland environments. I was responsible for developing various extraction, waste disposal and rehabilitation options.

E&T: Typically what sort of training and lecturing do you do…

TJ: I normally speak about the lessons I have learnt related to problem solving, teamwork, change management and goal setting with perhaps a little bit of cannibalism thrown in. After a decade of polar travel, and almost twice that long working as an environmental scientist, I also talk about topics related to human-induced environmental change and how industrial and domestic consumers can reduce our environmental impacts. I also look at the associated opportunities and costs, how to manage change in our personal lives, as well as at a corporate level.

E&T: How do you think that your role as explorer helps cast light on this?

TJ: I provide first-hand information on the fascinating regions in which I have travelled and worked, with expedition analogies offering insights into the parallels in the business world.  I think my expeditions provide motivation for those looking to embark on the process of achieving their personal and professional goals, set against a topical background of polar ice cap melt and an ever more interconnected world.

E&T: As an engineer and an explorer, are there any conflicts of interest?

TJ: No. The expeditions I do involve going to remote places of high environmental and wilderness value. This gives me the chance to highlight their value in the books, films and articles produced. This allows me to draw to the wider public’s attention any environmental change I observe in the regions I visit.

E&T: Do you feel that expeditions are in some ways businesses in microcosm?

TJ: The whole process of planning expeditions is an exercise in business planning: determining an original concept and an understanding of whether a niche exists for it in the marketplace; what level of support there might be for it; taking it through to marketing, planning, risk assessing and costing all aspects. These are all parts of the process of project management.

Expeditions can demonstrate and highlight areas of business execution, including problem solving, teamwork and so on. Typically, the talks I deliver focus on the parallels that exist between extreme expeditions and running a business.

E&T: Who was Douglas Mawson and why did you recreate his sledging epic?

TJ: Douglas Mawson was a scientist, geologist, explorer and industrialist. He accompanied Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, when he famously trekked to the South Magnetic Pole. I retraced Mawson’s subsequent journey – his famous survival journey of 1912/13 in which two of his colleagues died. The modern expedition used the same clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson to allow us to test various theories about what had happened. At the time many believed that Mawson had been forced into cannibalism in order to survive.

E&T: What conclusions did you draw that are transferrable to business/engineering?

TJ: I learnt a lot about how difficult it is to conduct al forms of business the old way. But I learned to make the best with what I have – old, often unreliable gear and starvation rations – and work towards more manageable goals when bigger, more optimistic goals are not possible. I planned and risk managed accordingly to cope with these eventualities. Operating with limited resources has good parallels with the corporate world in that business often has to make do with budgetary and resource constraints and plan accordingly (although often fails to do this).

E&T: The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is almost a century behind us now. Why do we keep going back to it – and in particular Shackleton – for our leadership lessons?

TJ: Shackleton had many characteristics that made him a phenomenal leader –charisma, fund-raising ability and general empathy with people. He was brilliant at managing change, and ensuring that his team really worked as a team. In terms of everyone pulling together, he was very inclusive, being careful not to isolate anyone and was prepared to muck-in with the men. He also broke down the very real class divides that existed amongst his men.

E&T: What do you think was his key leadership characteristic?

TJ: Shackleton’s ability to change direction was a key strength too. Once the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen Shackleton saw that he must switch his goal to crossing the whole of Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His esteem, reputation and legacy were all wrapped up in this one trip. But then with the sinking of his ship Endurance he was forced to re-evaluate his goals once more and, despite his desperate disappointment he pursued the new goal of getting his entire crew home safely with the same dedication and determination (see box ‘recreating the voyage of the James Caird’).

This showed tremendous presence of mind and a great leader who not only recognised the original goal is no longer achievable, but is prepared to act unequivocally on the new goal. This is a valid message for the changed world in which we find ourselves post-credit crunch, where financial plans of a year ago are no longer viable and we need to re-set goals and pursue them with the same vigour as the now unachievable goals of a year ago.

In Shackleton’s footsteps – recreating the voyage of the James Caird

Explorer Tim Jarvis uses his expeditions to communicate positive leadership and self-development messages. His next major expedition will be an attempt to retrace Ernest Shackleton’s journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. This is often cited as one of the greatest rescue missions in the history of exploration: Shackleton, with a handful of men set forth in a plucky little open top whaler of just 23ft traversing 800 miles of the most hostile seas in the world.

As a result of Shackleton’s leadership the mission was a success, and to this day the great man’s leadership style is still central to curricula at many business schools. Whether it be looking at environmental issues such as climate change, or the state of disarray in the credit markets, Shackleton’s message of individuals putting differences aside and working to their strengths to collectively overcome seemingly insurmountable problems has real resonance.

The expedition will start from the Antarctic Peninsula, where much of Antarctica’s ice cap melt has occurred, several hundred kilometres from the infamous Larsen B Ice Shelf. The expedition aims to document the status of Antarctic ice with Jarvis in his role as environmental scientist.

Jarvis takes up the story: ‘In terms of the relevance of exploration, I think we need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it. This is because mankind relies upon adventurous souls taking a few risks to progress. This human spirit of adventure lies at the heart of artistic expression, advances in science, medicine or politics, or any other sphere you care to mention.’

To this day no one has been able to replicate Shackleton’s ‘double’ – sailing a replica boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia and then climbing over the mountains to Grytviken in the way he did. In 2011, Jarvis will attempt this, under the patronage of The Hon Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter and closest living relative of Sir Ernest, in an expedition that has been dubbed the Shackleton Epic Expedition. A documentary film and book will be made about the expedition. ‘I want to do it honour Shackleton’s legacy, and because I want to see if a modern team can accomplish such a feat in the modern era.’

The expedition will set sail from Elephant Island at the end of the austral summer 2011 in a replica of the James Caird and, in an attempt to relive Shackleton’s experience, will use only technology, food and equipment that he would have had available in 1916.

Shackleton Epic Expedition appeal for sponsorship

The Shackleton Epic Expedition is seeking sponsorship support from both corporate sponsors and individuals to assist with funding the expedition. A breakdown of expedition costs and opportunities associated with sponsorship can be obtained by contacting Tim Jarvis (via http://www.timjarvis.org). Opportunities include wide international media exposure, and presentations to staff and clients of sponsoring organisations. Costs relate mainly to logistical support, clothing and equipment, the construction of the replica James Caird boat, and transport of the expedition team.

To find out more about the Shackleton Epic Expedition visit http://www.timjarvis.org

To find out more about URS Corporation visit http://www.urscorp.com/

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