Q&A with North Pole adventurer and author Sue Stockdale
Sue Stockdale is a polar adventurer, athlete, author and motivational speaker. She was the first British woman to ski to the Magnetic North Pole and now coaches business leaders and helps support organisations to grow globally using the lessons learned from these adventures. We speak to Sue about what she’s learned from her experiences as an athlete and in the North Pole, why she decided to leave her corporate job for expeditions and what her adventures can teach business leaders about navigating uncertain environments.
Can you tell me about your journey and story?
It began in the world of business. My career began in the corporate world teaching those in the organisation about how to be effective leaders. I learned a lot about this from the expeditions I did, because if you aren’t an effective leader on those expeditions, it can mean that one of your teammates ends up dead.
For one of these expeditions, we went to the Magnetic North Pole, which was something I never knew was possible because I grew up in Scotland and hadn’t been more north than Aberdeen — I didn’t really even know what the Arctic was like.
Standing there on the magnetic North Pole I thought: “Wow, I never imagined anything like this could be possible!” And I wondered if my story or experience could help other people get to their equivalent of the North Pole.
Why did you decide to leave the corporate world and start doing expeditions?
I can thank Enid Blyton for this. When I was a youngster, I loved reading The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, and these were all about adventures. Somehow this embedded in me a love for adventure and curiosity. You can have this in the corporate world too, but at the time this opportunity of travelling to the North Pole came about, I felt it was too good to miss.
I didn’t expect I was going to leave the corporate world, and as it happens I still have a foot in the corporate world having been engaged with leaders of the world’s top companies, I’m just not employed there on a full time basis. But a lot can be drawn from the adventures I have experienced in my life and what business leaders experience navigating through the highly uncertain business environment they operate in today.
What were some of the greatest lessons you learned in those hostile environments that you think would be useful to business leaders?
Number one is about clarity of focus. These days, leaders are bombarded with distraction and yet they have ambitious goals. There’s a lot of data that suggests that it’s very easy for a business leader to lose focus, and if a leader loses focus, it often means that their whole team will lose focus and get distracted. Sometimes there are too many goals or competing objectives. A leader needs to have a clear end point, so everyone knows what they are aiming for.
Number two is identifying the things that stop you individually and stop you from reaching your goal. Beyond the external factors, there are the things in your own mind that stop you from achieving. Being able to step back and understand what’s going on in your head will really help you as a business leader, so you know what is helping or hindering you.
You must have dealt with a lot of adversity in the North Pole. How can business leaders prepare for the adversity from a global economic crisis?
There are so many unknowns involved with being a business leader and actually we don’t know that there is going to be a recession, we are just making that assumption. But most of us cannot control whether something like this happens or not, but we can control what our reaction to it is. So I think it’s really important for a business person to understand their strengths and weaknesses — this means getting clear about what your unique selling point is, for example.
This also includes understanding who your customers are, and within your business, understanding the strengths of your team and enabling your team to utilise these strengths. How can your team members value and leverage each other’s strengths?
Trust seems like a crucial aspect of bonding a team. How can business leaders cultivate trust within their team?
It comes down to a willingness to be vulnerable. If you think about it, when you’re in an environment that doesn’t always feel safe, a leader being vulnerable helps the team feel safe and then choose to be vulnerable themselves. This helps a team to realise that they won’t be judged or removed from the team because they’re not valued.
Vulnerability is not the same as weakness, it’s worth understanding the difference between these words. Weakness is where we don’t feel emotionally in control. Whereas vulnerability is a willingness to say: “I don’t know” and then endeavouring to find out the answer to the question.
How important is it for business leaders to push themselves out of their comfort zone?
If a business leader isn’t pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, then the world will push them because the world is constantly changing. This can be in simple but not easy ways. It could be just having a conversation they are avoiding and working out what might make that conversation easier to have or framing it in a new way. For example, you can think about how it will benefit the team and overall organisation.
What were the lessons you learned from being an athlete that helped you in the rest of your life?
I never asked myself: “Will I train today?” I asked myself: “What will I do for training today?” So I already had an in-built assumption that I was going to go and train. We can apply this in the business world also — commitment to action is really important.
I also learned to never give up. Even though I was running in a session and feeling mentally and physically exhausted, I would never allow myself to step off the track. I would tell myself that I wasn’t going to be as fast but I learned how to have a willingness to continue when things got tough.
Finally, I learned about winning and losing. Isn’t this something we have to accept in life? That we aren’t always going to be successful in everything we do? We can learn as much from losing as we can from winning.
Discipline must have been a big aspect of that. How can business leaders cultivate discipline into their lives?
Little and often. It took us 350 miles to ski to the North Pole. If I had imagined that as the goal, it would have blown my mind. The key was to break it down into small steps and just keep going and trusting that you will get there. The same applies to leaders in the workplace. It’s about having the discipline to commit to small steps and knowing that those eventually add up to achieving your overall business objectives — or not! Either way you will learn from the experience.
You were the first British female to ski the Magnetic North Pole. What instilled the motivation in you to do something that had never been done before?
There’s something to be said for blind naivety — haha! I never set out on the expedition to be the first, I set out on it so I would know what it would be like to be in the cold. It was only when I started to fundraise for the expedition and sponsors started to ask if I would be the first to do it that I realised I would be the first woman to have skied the North Pole.
That being said, I learned as much from the men on the trip as I did the only other woman on the expedition. I do think we can learn from anyone in terms of the qualities they bring to the endeavour they are working on. I always encourage business leaders to look at role models from all environments and not just their own. Role models can be found in unexpected places. It’s looking for the value in those unalike us too that’s important.