Last week I delivered a Keynote to a Global Conference in Dubai. The title was, ‘World Class Lone Rangers’. The audience was made up of highly specialised, expert engineers. These people have some pretty unique challenges. They often work in isolation; in remote parts of the world, cut off from phone or internet connections. They tend to work alone, or in very small teams. Added to that, they work in an environment that could be considered to be highly pressurised.
Their job is to fix oil rigs and the downtime costs around $1 million per day. Just a few minutes extra downtime costs thousands of dollars. They also encounter adverse conditions, uncertainty and unpredictability. Things can go wrong pretty quickly and they need to think on their feet and have plans B, C and D up their sleeve.
So what is it that makes some of these engineers great, and some good? Is it their level of expertise?
Although, technical excellence is a prerequisite for world class performance in any field, it doesn’t usually differentiate the very best in the world from the rest. To be honest, technical excellence is a given at the highest level. Normally, world class performers have other characteristics that set them apart. It is human skills that tend to differentiate the very best. When we look at the challenges that the engineers face, they are not technical challenges. Performing under ‘pressure’ and in adversity are not technical skills, they are human skills. Our success is therefore dependent on how well we manage our head space and control what happens between our ears.
During the last few years I have worked with and studied some world class performers who face very similar challenges. They too are experts in their fields and also what I would describe as, “Lone Rangers”. So, is there anything we could learn from these people? Are there habits and characteristics that we can begin to adopt in order to differentiate ourselves?
I’d like to introduce you to a few people, whose experience we can draw from.
Alison Waters was world number three squash player. Unlike other sports, such as golf, tennis or motor sports, professional squash players do not have an entourage. There are no caddies. They don’t have an army of agents, coaches, managers or support staff. In fact, it can be a pretty lonely existence, making your way on the world circuit. Performing in Egypt, against an Egyptian, in front of a partisan home crowd can be pretty daunting for some. Squash players have their bad days and disappointments. They don’t have an army of shoulders to cry on. Instead, they have to pick themselves up, deal with their set-backs and get ready for the next tournament. Squash players need to be very good at managing their head space.
Alison has also been challenged with injury, which is particularly tough when you’re self-employed. She earns income from prize money, so when we doesn’t play, she doesn’t earn. She suffered the disappointment of being injured during the Commonwealth Games, which is one of the biggest events in her career. Her three month injury actually lasted almost two years, with numerous false starts. As well as the pain of the injury, she’s battled the doubts that she may never play again. Amazingly, Alison has climbed back up the world rankings. She’s currently world number four and is fast closing on the top three.
Alison shares an important characteristic with our next ‘Lone Ranger’…
Alan Hinkes is one of only a handful of people to have summited all of the fourteen 8,000m peaks on Earth. Alan has spent a lot of time in the mountains on his own. As you can probably imagine, the peaks of mountains are harsh environments. Conditions change suddenly and it can become very dangerous very quickly.
On one occasion, Alan was caught in a blizzard at the top of Dhaulagiri which is the seventh highest peak on Earth. He was in the dark, 8500m above sea level, in ‘the Death Zone’, freezing cold, exhausted and on his own. He couldn’t see anything, because the light from his head torch just reflected back off of the driving snow. He remembered that friends of his, fellow mountain climbers, had been killed in similar conditions the previous year and he came to the conclusion that he’d be joining them. Alan was pretty convinced he was going to die up there. So what did he do? Well, like any rational person, he had a panic attack. Hyperventilating really isn’t a great strategy when you’re at the top of a mountain with little oxygen. However, in spite of the situation, Alan Hinkes managed to pull himself together, focus his energy and make his way slowly down the mountain to safety.
The characteristic that Alan and Alison display is also shared by our final ‘Lone Ranger’.
Ben Saunders is a polar explorer. He has set records for unsupported and solo expeditions to both the North and South Poles. Just like the peaks of mountains, the Polar Regions are extremely challenging environments to negotiate alone. As Ben knows all too well, things can go wrong… badly wrong. He actually described his very first expedition to the North Pole as ‘a complete failure’. In his words “We didn’t get to the pole. I got frostbite, we almost starved and we were attacked by a polar bear”. Unbelievably, Ben decided to go back and try again.
Daft as it may sound, sometimes it is actually more demanding in a small team, because the team dynamic brings an extra dimension. The truth is, human beings don’t always agree on things and we don’t always get on. If we’re tired, hungry and feeling vulnerable, sparks can fly. When we’re feeling the pressure, the human dynamic can be tested to the limit.
In preparation for an Antarctic expedition, Ben and his team trained the human dynamic more than anything else, and tested it to the limit.
So, what do these people have, which sets them apart as ‘world class’ in their field? Undoubtedly they have expertise in their field. They have acquired the knowledge and mastered the skills. However, there is more to it than that. Often those people that become world class are not the most technically competent. They obviously have a high level of proficiency, but there are other characteristics that set them apart. When I wrote How To Shine, I identified 8 characteristics of world class performers. One of these characteristics is Mental Toughness. World Class performers are mentally tough!
To find out more about Mental Toughness, download “Be Mentally Tough” (free sample chapter from How To Shine) by registering your details in front page.
To find out the three components of Mental Toughness, read “Two Lengths of the Pool”.