An awfully big and useful adventure

What has sailing the high seas got to do with career development? Quite a lot, as many young executives are finding out.
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The Independent Culture
When Louise Cooper joined the telecommunications company Mercury on a graduate trainee scheme four years ago, she anticipated she would be dealing with sound waves - but not with the real, watery kind.

So she was more than slightly taken aback when she discovered in December that she had won an essay contest initiated by her new employer Cable & Wireless, and had just a week to pack her bags and seasickness pills for a month-long yachting voyage to the Antarctic with adventurer Robert Swan.

The first in a five-season series known as Mission Antarctica, it was designed by Swan for business people as an environmental awareness and team-building exercise. He sailed with five young employees from the corporate world and two experienced sailors, setting off in a 55ft yacht from Chile via Cape Horn to the chillier climes of King George Island.

Cable & Wireless (the telecoms giant comprising Bell Cablemedia, Mercury, NYNEX and Videotron) founded its own contest after Swan, an OBE and fundraiser who has trekked to both the North and South Poles, was a guest speaker at a staff conference last October.

The company is one of a growing number offering "trips of a lifetime" to motivate staff with valuable experience gained under duress. Meanwhile, at a seminar in London last week, business leaders who competed in last year's BT Global Challenge race spoke of how "high-performance behaviours" which evolved while sailing were now being applied to their work.

Cooper, 26, a marketing consultant, believes she was chosen from 150 entrants because she drew on her knowledge of working in a team in rural Africa. "I talked about the fact that in a large organisation, it's quite easy for people to feel they are not quite sure how they are contributing and fitting in."

Her niche on-board quickly became apparent when other crew members were laid low with seasickness. "My colleagues were all seasick and I was okay, so I took a leading role and I was up through the nights. We were lucky because the weather was quite good so we didn't have to change sails too much."

The lessons to be drawn may seem obvious enough, and cynics might question the need to go to the ends of the earth in search of wisdom. But Cooper, who also helped monitor the sea level for a UK oceanography company during the trip, said: "It makes you more aware of individuals' strengths and weaknesses. It helped that we had the same outlook, and I tried very hard not to go with preconceived ideas. We saw our first iceberg on Christmas Eve, and our first penguins on Christmas day. In order to experience things like this, you have got to take a little bit of risk."

She added: "One of the key things is to push yourself forward more than you think you can do. Nine out of ten times, the rewards far outweigh the discomfort. Taking calculated risks is part of what our culture is trying to develop, as people put themselves forward and get a momentum going.

"You have to be self-reliant. We had food and fuel, but we had to monitor that; we took everything with us and had to be very careful. You look at the resources you've got and how you can make the best use of them."

The only moment that she wished she was at home in a warm bed came two- thirds of the way through the trip. "I was on watch, I was freezing cold and it was snowing, and I was steering the boat having had three hours' sleep. I remember thinking 'What on earth am I doing here?'"

While large companies such as Courtaulds, Standard Life and Rover have sponsored employees, some graduates have shown themselves individually committed to character-building. Some are even willing to put their careers on hold and pay their own way (the BT race, with 14 sailors on each of 14 boats, costs participants around pounds 18,500 per berth).

Andrea Bacon, 29, now media and marketing consultant for the Centre for High Performance, sacrificed a seven-year public relations career in the City and sold her car and boat to raise funds for the BT trip.

"I'd always loved sailing. I was prepared to give up everything to go, and it was a lot of money to find," Bacon said.

Once on board, she became extremely focused. "Before, I had been very career-minded; I knew what I wanted, and I had an image of where I wanted to go in public relations. But now I have come back, I don't have that sort of structured path. I really want to get into what I am doing on a project basis."

Above all, she believes that the year-long stint gave her a valuable insight into how to get the best out of other people.

"There are things I think I do better now because I understand people more, and am more open-minded, rather than thinking my idea has got to be it. That experience is very hard to get from a textbook."