An audacious goal leaves no room for quitting

Helena Pozniak talks to Rona Cant about challenges she’s endured and the lessons they taught her

There are times you can stray too far from your comfort zone. For Rona Cant, former housewife and single mother, it was the moment two yachts collided off the New Zealand coast, almost wrecking her round-the-world sailing challenge. “I heard our skipper shout ‘brace yourself’. I thought I was going to die. We had a horrendous crash.”

Doubting her resolve to continue, Cant called her family – her children and sister told her to get back onboard and carry on. “It’s what I needed to hear,” says Cant, who draws on a host of expeditions and adventures to give motivational talks and courses. “We all feel flimsy at times. It takes guts to ask for help. Everybody needs support from people who will tell them things they need to hear, but don’t want to hear.”

Cant’s ability to connect with business audiences stems from her remarkable transformation from stay-at-home mother to roving adventurer, with dog-sledding in the Norwegian arctic and ocean racing challenges under her belt. Businesses will already be familiar with her messages; the value of honest and open communication, motivation and teamwork, but her strength lies in the fact she has truly “been there”.

“She’s utterly inspirational,” says Daniel Ganly, MBA director at Oxford Brookes University, where Cant regularly gives talks to students embarking on their courses. “She’s far more effective than someone high-profile or daunting. She looks like your sister or mother, and yet she has achieved remarkable things. She tells people if she can do it, anyone can.”

Cant’s spur to a new life came after divorcing her husband. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to reach my potential in this marriage’.” A former executive PA, she took time out to bring up her children before starting a successful home furnishings design business. After moving to Oxford with her children, she studied for an English literature and geography degree, having left school with five O-levels.

Her first whiff of adventure came when won a place on the BT Global Challenge – with only a month of sailing experience and a fear of water. This event pits 12 identical yachts, crewed by one professional and 17 amateurs, in a race the “wrong” way around the world. In fact, Cant draws her many lessons from getting things wrong. From cordon bleu cookery and girl guiding to dog-sledding in temperatures touching minus 30C, Cant has yet to duck a challenge and has learnt the hard way. “You discover more by trying and making mistakes.”

During the 10-month race, Cant witnessed some crew members suffer gruesome injuries, endured weeks without washing, damp, cold clothes and survived on snatches of sleep. Inevitably friction developed among the crew during the weeks spent cheek by jowl in tense conditions.

The lessons she’s drawn from the race have stayed with her. “We were petrified before we went around Cape Horn,” she says. This wasn’t addressed and we stopped communicating just as we faced the most treacherous waters on the planet.” It was Cant who confronted tricky relationships that developed by the time the crew reached Wellington in New Zealand. “I stuck my hand up and said ‘we’ve got a problem here’.” An external mediator came in and bashed out festering problems.

“Getting relationships right is basic and essential, whether it’s personally or professionally. We were in identical boats – it was how we related to each other and the choices we took that made a difference.”

With her yacht coming in towards the end of the fleet, Cant and the crew began to examine what it was the winning skipper was getting right. “After all, we were identical boats.”

Viewed in one chunk, each leg of the race, covering thousands of miles, appears daunting. But break it down into smaller chunks – by individual weather systems for example – and the crew become more motivated.

Celebrating smaller milestones boosted morale and the team performed better. On the winning boat, the skipper had read the CVs of his crew members and capitalised upon their skills and interests. Cant’s crew used the same method to assemble a support group for the skipper when making tactical decisions. And so an inexperienced sailor, but knowledgeable weather expert, began to have a say in the racing tactics.

“The next leg, we improved to arrive in fifth position – that was a high point. Getting the right management group around you is crucial. Managers often don’t recognise or use their staff to their full potential. ”Businesses often don’t make enough use of people’s talents, says Cant. “At lower levels, there’s so much in the way of untapped abilities that aren’t recognised at work. A good manager could really benefit from them.”

Cant’s ocean racing days also taught her to keep an eye on who’s behind you as well as those up ahead – she witnessed one yacht lose its lead by minutes after being ahead for thousands of miles. “These are yachts I’m talking about, but they could be banks or supermarkets – it’s about teamwork and communication. You need 360 degree vision and don’t take your foot off the pedal.”

Since her 600km dog-sledding expedition in 2004 across frozen wilderness to the most northern tip of Europe, she doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “When it’s minus 30C and your only hope of survival is to keep going until you can pitch your tent, you focus.” So, set yourself an audacious goal, advises Cant, who has tackled six sizeable physical challenges and set up training courses within the Arctic Circle. “If your goal is big enough, you won’t lose sight of it.”

Streamline your activities and concentrate on being productive rather than busy.

“If someone is forever saying ‘I want to’, I have to ask, why aren’t you doing it?”

Rona Cant’s “Snow, Sleds and Silence” will be published later this year, www.ronacant.com

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