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Adventures in Finance: Planning Tips From a Polar Explorer (Part 1)

Polar explorer Ben Saunders pulls sled on the ice

Despite the high stakes and burning need to act fast, business is a marathon, not a sprint. And while some elements of competition require getting there first, much of the time, success comes down to beating a personal best and continually improving. Sometimes, it simply means staying alive when others have perished. Today, companies need to adapt to change and be agile enough to weather unforeseen circumstances. The key to survival? Insightful planning.

No one understands the value of planning more than Ben Saunders, a U.K.-based endurance athlete and polar explorer whose job—and life—depends on the planning cycle. Since 2001, Ben has logged a record-breaking 3,730 miles—nearly 142 marathons—on skis trekking across the polar regions. Recently, Guinness World Records recognized his biggest achievement yet: completing Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition with teammate Tarka L’Herpiniere on Feb. 7, 2014. Previously attempted in 1912 by Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, Ben and Tarka walked from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again in 105 days—while pulling sleds full of gear and food weighing 440 pounds each. It is the longest-ever human-powered polar expedition. And because of the harsh environment and remote location, planning was the most critical phase of the journey.


Ben Saunders, polar explorer

Ben Saunders secured sponsorship from Land Rover and other corporations as part of planning for his expedition to the South Pole.

While FP&A professionals navigate their own journey in finance—planning, forecasting, and analyzing data on a quest for insights to support decision-making and drive superior corporate performance—Ben spends his time meticulously planning for journeys of unparalleled extremes. We recently announced Ben as the keynote speaker for our annual Adaptive Live user conference, so we decided to call and ask: What can a polar explorer teach finance leaders and FP&A teams?

Based on our conversation, we offer these 10 tips for your finance organization—and a little backstory on Ben.


1. Chart your course before you set off on your journey

Goals and objectives provide a north star for corporate teams, but the planning cycle should also pave a path for growth and new opportunities. Sometimes a physical destination is the goal—but you oftentimes can’t get there without meticulous planning.

In Ben’s words: We genuinely raised the bar in a field I’m passionate about by a considerable margin. But that was only the result of a plan that went back 12 years and a number of expeditions that were stepping stones set to take me and the team a little bit closer to completing our goal each time. So what sounds like a relatively simple trip—two guys just walking a long way—there are actually years and years of planning and strategic thinking that went into that.I had to be able to convince all of the key stakeholders—particularly the corporate sponsors—that this was viable, that this was safe, that the team and I had sufficient experience and a strong enough track record to actually take on this goal. So planning was the hardest part in some ways—and the part that goes back years and years.


2. Collaboration is crucial to success

Whether that means working closely with business partners on the budget or radioing home base to check in, working together is critical to achieving a shared goal. In fact, 70% of CFOs cite collaboration as a key initiative for 2016.

In Ben’s words: Even though Tarka and I had been friends and acquaintances for more than a decade, in another way we were contemporaries in the same field—and that made us almost competitors. To come together like we did and to collaborate toward this shared goal—not only a shared goal, but a massive goal—was a really interesting experience. I can say, hand on heart, that I could not have achieved what we did if it was just me on my own.A lot of it comes down to communication. We both knew from previous expeditions that there was enormous potential—if we weren’t careful—for the smallest things to become really big issues very quickly in terms of the dynamic of the team. Also, there was a huge degree of mutual trust. We both had a lot of experience in that niche, so there was a lot of mutual respect for the wisdom and experience that we each brought to this thing. So that was an important part of it as well: being able to trust your colleague with an awful lot.


3. Continually hone your communication skills

Open communication is critical for successful teamwork, and that applies both in the boardroom and the bitter cold ends of the Earth. Poor collaboration and interpersonal skills will be one of the greatest challenges with building finance teams for 2020, according to 34% of global CFOs.

In Ben’s words: The way you communicate is vital. Luckily we did some brilliant work with a psychologist and came up with a really cool system. I had a daily phone call with my support team: Before we had any kind of conversation, we’d go through a series of 12 to 14 questions. Each one was answered by a number, scored from zero to 10, and the first question was: Do you feel under pressure? If so, how well are you coping? It was brilliant because it completely diffused being a man and being an English man—I’m not going to suddenly open up and tell you how I’m really doing. It was really clever. It kind of codified it; it took out any kind of ego and just made it numbers. It was such a great way of enabling me to so accurately and honestly communicate with the support team that I was reliant on.If you’re not careful, the smallest things can lead to enormous friction. Tarka and I were aware of this; therefore, we had a strategy of being very frank, very open, and very honest with each other if things weren’t right. If there was something we could be doing better as a team, then we had this mutual agreement that it was OK to be really blunt about it with the understanding we were both working toward the same goal. If we were saying something challenging, the other person had to be able to accept that and take it on board without springing to defense—with the knowledge that the other person is saying it not because they’re a nasty person, but because they want this thing to succeed.


4. Clearly establish decision-making authority

Lack of clarity on decision-making authority is a key challenge in collaboration, according to 55% of CFOs who responded to the Adaptive Insights CFO Indicator Q4 2015 report.

In Ben’s words: One of the things we’ve had to figure out is, ultimately, who’s in charge—who’s the decision-maker. In Antarctica we had about eight people in the background—based mostly in the U.K., working full-time on this project—but it was just two of us on the ice. But ultimately, how do you make a decision? If something’s going wrong, or something’s challenging you, or something unexpected happens, who does the buck stop with? Tarka and I had to map that out first of all. Who’s actually in charge when you’re both used to leading? When you’re both relatively self-reliant, it’s nice to have faith that the other person can hold their own. But what you don’t want is a fear that the other person is going to be so much stronger than you. It’s a really difficult balancing act. So much comes down to communication again. We agreed before we started that I was the overall leader of the expedition—it had been my idea and I had secured the sponsorship, after all. But we agreed Tarka would assume operational leadership for two distinct sections of the journey—ascending and descending the Beardmore Glacier, one of the largest, most remote and most dangerous glaciers in the world. He had more specific technical expertise on that type of terrain, so I handed the decision-making and the navigational responsibility to him for those two sections.


5. Be prepared for the unknown and run what-if scenarios

With the volatility of today’s markets and an uncertain economic climate, there are many factors outside finance’s control. That’s why it’s critical to leverage data and information to model potential scenarios and make informed decisions.

In Ben’s words: I’ve been leading expeditions professionally for 15 years now. They’re clearly projects and undertakings that aren’t without a degree of risk. I do these things operationally in a pretty challenging, pretty hostile, pretty remote environment. There’s an enormous amount of contingency planning that goes into what I do. We try and plan for multiple scenarios that might occur while we’re on the ice, looking at everything from potential injury to equipment failure. Interestingly, we walked away from quite a big deal with Discovery Channel on my last expedition because I realized about year into it, we were completely at loggerheads. They were looking for drama—and the one thing we were trying to avoid and plan out of this thing was drama.The reality is, for me, the stakes could be high. This isn’t just about return to shareholders or bottom line—it’s about putting everything on the line to achieve the things I want to do. As for me, the No. 1 goal with each expedition—and this sounds like a cliché, but it’s true—is getting home in one piece. Anything beyond that is a bonus. But genuinely, staying alive and coming home in one piece is always the No. 1 objective—and it’s the No. 1 thing we plan for.

Want to learn about tips 6 – 10? Check out part two of Adventures in Finance: 5 More FP&A Tips From a Polar Explorer.

Adaptive Live annual user conference - Journey to Insights,
To learn more FP&A tips and hear Ben Saunders give his exciting keynote,
“Journey to the Arctic: A Story of Fulfilling Boundless Potential,” join us at the annual Adaptive Live user conference April 25-29 in San Jose, CA. Get your tickets now.


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