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I’m a trainer – get me out of here!


Being in a recession is a bit like being in a jungle – the more you look at it; the harder it is to see a way through! TV presenter Ken Hames tells Ruth Moody how expeditions have given him inspiration as a leader and a trainer.

Ken Hames has spent years in the jungle and knows that hacking away at it madly with a machete will not only make you exhausted but won’t get you very far. Testing times like these require focus, not obsession; a calm approach and a boost of morale otherwise we’ll start hearing our training and HR staff crying those inimitable words “I’m a trainer, get me out of here!”

Ken is well known for his inspirational television series Beyond Boundaries (BBC 2). In three series he has led teams of people with disability across the jungles of Nicaragua; the deserts of Namibia and the mountains of Ecuador. Ken has also presented Mission Africa (BBC 1), a Soldier’s Story (History Channel) and Jungle Janes (Channel 4). Ken is one of UK’s top motivational speakers, regularly talking to businesses about the parallels that can be drawn between the challenges that he has faced on expedition and the challenges faced in business today.

In fact, Ken's next project will see him leading a number of ‘high performance’ expeditions in 2010 for business leaders and high potential employees and draw upon his expertise as a facilitator and adventurer. “As a leader I’ve always been passionate about the importance of understanding people as individuals. From leading soldiers in war zones to leading disabled people in the jungle; I’ve been lucky enough to experience the challenges and rewards that come with leading people," says Hames.  "It’s always in extreme and trying circumstances that I’ve learnt the most, which is why I think it’s important to take people out of their comfort zones to give them this chance to learn and develop.”

"In Beyond Boundaries I took two paraplegics, one blind man, a guy with no arms and two people with Cerebral Palsy down the Zambezi Rapids. we couldn’t have done that without trust" Ken Hames
Hames identifies the roots of positive leadership in a three letter acronym – REG, which stands for Respect, Empathy and Genuineness.  “I learnt a lot about REG when I led Jungle Janes," he explains.  "This group of women had never been on an expedition before. Physically they weren’t that fit, but emotionally they were the fittest team I had ever worked with. They respected each others’ strengths and weaknesses and they knew exactly how to support one another with genuine empathy and no judgement," he adds.
Taking these lessons forward into his Beyond Boundaries series, Ken recognised that it was these softer skills that would enable a team of people with varying disabilities to achieve success. And as a leader, he was responsible for setting these behavioural expectations. “REG on its own is great but it’s even better when coupled with trust. On an expedition you often encounter dangerous situations, which force people to examine whether they trust one another. In my second series of Beyond Boundaries I took two paraplegics, one blind man, a guy with no arms and two people with Cerebral Palsy down the Zambezi Rapids. We gathered together in a circle beforehand, looked into each others’ eyes and made the decision to run the rapids – we couldn’t have done that without trust," he enthuses.

It’s interesting that in business we often hold our cards close to our chest. Without trust, people aren’t prepared to share information for fear that it might be used against them. As such they won’t have courageous conversations or give difficult feedback, which is what is needed in teams if they are to become successful. Particularly in times of economic difficulty, it’s the businesses that have a culture of trust who will continue to thrive and grow.

"If you invest in your people, they'll get you through those difficult times, with or without the latest computer software." Ruth Moody
Picking up on the point of courageous conversations, Hames goes on to add that feedback is essential to create high performance, "If people don’t know what they’re doing wrong (or right) they won’t be able to adapt and learn," he says.
It’s true that in business today we see great emphasis on feedback, but is it done at the right time and in the right way? It takes effort to give good quality, timely feedback. During his expeditions, Hames has always created forums for feedback, as he believes it has been a vital ingredient of success. “When people are tired, stressed and out of their comfort zone, tempers fray. Without the right forum for discussion this can fester or explode destructively. We created a culture where everyone was willing to give and receive feedback and it meant that we were able to deal with issues and move forward. If business leaders did the same, they’d see an immediate impact on people’s performance and morale."
One of the main challenges with being on an expedition is that physical things fail: radios break, tyres burst and food runs out, this is when moral courage and resilience play a crucial role: “It’s people that get you through difficult times. You can have all the best plans and then they fail. I forgot the tyre pump on an expedition with two wheelchair users – not my greatest moment!" he laughs. However, this does highlight an important lesson for business leaders: Things do go wrong and what we consider to be ‘business critical’ might not be. If you invest in your people, they will get you through those difficult times, with or without the latest computer software.
“Things change constantly on expedition. If people can learn to adapt in a hostile environment, they’ll be well placed to respond to changes in the business environment.”  Ken Hames
Leading a team of people with disability also highlighted some important lessons about understanding people’s function, as Hames explains: “We very quickly learnt about how we all operated. People with prosthetic limbs needed to look after their stumps; people in wheelchairs needed be careful of pressure sores. Before the expedition we didn’t know this about each other yet it was critical to our success as a team. Whenever I deliver training now I emphasise how important it is to understand the people in your team. Get to know them; find out what makes them tick; and learn about what is important to them."
There is a clear emphasis throughout all of Ken’s experiences on emotions. He believes that the only way to inspire people is to engage with them on a personal level - to give them a compelling vision full of exciting possibilities; include them in creating plans; give them responsibility and empowerment and recognise that you can’t always be the leader – being a follower is just as important. “On my first expedition I tried to carry everyone on my back (literally and metaphorically). I exhausted myself and I also stood in the way of other people stepping up to the mark. A pivotal moment for me was when one of the guys in a wheelchair got out and pulled himself up the volcano on his hands because we couldn’t take the chair any further. This showed true inspirational leadership and was the moment when I knew we would succeed," says Hames.
His expedition experiences have been fundamental to his development as a leader and he is adamant that one size does not fit all, that there is no right way to lead. He believes that leaders are born out of experiences and it is this belief that has been the inspiration for his high performance expeditions. His final point about comparing the recession to the jungle is this one: “Things change constantly on expedition – dangerous animals come over the horizon, or the weather turns. If people can learn to adapt in a hostile environment, they’ll be well placed to respond to changes in the business environment.”
So perhaps being in business is like being on expedition, which is why an expedition is such a good way to learn. And if you engage with your people; understand how they function; build trust and empower people to lead, you’re far more likely to have a successful expedition that can navigate through the difficult patches.
Find out more about Ken’s high performance expeditions here.
Ruth Moody is managing director of experiential training company Farscape Development. Ruth also blogs at and can be followed on Twitter: @FarscapeDev

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