The Mark Beaumont interview
Can you get around planet earth (on a bike) in less than 80 days? This was Mark Beaumont’s opening question when he spoke at our Partner’s conference in November. Mark is an athlete, broadcaster and ambassador delivering inspirational presentations on his achievements as an athlete and his world record breaking quest to cycle 18,039 miles around the world in under 80 days! We spoke to Mark about how the learning from his ultra-endurance sporting adventures can apply to the business word.
Anderson Strathern: Thanks for coming along to speak to our Partners Mark, your story is an amazing one and very inspirational for us all. What are the top three takeaways from your experiences for professional service businesses?
Mark: By doing the same things you are rarely going to end up with a different result. It’s all about looking how you can do things differently and careful planning to stay focused on a set of goals. Ensuring the team are fully behind you and know where they fit into the plan is also essential.
Anderson Strathern: What do you recommend we take with us if we want to cycle round the world, we can’t promise we’d do it in 80 days, but are there essential items to make us go faster?
Mark: When other athletes come to me to ask for advice on how to cycle round the world it is usually focused around the practical elements; bikes, equipment, routes. I ask them instead, what’s their plan? What are their targets? A lot of it is about figuring out what your goals should be, what you need to be doing every day. Also, no one is strong enough to hit their personal best long term, every time. Planning methodology has produced results for me and my team over the years, from the bigger picture stuff, right down to the detail - how long a tyre change takes. You have to have pretty good script to read off.
Anderson Strathern: You led a whole team around the world in under 80 days, that must have taken some amount of leadership skills and teamwork, what can we learn from your approach?
Mark: I learnt a lot from completing some of the amazing team challenges I’ve done to prepare for cycling around the world; climbing some of the world’s highest peaks, taking boats through the high Arctic, (you can watch this in my BBC documentary called Rowing the Arctic). This put me into situations that I would not have put myself into. With ambitious team dynamics, it doesn’t matter how good you are, your behaviour and communication changes when you are out of your comfort zone. Being part of a team, not necessarily always the leader, gives you perspective. Why you would care about achieving a goal is not the same reason as why other people would care. You’ve got to be able to step back and see this perspective, especially when under pressure, to get the best out of people and to shape the best team.
Anderson Strathern: You mentioned several crashes and setbacks in achieving your round the word in 80 days goal. How did you prepare for coping under significant stress when things went wrong?
Mark: Again, I drew from my other extreme experiences, trying to smash the mid Atlantic sailing record and sleeping in 90 min stints, on day 28, 5 days from the finish we capsized! We had a 14 hour wait to be rescued! We’d all done the prep for this, we knew how to cope. When it happened and we were on the life raft, we had a rational conversation about recovering the equipment, from under an upturned boat, we needed to send out a rescue signal. Situations like this clarified who could cope best in a crisis! I’d say it’s all down to the planning and having a contingency in place, as well as having the mind-set to continue!
Perhaps this is too much of an extreme example for the business world, but there are a few parallels that we could take away. We did get rescued by a Taiwanese cargo vessel in the end, this experience was a huge turning point for me. I realised in planning, fundamentally who you choose in the team and what to look for is very important for enabling the group to cope in a crisis.
Anderson Strathern: You talked a lot about the importance of the team in achieving your goals, their buy in for the plan and ability to deliver to the plan, can you expand on this?
There was a compromise between the wild man aspect; seeing the cultures people places and the need for speed. The biggest prize was the world! My first team recruit was a researcher, this may surprise you, however, they had the right academic background to apply diligence and scrutiny to the plan, no sub-conscious biases and the ability to ask the obvious questions.
From there, the team was built and the detail was planned out carefully, with the team understanding what we wanted to achieve every step of the way. For example, we knew we’d be travelling through several time zones covering 1000 miles every 4 days, so every morning we planned to move the clock back by 45 mins and by day 49 we all lived twice! It’s that level of detail that helped us achieve the world record, we broke down the big ambition to what we expected each team member to do day to day.
Anderson Strathern: So do you think us lawyers could be part of your team on the next challenge?
Mark: I think an analytical mind certainly helps, not too far removed from some of the skills in law. Staying power and flexibility are also traits I’d be looking for. When breaking the round the world cycling world record, people were certainly bought into the toughness of it all. A keen focus on the task in hand was also an essential. If we weren’t focused on what we had to deliver every time I got off the bike and to prep for the next 16 hours of cycling, we knew we’d fail.
Anderson Strathern: What was the most common question you were asked by passers-by when on the road?
The most common question was where are you cycling to? My answer to that was 16 hours! We tested and re-tested the schedule, sleep patterns and followed a typical days schedule for 2 months to prep for the actual cycle, there was no questions unanswered, and perhaps that led me to answer that innocent question in a rather strange way!
Anderson Strathern: You mentioned feeling accountable and being aware that if you failed everyone did, how did you stay focused through such a gruelling schedule on a bike?
Mark: Yes, I certainly felt very accountable and there was a real sense that if I failed everyone failed. In preparing for the cycle it helped to understand the consequences of failing, shorter or longer term goals and that helped me to perform. Planning helped to put all of this in perspective. Before I turned a single pedal stroke, we planned and mitigated every trip point, we spoke to Menzies about logistics, we pre-planned visas and border crossings, and we left nothing to chance.
Anderson Strathern: How did you cope with so little sleep?
Mark: With 4 hours sleep every night and 240 miles a day, people kept asking me how do you feel? In the end it had to be a banned question, I was fully aware of staying strong for the team as well as staying in the right mind set to finish in 80 days. So unless I said otherwise, the team could assume that everything was on track and we had a job to do. This is perhaps far too extreme an example for the business world, but there are things to learn here.
The world record also drove me to the hardest place I’ve ever been, I’d get off the bike and couldn’t remember the day. This creates a challenge when you are trying to write a book! As a performance athlete I was in a very dark place at times and that posed a big challenge to leadership.
With the set-backs and the unknowns, it is also important to have a good support network around you, sometimes this comes from outside your organisation, figure out who your mentors are, your wider support network. I couldn’t have done it without my base camp, my family support.
Anderson Strathern: Using your experience in a business context, a plan is important what is the ideal period of time for a plan?
Mark: It depends on the size of the business, 4-5 year plans are common, however they are usually beyond the horizons you can see. A thousand day plan is probably more realistic; understand the out-puts and identify the behaviours, the challenges. Identifying the breaks on progress is also useful and the people who are not pointing in the same direction. For these reasons the longest plans I’ve run are around 2.5 to 3 years. You also save a lot of time in the period of performance if you plan ahead. It is worth creating the time to sit around the table and plan; step back then tighten up the timelines.
Anderson Strathern: The 80 day world record was a well-executed plan, is there anything in retrospect you’d do differently?
Mark: A journalist asked me about the three times I crashed, the storms and set-backs. However, over the course of time everything tends to average out. By the finish I was absolutely broken and, of course, there was lots we could have done differently. It came down to more about how you compute the challenge, every day you hit a big target and you are given another one! At the heart of your question yes of course, could I have asked my team to do things differently? I think the only way to do it quicker is to have a different plan.
Anderson Strathern: You described yourself as being broken, how do you lead a team when you yourself are at this stage?
Mark: When you are in that performance zone everyone is still looking for an emotional response from you, this is hard; making sure that the team are understood and valued despite handing over main areas for people to manage for me. As the leader I was still relied upon for that emotional compass, if I cracked the rest of the team would, but ultimately I couldn’t have done it without them.
Anderson Strathern: What did you learn about yourself on the trip that you didn’t know and how do you apply that?
Mark: Definitely the darker side, when you push yourself that much you can end up in a difficult place, I found my mind went analytical, my tolerance for diversion and small talk went down, and this wasn’t a positive trait when it came to supporting the wider team. I also learnt a huge amount about the wider commitment, I couldn’t be the world’s best husband and Dad at the same time as cycling round the world. I learnt how to manage the pressure of work life and work with the team, how to try and keep everyone on board and make hard decisions quicker to save time effort and money.
Anderson Strathern: When you crossed the finish line in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes, how long was it till you recovered and wanted to do the same?
Mark: Everything I’ve achieved feels like a stepping stone to the next thing and around the world in 80 days was my Everest. I will take the same healthy dose of obsession into new projects, it will always be there. It’s interesting when you have a reputation for doing one thing, it takes strength to shift your career in a different direction. As an athlete, I’m always interested in things that haven’t been done before or things in history, i.e. breaking the penny farthing cycling record! With my broadcasting hat on I can put a real spotlight on these unusual pieces of history.
Find out more about Mark and his Artemis World Cycle at http://www.artemisworldcycle.com/