Ship off a snowy shoreline

Words with the environmental explorer

As an explorer he's walked from pole to pole. As an environmental engineer he's worked on sustainability projects the world over. As a motivational speaker he sets new goals for management and gives the odd talk about cannibalism. E&T hears Tim Jarvis's story.

"Environmental engineering is exploratory by its very nature," says Tim Jarvis, whose CV says he's an environmental engineer and explorer. "Both disciplines are in some ways looking for solutions to energy and sustainability issues. During the course of my journeys I'm taking water and soil samples, documenting what I see in articles, books and films. It's the photographic evidence that has the greatest impact of all."

Jarvis is also a motivational speaker on the corporate circuit, where demand for what he's learned in the field has never been higher. "Ironically, I find that I use my expeditions more than the engineering degrees when it comes to communicating environmental or management messages. This is because expeditions to the polar regions throw up so many lessons relevant to the business world."

Jarvis was for some time best-known for his Antarctic expedition a decade ago. This propelled him into the record books with the fastest journey to the Geographic South Pole and the longest unsupported Antarctica journey in history. He is the author of 'The Unforgiving Minute', a book that recounts his expeditions to the North and South Poles as well as the crossing of several Australian deserts. More recently, he recreated the Antarctic journey of Douglas Mawson, the subject of a TV documentary and a best-selling book entitled 'Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica'. 

He is currently serving under Yale's World Fellows Program for 2009, which aims to broaden and strengthen the management skills of emerging leaders as they work on progressing thinking on global issues and challenges. Jarvis has co-written a course for the Open University on environmental management. The course will be linked in with the BBC's 'Frozen Planet' series due to be broadcast in 2011. If that weren't enough, his immediate plans include the recreation of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton's 'Boy's Own' voyage of heroism from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a replica of the original open whaler, the James Caird.

As an environmental scientist Tim Jarvis is used to cold places. An associate director at engineering and environmental professional services firm URS Corporation, Jarvis says he's "committed to finding pragmatic solutions to global environmental sustainability issues".

E&T: Describe a typical geo-engineering project you've worked on recently.

Tim Jarvis: Last year I was project manager and technical peer reviewer of environmental/social impact assessments for a number of large open-cast iron ore mines in Sweden and Finland.

These were situated in sensitive locations adjacent to human populations and sensitive river and wetland environments. I was responsible for developing various extraction, waste disposal and rehabilitation options.

E&T: Typically what sort of training and lecturing do you do?

TJ: I normally speak about the lessons I have learnt related to problem solving, teamwork, change management and goal setting with perhaps a little bit of cannibalism thrown in. After a decade of polar travel, and almost twice that long working as an environmental scientist, I also talk about topics related to human-induced environmental change and how industrial and domestic consumers can reduce environmental impacts. I also look at associated opportunities and costs, how to manage change in our personal lives, as well as at a corporate level.

E&T: How do you think that your role as explorer helps cast light on this?

TJ: I provide first-hand information on the fascinating regions in which I have travelled and worked, with expedition analogies offering insights into the parallels in the business world. I think my expeditions provide motivation for those looking to embark on the process of achieving their personal and professional goals, set against a topical background of polar ice cap melt and an ever more interconnected world.

E&T: As an engineer and an explorer, are there any conflicts of interest?

TJ: No. The expeditions I do involve going to remote places of high environmental and wilderness value. This gives me the chance to highlight their value in the books, films and articles. This allows me to draw to the wider public's attention any environmental change I observe in the regions I visit.

E&T: Do you feel that expeditions are in some ways businesses in microcosm?

TJ: The whole process of planning expeditions is an exercise in business planning: determining an original concept and an understanding of whether a niche exists for it in the marketplace; what level of support there might be for it; taking it through to marketing, planning, risk assessing and costing all aspects. These are all parts of the process of project management.

Expeditions can demonstrate and highlight areas of business execution, including problem solving, teamwork and so on. Typically, the talks I deliver focus on the parallels that exist between extreme expeditions and running a business.

E&T: Who was Douglas Mawson and why did you recreate his sledging epic?

TJ: Douglas Mawson was a scientist, geologist, explorer and industrialist. He accompanied Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, when he famously trekked to the South Magnetic Pole. I retraced Mawson's subsequent journey - his famous survival journey of 1912/13 in which two of his colleagues died. The modern expedition used the same clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson to allow us to test various theories about what had happened. At the time, many believed that Mawson had been forced into cannibalism in order to survive.

E&T: What conclusions did you draw that are transferrable to business/engineering?

TJ: I learnt a lot about how difficult it is to conduct all forms of business the old way. But I learned to make the best with what I have - old, often unreliable gear and starvation rations - and work towards more manageable goals when bigger, more optimistic goals are not possible. I planned and risk-managed accordingly to cope with these eventualities. Operating with limited resources has good parallels with the corporate world in that business often has to make do with budgetary and resource constraints and plan accordingly (although often fails to do this).

E&T: The heroic age of Antarctic exploration is almost a century behind us now. Why do we keep going back to it - and in particular Shackleton - for our leadership lessons?

TJ: Shackleton had many characteristics that made him a phenomenal leader - charisma, fund-raising ability and general empathy with people. He was brilliant at managing change, and ensuring that his team worked as a team. In terms of everyone pulling together, he was very inclusive, being careful not to isolate anyone, and was prepared to muck in with the men. He also broke down the very real class divides that existed among his men.

E&T: What do you think was his key leadership characteristic?

TJ: Shackleton's ability to change direction was a key strength too. Once the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen, Shackleton saw that he must switch his goal to crossing the whole of Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His esteem, reputation and legacy were all wrapped up in this one trip. But then with the sinking of his ship Endurance he was forced to re-evaluate his goals once more and, despite his desperate disappointment, he pursued the new goal of getting his entire crew home safely with the same dedication and determination (see 'Recreating the voyage of the James Caird', right).

This showed tremendous presence of mind and a great leader who not only recognised the original goal is no longer achievable, but is prepared to act unequivocally on the new goal. This is a valid message for the changed world in which we find ourselves post credit-crunch, where financial plans of a year ago are no longer viable and we need to re-set goals and pursue them with the same vigour as the now unachievable goals of a year ago.

Further information

To find out more about the Shackleton Epic Expedition visit www.timjarvis.org [new window].

To find out more about URS Corporation visit www.urscorp.com [new window].

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