What happens when you challenge some of your brightest young stars to take part in the ultimate team-building exercise? INEOS was about to find out
IT was a short, sharp lesson for a privileged few in perhaps what really matters in life.
Air. Food. Water. And shelter.
Those, argued American psychologist Abraham Maslow, are every human’s basic needs. Once we have those, that’s when we want more.
In today’s modern world we have – and demand – a whole lot more. Everything we need is within our grasp. We can order our groceries at the gym, send a text message to someone on the other side of the world and turn the heating off from the pub, if we want.
So what happens when those ‘necessities’ vanish overnight?
Twenty nine graduates from INEOS found out for themselves when they signed up for a 350km run, ride and hike across the unforgiving and scorching African desert in one of the rarest and toughest team-building challenges ever set by a company.
Very quickly they learned that morale boosts did not come from bonuses. They came from glimpses of a rare black Rhino, a cooling breeze, the stunning view of sunrise from the summit of the Brandberg, the highest peak in Namibia, or the sight of base camp after a long and tiring day in the desert.
The graduates worked well as a team, supporting each other as they scrambled over the challenging and rough terrain.
“Sometimes we were pushing each other up rocks and other times we were pulling each other up,” said Gabby Isidro, a 26-year-old Energy and CO2 Trader based at INEOS’ Hans Crescent office in London.
For INEOS Chairman Jim Ratcliffe, it was mission accomplished.
He had told INCH shortly before they left for Namibia: ‘It’s remarkable what people can do and accomplish when they turn the brakes off in their heads.”
That’s certainly how Gabby feels today.
“I don’t think you truly realise your physical and psychological strength until you are pushed to your limits,” she said.
Gabby readily admits she was one of the least likely people to have volunteered for the six-day adventure into the unknown. She wasn’t overly sporty and her mum Julia wasn’t keen on the idea of her daughter running, hiking and cycling in the blistering heat through the untouched Namibian desert.
“I was overweight and unfit and my mum was concerned about my right wrist which is part metal, part plastic,” she said. “I’d had five operations between the ages of 18 and 22 and she was worried that all of that reconstructive work could be undone.”
But the criteria for joining was simple – If you feel you can do it, you’re in – and Gabby felt she could do it.
She also suspected, remembering with a smile, that being half Portuguese might give her an advantage in the searing heat over some of the more fair-skinned graduates.
“I was determined to do it,” she said. “I wanted to get healthy and fit. I knew for the bike ride I would need to wear titanium casing and a compression sock but it just showed there is always a way round things.”
The training beforehand was intense but invaluable.
“I travel every week and have a lot of responsibility which I love but I remember being in Norway, Belgium and Switzerland in the dead of winter over January and trying to fit in my training. I very quickly, though, got better at managing my time and I got used to taking my gym equipment everywhere I went.”
In May, she and her 28 INEOS colleagues from around the world boarded a plane for Windhoek, which is possibly the world’s smallest international airport.
Kasper Hawinkel, a Production Engineer from INEOS Oxide in Belgium, remembers the journey well.
“I remember having some doubts about my ability to complete the whole event,” he said. “I didn’t think it was possible to cycle 190km and run two half-marathons and a marathon in one week. I was wrong.”
Gabby was also quite nervous but before she could really focus on the challenge ahead, she was fielding calls from potential suppliers who were bidding for an INEOS power contract.
“At home I am never without my phone but out there there’s nothing. No phones, no emails, no computers,” she said. “I thought I might struggle with that but it was a real pleasure to be able to fully switch off from work and the outside world in general.”
Each graduate had been given a luggage allowance of 15kg.
Aside from the essentials – different shoes for running, cycling and hiking – Gabby packed some make-up. The hair straighteners were left at home.
Every day presented fresh challenges.
But every day the graduates faced them head-on – and as team.
“You just take every day as it comes,” said Gabby. “In some ways you cannot plan for it. You are stuck in the desert, you have no choice, and you have to get from A to B so there is no point in moaning.”
But there was also a real sense of pride – and a sense that they were all in it together.
“That certainly kept me going,” said Kasper. “I was confronted with multiple difficult moments both mentally and physically, but I didn’t want to give up and let down the team.”
Jill Dolan from INEOS’ HR department had sent the graduates a good luck message on behalf of the In Nam’17 project team before they left.
“Challenges bring out the best in people as they prove you can do things you may not have thought you could do,” she said. “Those graduates will also have made friends for life built on a mutual journey of individual and team challenge and achievement.”
Kasper and Gabby said life-long friendships were formed.
“All of us have shared this unforgettable experience,” he said.
The graduates had been warned about the heat.
“When you look back it is terrifying,” said Gabby. “But at the time you just get on with the job in hand. There was an absolute determination to get through each day.”
The wind was also a constant companion, sometimes unbearably so.
“One day the wind was so strong that it took us almost three hours to cycle 10km (6 miles) in the 47 degree heat,” she said. “It was relentless.”
Nearly half of her colleagues that day ended up being treated for dehydration. Gabby kept going – only to fall off her bike 3km from base camp.
“At first I thought I must have fractured my skull because I couldn’t see properly because of all the blood,” she said. “But it turned out that even though I has split my head open, I had just dented my forehead.”
The experience has changed her – not least because she now bears a small scar on her forehead.
“It has helped me to find perspective and cope better in difficult or tense situations,” she said. “If ever I feel overwhelmed at work I can simply reflect on any moment of the Namibia challenge and remember that we got through it.”
She is also determined to remain fit – no matter how busy she is.
“I now realise that being healthy, fit and in the best physiological condition, I will be able to manage anything that is thrown my way,” she said.
Phill Steffny, a safari guide from Cape Town, was one of the guides on the trip.
“It’s a mind-blowing, life-changing experience,” he said. “And everyone has changed.”
He said the drive and determination shown by the graduates had been inspirational.
“These types of people work for INEOS,” he said. “It is in their DNA.”
Phill will be among the guides leading next year’s graduates into the desert.
“I think everyone can do amazing things,” he said. “You may not have a clue how to do it. But if you are given the opportunity, I cannot understand why anyone would not want to do it.”
He added: “If you are on your own out there, it’s different. But they were a team. Everyone was in the same boat. One day one person might feel good, then lousy the next. It’s like life. It’s the same.”