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Seven simple lessons learned in leadership from seven teenage girls over seven days...

I recently completed a week long outdoor activity camp with a group of seventy 16 year old girls!

This was the third year that I had been a volunteer mentor at the camp, sponsored by Rotary, which uses outdoor activities to take young people out of their comfort zone to improve their teamwork and leadership skills.

Based at the fantastic Abernethy Outdoor Centre near Aviemore, the girls (and their mentors) take part in activities such as gorge walking, kayaking, mountain biking, raft building, rock climbing, abseiling, hillwalking in the Cairngorms and team challenges.

Each day the girls also heard from motivational and inspirational speakers who shared their life lessons and experience. Time each evening with my small group of seven girls gave us the opportunity to reflect on each day and the new skills we had learned.Having been home now for ten days, my aches, pains and bruises are just about subsiding! I’m scarred by midge bites but having had time to consider my experience, I realise that the camp was also a great learning opportunity for me – and provided lots of insight that I can put into practice in my own business.

“Take a risk today, Darling” When the girls arrived tentatively from all over the east of Scotland for the first day of camp, few of them knew each other, and their first few hours evolved around shy introductions. Sunday morning kicked off with speaker Anne Simpson and the topic of Confident Conversations. Anne shared tips on how to introduce yourself and strike up interesting conversations with strangers. She shared her own story of being a young woman leaving home on her own and relocating abroad encouraged by her father saying “Take a risk today, Darling”.

The girls are sent off to their first activities with this mantra ringing in their ears. And such a great reminder that in business we often see greater rewards when we take greater risks.

Take time to read and understand all instructions The first activity of the week for my group was a series of timed challenges. They were tasked with completing a puzzle to “unlock the door” and to find a map which would lead them to the other challenges around the site to complete the activity. The girls, who were still getting to know each other, worked well together to complete the puzzle fairly quickly, but they failed to understand that they needed a map before running out of the room across the site to find to the other challenges.

Having spent half an hour or so roaming rather aimlessly around, they decided to regroup to re-read the instructions discovering that they needed to go back to the room to find the map which was key to their success. On finding the map they were able to complete a further four challenges within their time limit. It was great to see them working so well together on their first day.

In business, it is crucial to understand instructions, or often in my case, the brief. It is so important to understand at the outset what is required, and we work closely with our clients so that we fully understand their business goals and ambitions.

Be prepared Each evening a member of our group had to attend a briefing meeting with instructors and convey back to the girls what they would need for the following day’s activity. This might involve critical safety equipment, a plentiful supply of food and water, a change of clothes etc. I found it incredibly frustrating when arriving at the meeting point to go out for our activity that someone had come without a waterproof coat, or a spare pair of shoes for water activities, or without water for a long mountain bike ride.

It inevitably held us up and limited the time out on our activity. In our group meetings I reiterated how important it was to plan ahead, think about what you might need for the next day and not leave it to the last minute to prepare. All good lessons for business!

Pay it forward Having stressed the importance of preparation to the girls, I had to suppress a giggle when one of our instructors sheepishly admitted he had left his sandwiches at the Centre! On this day we were kayaking on the River Spey and had stopped on the sunny river bank for lunch. My offer of a squashed lemon curd sandwich was turned down… but a banana that had survived the journey in decent condition was eagerly received. Little was I aware that I was “paying it forward”…

In our business, we support many charities and local organisations, as well as students who are looking for a positive start in their careers. It’s a great opportunity to put our skills to good use and often leads to new opportunities. We’re often not aware that we are “paying it forward”.

Rely on others when you need to In business it’s really important to build a supportive and skilled team around you; a team you can trust and rely on when things don’t go to plan…

And that afternoon, on the River Spey, things didn’t quite go to plan when my kayak overturned on the rapids in deep water. Unable to get myself out of the upturned kayak, moments of panic turned to relief when I felt my boat being upturned by a pair of strong arms fortified by the aforementioned banana!

A little encouragement goes a long way As the week went on, the girls realised how important it was to look out for one-another and to continually support and encourage each other – whether it be through challenging circumstances or to congratulate someone who achieved something they thought impossible. We encouraged each other to cycle over miles of rocky tracks and muddy puddles, we climbed higher than we thought possible on the cliffs at Cummingston, and we took courage from our team mates to throw ourselves over the top as we abseiled back down again.

In business it is great to have someone give you a “pat on the back” when you’ve done something well, or to give you an encouraging word when you’re struggling through a difficult project. It gives you the determination to persevere when things are tough. Make sure you have someone to cheer you on!

Break the challenge down to small stages to reach a much bigger goal Our final activity of the week was hillwalking on the Cairngorm mountain. We had left later than expected and weren’t sure whether we would have time to complete the trek to the top.

Our instructor was gentle on us encouraging us to go short stretches and take lots of breaks as we ascended the hill. “Let’s just see how far we can get.” Taking lots of rest and snack breaks gave us the energy to keep on pushing forward. We stopped for lunch crouching inside a storm shelter as we ate our (lemon curd) sandwiches.

The weather was closing in and we were all getting a bit damp. By the time we had finished lunch the drizzle had cleared a bit and we decided to make an attempt for the top. Digging deep and using everything they had learned during the week, the girls encouraged each other to continue climbing the steep steps.

As we drew closer to the summit the fog descended upon us and we used a series of small cairns to guide us to the very top. We made it! What a great sense of achievement! There was just time for a quick photograph before we were battered by horizontal rain. Our descent was much quicker and fuelled by the thought of a hot chocolate as a reward in the café below!

For me, as a mentor, I was so proud to see a group of girls who had come from so many different backgrounds, pulling together and really supporting each other, with a positive attitude, through a difficult challenge, in horrible weather.

On reflection, the hill walk and my week at camp has allowed me to see that every challenge I face in business can be conquered if I can break it down into manageable steps – and to take along with me those that will be my cheerleaders to encourage me when things get tough.

And it reminds me to give myself a wee reward for small successes every so often too!


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