While on holiday with my adult son in May 2017 in South Asia, a subtext for me was to notice the culture, style, values and priorities of the different companies who provided us with ‘adventure’ treks. Two provided a stark contrast. Here I identify what practices made them so different and reflect on the underlying principles. 

Practices included: 

• The terrain and distances described on the website and the following email correspondence

• Information in advance on what kit would be needed each day and night

• Discussion with the trekkers updating the schedule at regular intervals on the trek

• Anticipation by the company of the trekkers’ specific needs 

• Efficient organisation so time was used effectively. 

Examples

Company A Company B
The website emphasised time in the jungle. In practice this took a small percentage of the trek, which was mainly through fields and villages on paths and wide tracks – hiking rather than trekking.  The description of the route as steep downhill in jungle, then flat river valley with 30 river crossings and later uphill through jungle was accurate. The distances and the detailed schedule were kept to. 

The website and email instructions did not explain what we needed to carry throughout and what we could collect from the driver on day two.
The briefing presentation gave clear essential information on practical points such as what to carry ourselves and what to give to the porters to carry for the whole trek. Advice was given when asked for. 

On day 1, the guide said there would not be enough daylight for the full boat trip and cave visit as promised so we agreed to miss that. In practice, we arrived at the overnight homestay at least four hours before dark. There would have been time for the full boat trip and the cave visit.
The schedule was kept to and was action packed with time for an unexpected swim (fully clothed and booted), breaks for snacks and delicious food for lunch and dinner. Day 1 included both the trek and then two hours in a river cave. Deadlines for moving to the next activity were given so we could gear ourselves to be ready on time.
Day two was to be a 20k trek. It was far short of that and we waited for the local guide in one village on the way for 30 minutes. No reason was given. Lunch took 90 minutes as 40 of them were for him to sleep. This lost us time that should have been in the jungle.  Meeting needs that would affect the trip experience was a priority for this company shown by the thought given to it. For example, handwash before meals, excellent provision of vegetarian food when requested, a stand-up changing tent at the campsite and an odour free composting toilet. 
The puppy at the accommodation provided by the company ran off with and then chewed a flip flop sandal needed in two days. The shoes were outside a required ‘shoes off’ area.   

 What made a difference

The guide and assistant guide in Company B conveyed strongly the company value of looking after the environment, for example collecting for recycling a bag full of empty cans up the final stretch of the jungle path. 

We heard about many training courses the guides were given by the company, for example, on safety in different settings and on use of equipment. 

Safety was paramount and the guides anticipated the value of a supportive hand during a river crossing or extra light in a dark, awkward part of a cave. 

Equipment was provided for purifying water, keeping mosquitos out of tents and lights for evening in the camp.

Relevance to my work

The practices of these companies were of interest to me in the context of my work with charity trustees and their governance role.  I observed the organisations in the context of The Charity Code of Governance published by a consortium in July 2017. The key positives that I appreciated in Company B were examples in that organisation of both strategic leadership, principle 2 Leadership and “recognising that the culture and behaviours of the charity and its board are as important as its governance structures and processes”, principle 3, Integrity. I firmly believe there is much in the charity sector that is relevant to commercial organisations and this code is one example. 

 

Failing to ask a question

In June 2015, I wrote a blog about the importance of asking the ‘right’ questions as advocated by Dr Atul Gawande. He writes in the context of medicine. Recently, failing to ask a key question cost me several hundred pounds and gave me an insight into the potential consequences of separation of functions in a large company. 

Foolishly, in hindsight, I wanted to avoid a small fee for moving my broadband and landline with the same provider to my new house. The sales consultant found a way to do this. I failed to consider that my move might be delayed. He did not explain the costs should this occur. In the event, I moved out nine weeks before I completed on the new house. The answer to the question would have been that I would be billed all the usual costs, despite no longer owning that house. 

This result became apparent 6 months later when hundreds of pounds were direct debited from my account. I did not see an statement or invoice. At least six phone calls later, at my cost,  I understood better what had happened. A key factor was the apparent complete lack of communication between the sales team and the billing team. The billing team continued to charge me for four months when, under their rules, I was no longer liable. I did achieve some refund but no manager agreed to speak with me despite my registering a complaint. 

My analysis of this scenario is the lack of communication and understanding between the sales team who set up new lines/broadband and those responsible for invoicing may have significant financial consequences let alone reputational risk. Some management theorists call this relationships that of ‘internal customers and suppliers’. This telecommunications company would benefit, in my view, from investment in the relationships and communication with internal suppliers/customers. I have learnt that seeking to save a relatively small amount of money can lead to a much bigger loss, if I do not understand the whole picture. I will work harder to ask the ‘right’ questions in future.

Recognition of the impact of understanding the values, priorities and needs of other roles and teams in an organisation from your own improves the working of systems and processes as well as professional relationships. This in turn supports the achievement of agreed outcomes. For example, as a university Head of Division, I quickly realized the value and importance of working collaboratively with the Admissions Team, the Finance Team and with colleagues in Human Resources. Taking time to understand their perspectives and responding promptly to requests led to the best relationships possible with my ‘internal suppliers’. 

This message also applies to the Hospice UK ‘Hospice Trustee: what you need to know’ one day masterclasses for trustees, which I lead. The understanding between the Board of Trustees, who undertake their governance role and the Chief Executive and the senior team, who have responsibility to manage the hospice is key to working together successfully to achieve the aims and objectives of the hospice. It is part of the consultancy role in organisation development.