In many ways, developers of growth companies are today’s explorers. Being well informed makes it more likely that you’ll make good decisions, whether at the far ends of the planet or in recruiting.

A blind adventure or a mapped-out mission?

Now that there are no blank spots on the world map anymore, and the Moon has also been conquered, setting up a company is perhaps the most exciting adventure left. In many ways, developers of growth companies are today’s explorers. Business columnist Pilita Clark of the Financial Times recently compared the polar explorers of bygone generations to growth entrepreneurs in a way that was a bit puzzling at first, but also thought provoking.

A pig in a poke?

Something Clark found strange was the practice of connecting psychological assessments to capital investment. Her attitude seems to stem from a poor understanding of the purpose of personal assessment. Few people would make multimillion-dollar investments without investigating the financial standing of the target of the investment, or without having a lawyer read the contractual documents first. Neither would a sensible investor neglect to check that the management of the target company had the capability and the motivation to implement the strategy that the investor was plowing resources into.

Interestingly, Clark brought up the example of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who chose the members of his expedition based on a five-minute interview. As luck would have it, although the expedition suffered setbacks, they worked well as a team, and for the most part returned home from the South Pole safely.

The confrontation between an entrepreneurial adventurer and a risk-averse bureaucrat can be a creative one. In this context, the latter represents psychological evaluation, whereas the former represents unshakable trust in intuition.

Oddballs and triumphs

I’m a big fan of books on polar expeditions. One fascinating theme that emerges from them is that the expeditions drew in some very strange people. Without such people, however, great things would not happen. The prospect of venturing to completely unknown places that are not even on the map and where polar bears roam does not attract middle-of-the-road people. In hindsight, however, the heroes who survive great difficulties could sometimes have been able to make their missions a bit less risky. The Swedish explorer Salomon Andrée, who set out for the North Pole in a hot air balloon, is a good example of this. None of the city dwellers who accompanied him on the voyage had much experience in making excursions, and none of the equipment had been tested. The balloon fell onto the ice almost immediately after lift-off, and none of the team survived the mission. After reading an amazing book about that expedition written by Bea Uusma, it was impossible not to think about another possibility. The attempt as it was carried out was simply doomed to failure. But suppose even just one member of the team was well suited for the challenge – could they have made history as the first Nordic explorers to conquer the Arctic?

Where does courage end and foolhardiness begin?

Shackleton’s ship got stuck in ice and was wrecked. But they finally managed to save themselves, with excruciating effort. The fact that the man who was hired as the meteorologist for the expedition had no experience at all in the field did not exactly help in avoiding problems. Getting stuck in ice was a very common problem on polar expeditions, and there are many kinds of accounts of it. Fritjof Nansen had sled dogs on board in setting sail for the Arctic, enabling him and his team to explore Greenland when the ship got stuck. And as the Arctic winter set in, they knew what to do: they sheltered in a pit in the snow for over six months, waiting for the sun to rise. When spring came, they emerged from the snow and skied back to the coast.

As well as accounts of polar explorers, I am also fond of learning about modern adventurers. Both kinds of stories have plenty of inspired madness, experimentation and enthusiasm. In either case, focusing on the backgrounds of the pathfinders does not mean that more unorthodox personalities should be left on the shore. Being well informed makes it more likely that you’ll make good decisions, whether at the far ends of the planet or in recruiting.