Building Team Mawson

Jenny in her abaya and headscarf in Saudi Arabia.
Jenny in her abaya and headscarf in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Will Johnson)
Two of Jenny's dogs.Jenny and her husband Will Johnson. View of Mawson station from the ocean.

One thing incoming Mawson Station Leader Jenny Wressell is not afraid of, is dealing with unusual scenarios in remote and challenging locations.

The former nurse and hospital coordinator has just returned from an 18 month posting to Saudi Arabia, where she was part of the management team for a hospital providing healthcare to oil giant Aramco’s 350 000 employees.

Prior to that Jenny spent 10 years working in health management and as a remote area nurse across small indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Torres Strait.

She has conducted clinics under trees and in outback dongas, attended births, deaths and car accidents, managed chronic illnesses, travelled to far-flung communities by foot, troop-carrier and helicopter, and smoothed relations between machete-wielding patients and their pilot.

Her experiences have set her in good stead to lead her 14-strong team of Mawson men.

‘Working in remote areas I’ve learnt to cope with what gets thrown at me and to effectively prioritise what needs to be done,’ Jenny said.

‘I’m good at identifying risks and hazards and mitigating them as much as possible.

‘I’ve also seen how difficult it is for some people to adjust to being in a different culture or away from their families and I’ve developed skills to help them, and myself, which I’ll be able to draw on if I need to in Antarctica.’

Among her cultural challenges has been her experience in Saudi Arabia where she lived in a 10 000 person expat compound that reminded her of the movie The Truman Show (starring Jim Carey), with its perfect houses, gardens and fountains, its yoga studios, supermarkets, gyms and pools. But that’s where any similarities with the West ended.

‘If I went outside the compound I had to wear an abaya and a head scarf and have a driver,’ Jenny said.

‘The labour force within the hospital also had a mix of different standards, training and language. To manage that I had to decide what was important to focus on and make processes as simple as possible.’

Jenny completed a Masters in Health Care Administration while she was there, drawing on her experiences to write a thesis on how culture and gender affect leadership styles.

Fresh in her mind are also her learnings from the Australian Rural Leadership Program that she is completing on a scholarship. Her first experience of the program was a trip to the Kimberly in Western Australia in May (2015) with five other people, where they spent 12 days being challenged to work effectively as a team.

‘We were six strangers with completely different backgrounds, ideas and world views,’ Jenny said.

‘We were dropped in the bush with a facilitator who just observed how we worked together for the first 48 hours.

‘We had our electronic devices confiscated and we had to go night caving, climb down waterfalls and walk through the bush in the middle of the night to find our tents, which had been moved. Each day we had to lead a portion of the day and then provide and receive feedback on our leadership skills.

‘At the end of the 12 days I had some real strategies for how to manage a team, how to bring it together and develop it. The experience put theory into practice and gave me the confidence to move forward into my Antarctic role.’

Jenny said one of the most important things she has learned about leading a team is the need for shared goals and values – an idea she implemented when she met her Antarctic team for the first time in November.

‘It’s critical we create a team vision and team goals, so we know who we are as a group and we can define ourselves by a set of values that the team decides on,’ she said.

‘This will give us something to reflect back on if we run into trouble.’

With this vision and her intuition and ability to accept and reflect on feedback, Jenny is confident the team will weather the dark winter months and isolation.

‘I want the station to be a safe space where people can express when they’re unhappy and try to work through any problems,’ she said.

‘My goal is to bring everyone back safely, and to help everyone to get their projects done and have a good time.’

While she will miss her three dogs and her rose garden, Jenny will be able to transport her other interests to Antarctica, include cross-stitch, yoga, meditation and, if the hydroponics facility cooperates, making tomato chutney. She will also complete the Bachelor of Psychology she began three years ago.

Although a ‘first-timer’ to Antarctica, Jenny is trying not to harbour any expectations for her own experience. As Station Leader she will have to manage other peoples’ expectations. However, she is hoping to visit the emperor penguin colony and see an aurora.

‘I saw my first and only aurora when I was about nine years old, living in Hobart, and from then on I wanted to see one in Antarctica,’ she said.

As unpredictable as Antarctica is, it’s likely Jenny will get her wish.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division