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Survival instinct: Navigating the office jungle

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Wilderness survival school instructor, Carmen Corradino. (Matt Carradino)

Wilderness survival school instructor, Carmen Corradino, contemplates her strategy. (Matt Carradino)

Survival expert Tom Brown Jr’s advanced survival training course begins with students being dropped off in the wilds of the state of Montana — in the dead of winter.

That’s where they remain — in temperatures that rarely get above freezing — for 28 days. Participants make their own knives, build shelter and scrounge for fresh water and food.

Perhaps the most surprising part: Brown’s average student gains four pounds (0.9kg) during the trip. They’ve trained hard enough to forage and hunt for an abundance of food. Brown says it’s all about planning.

“The most important tool in survival is your mind,” said Brown, who has run a wilderness survival school in southern New Jersey since 1978 and has become one of the world’s foremost survivalists. “You definitely have to take care of your here-and-now needs, but it’s also about thinking of what’s next and what tomorrow is going to be like.”

Surviving a corporate climate isn’t much different. While there’s no danger of frostbite in the office, managers face the same difficulties in balancing daily work with the necessity of strategic planning.

That isn’t easy, because there is little training in the corporate world to learn how to think strategically. Instead, it’s about finding your own opportunities to study creative managers and put yourself in a place where strategic thinking is valued.

“Too often we spend our time on an activity for the activity’s sake,” said Rich Horwath, who runs the Strategic Thinking Institute in Chicago which trains managers to think more tactically.

This is especially true in many Asian countries like Japan and China, where operational efficiency is valued over good ideas, Horwath said. That’s often true in the US and UK, too, where companies tend to be activity-driven at the cost of product development. Many European countries, meanwhile, place more value on long-term thinking and often give managers time to think about new ways to get things done, he said.

“We often find more satisfaction in crossing off a to-do list than making a product better,” Horwath said. “The key is to set aside time to consider whether there’s a better way.”

Cut your own path

Mid-level managers have to assume companies will give them little-to-no training in strategic thinking. That’s because there are no large corporations that do so, according to Jay Conger, visiting professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School.

“Everyone has to do their own personal strategic development. Most companies don’t do this at all, either by benign neglect or by active discouragement,” said Conger, who is also the research chair in leadership studies at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles.

Here’s how it typically works — and it should, sadly, sound familiar. A company develops a good way to serve customers. Management decides its goal is to get workers in line with the developed corporate process. New ideas from lower-level managers are either not encouraged or discouraged. By the time a middle manager rises to the top, it’s unlikely they’ve had any chance to actually develop new ideas.

Ambitious people need to cut their own path. Read journals, magazines, and reports from investment houses about the industry to get a keen understanding of the competition. Then, create a strategic thinking group with other people who have good ideas that are being ignored.

Sure, all that might sound like a boatload of work on top of your daily routine. But only those who study strategic thinking will be ready to act when they’re finally in a decision-making position.

P&G, the packaged consumer goods company formerly called Procter & Gamble, comes closest of big companies to preparing its managers to think strategically, according to Conger. The company grooms future upper-level managers by moving them to emerging markets, where strategic thinking is key to success, so that they’re ready to think creatively when they’re in charge.

Preparation is exactly what students in Brown’s survival courses need, too. After the advanced classes, for instance, they’ll know how to set 232 different types of primitive traps so that if the first one fails to catch a squirrel, the survivalists have many others to try tomorrow. This is a good tactic for management, too. If one plan fails or looks like it won’t pay off, thinking ahead and planning means you’ll have several others to try.

Survival expert Brown teaches about a thousand students a year, and they all learn how to prioritise their needs in this order: shelter, water, fire, and food. While they’re gathering those necessities, Brown says they must always pay attention to whether a storm is coming, if their water source is drying up and if the game they hope to catch to survive has become overhunted.

“You constantly have to plan not only for what’s right in front of you, but what’s coming tomorrow or a week from now,” Brown said.

Brown’s backcountry mantra works just as well for companies and their managers.