My biggest mistake: Will Butler-Adams, Brompton Bicycle Ltd
Cycling company’s chief recalls how a nightmare in the jungle gave him the forward momentum and balance for a life in business management
I was 21 when I organised an expedition to the Amazon jungle in Peru. I had been to the area two years before and got quite scared by the experience – in fact, I had been convinced I was going to die – but it had made me think about what was important in my life and what was frivolous nonsense. I was interested to see if the experience would have the same enlightening effect on others.
We set off on canoes in the middle of a drought, which happens once every five to seven years. That meant that the tributaries of the Amazon dropped by about three to four metres, which exposed dead trees sitting on the riverbed and made canoeing a lot trickier than it would have been under normal circumstances. It took a lot longer to get upstream, and meant that in the end we had to start walking.
There is only so much food you can carry in rucksacks, and because we were on foot we were eating much more than originally planned. We had two guns but there wasn’t enough ammunition and they were pretty useless. It became clear to me that we were going to starve unless we started rationing. So each person got one spoonful of sugar in the morning and one in the evening. That later went down to half in the morning and half in the evening.
We got into rafts and were making no progress again. We faced a critical decision – whether to ditch the rafts and walk or continue to struggle through the dead trees on the water. In the end I decided we had to stick with the rafts. It turned out to be the right decision when people started getting ill: at least they could rest on the rafts.
Eventually we made it into deeper water and back to civilisation. I had lost five stone.
I made some colossal mistakes managing the expedition team. I didn’t engage with them – I had more knowledge about the jungle than everyone else, but had failed to communicate it to them. By the time things went out of control it was too late to start bringing everyone up to speed with the scenario. I should have created other experts in advance so we were making proper team decisions.
That experience has stayed with me throughout my career. My management style is extremely delegatory. I gather people around me with proven capabilities that I often don’t possess, and I act as a facilitator.
I also gained a useful perspective on business life. People can get stressed out about business setbacks – but I always think, “I am in London making bicycles – it’s fun”. Life’s too short, and sometimes people need to get a grip about how bad things really are. And by being less stressed about situations, I am able to make better business decisions.
For more thoughts on engagement, check out this CMI blog on the subject.