I was a tour leader in south east Asia for two years. This was the steepest learning curve of my life. Becoming a mother; starting my own business; these things didn’t come close.

In this ‘lessons from the road’ series, I reveal what I learnt through trips, including my most popular itinerary which involved leading 12 people at a time across two borders in just two weeks.

Dive in

All tour leaders had one week’s training in Melbourne before we left. This didn’t even touch the sides.

Nothing came close to on-the-job training – no amount of information, eloquently put, was going to prepare you for the 1001 everyday challenges of leading a group of strangers through third world countries, in oppressive heat, while dealing with language barriers and miscommunications with bus drivers, train conductors, hotel managers, tour guides, restaurant waiters and street vendors.

No amount of reading, research or preparation would have been adequate to help me decide whether or not to bribe a customs official to help get a passenger across the border because her visa was stamped with the next day’s date.

No training exists that would explain how to do this – by first putting all other passports through for stamping, including my own. Then to submit the passenger’s passport last, with some $3.30 in local currency inside, followed by a little joking and banter in the local language when questioned about the date by the official.

Much like in business (without the bribery). There’s only so much research, training and preparation you can do when you want to do something new. After a point, preparation becomes counterproductive. You have to dive in and learn on the job – that’s the best kind of learning.

Miscommunications

It’s easy to be misunderstood when you’re a young female (and – dang! – younger than my children!) with a big responsibility, who appears way too easy going and having far too much fun.

It’s easy to misunderstand others when you don’t appreciate the context, culture, or backstory. It’s easy to misunderstand others when you’re out of your comfort zone, under stress or pressure, with expectations that aren’t being met.

Much like in business. People will turn up ill-prepared, not having read your carefully crafted copy or listened closely while you explained. They will have expectations that things will be easier, or that progress will be more straightforward or dramatic.

They won’t understand the backstory, context or sub-context, nor the nuances and complexities. They will misunderstand you. Some may even believe you’re taking them for a fool. This is a hazard of any job.

You’re a professional. You’ll help them understand.

All disasters can’t be for-seen

I stuffed up many times. And many other times, circumstances conspired to cause disasters through no fault of my own.

Passengers took themselves off and ate hash cookies, resulting in vomiting and “stoned mullets” dragging themselves around holy temples and sleeping long and deep, night after night after night.

I forgot to get myself a visa in Vietnam before leaving for a trip and had to leave the group to make their own way across the border, meet the bus driver on the other side, and take the seven-hour bus trip alone into Phnom Penh.

Roads washed away on a regular basis. Ancient hotels would have busted hot water tanks, broken locks, and valuables go missing. Buses wouldn’t turn up. Trains would be delayed. Monsoon season would render roads and towns asunder.

Much like in business. With the best-laid plans, things go wrong. Flakey and dishonest people can turn your endeavours from successful to disastrous in moments. Websites crash right before promotions. Printers get it wrong. Staff and subcontractors go AWOL.

You’re a professional. You’ll deal with every disaster and laugh about it afterwards (sometimes, many many months later). Every disaster you cope with emboldens you and makes you stronger, more confident, and more likely to take further risks in business.

You must risk to reap rewards

After several months leading tours I saw how things might be improved. I hired a smaller vehicle with a smaller group which enabled us to take roads that the bus wouldn’t fit down. Instead of a six-hour speedboat, locked in like sardines, with over-zealous air-conditioning, we took the overland route.

Passengers enjoyed a scenic route through the national park with no less than four tiny river barge crossings where they could purchase local snacks, converse with local people and get a taste of Cambodia.

Cambodian frescosI stopped the bus in villages so passengers could sample the local cold coconut and chicken curry noodle soup. I hired tuk tuks and motos instead of vans and buses. I had the bus driver stop for a side trip on small boats across flooded rice fields to climb tiny hills to see hidden, old monuments to Buddha, meet villagers and see life lived up close.

I talked (and talked and talked) about the social problems of child prostitution, and the international market in sex slaves, HIV/AIDS, government corruption and lack of administrative infrastructure, and I took people into red light districts and stopped the bus in front of hospitals where passengers were able, if they choose, to donate blood for land-mine victims.

These things were all off-script. They were all risks. Occasionally they backfired. But far more frequently they reaped rewards – greater insight into the countries we travelled through, frank and deep conversations, epiphanies, changes of behavior, deeper understanding and empathy, self-realisation and gratitude for how lucky we are to live in the first world.

Much like in business. After you’ve learnt the necessary skills of marketing and running your business, you must take risks to reap rewards.

It can be tempting to stay on script, but this won’t change the world. If you truly want to deliver the best possible experience for your clients, you need to be bold, trust your instinct and take risks.

Going through to get out

Ready to lead adventures? Then you need to go through in order to get out.

  1. The only way to know for sure if you can do something is to get out and do it. You become proficient through doing, not reading. Stop procrastinating and calling it perfectionism. Perfect is a Disney fantasy.
  2. Miscommunication is part of life. Don’t be put off when a client or prospect misunderstands your intention. You can only do your best to make yourself understood, or appreciate that some people will never ‘get’ you, and that’s not your fault.
  3. Disasters are normal and can’t be avoided. But you’ll live. You’ll surprise yourself how capable you are, you’ll strengthen your nerves, do your best to mitigate the possibilities of it reoccurring and take heart in your abilities to manage.
  4. Big risks reap big rewards. If you want something different, something bigger, something extraordinary in business, you have to tackle it with both hands. You need to take big risks to enjoy big rewards. Or you could buy a lotto ticket. I’d bet my money on the former.

Check out lesson two: parable of the swan.
Lesson three: being liked.

Lesson four: adaptability and resilience.