Jacque Comery plans to spend most of 2015 leading a team on one of the most remote places on Earth — the Australian Antarctic Station at Macquarie Island.
The senior environmental engineer is taking a leave of absence from her position at GHD to lead the 12-person team, with little contact with the outside world for 12 months.
And just in case that doesn’t sound interesting enough, Comery tells me that aside from the team doctor, she’s never actually met any of the crew she’ll be working and living with.
They’ll spend eight weeks training in Hobart for the mission, learning skills of self-sufficiency and hopefully bonding along the way, before taking a ship further south in April.
Comery’s job will be to lead the team as they undertake infrastructure, science, and logistics programs in mostly freezing temperatures.
It’s the kind of leadership position Comery doesn’t believe you can ever completely prepare for. However, applying for the position she quickly saw that her her consulting experience, along with a penchant for adventure, could make her the right fit. “I looked at the application and realised this is what I do, just in a different environment.”
Still, the application process was long and arduous, involving written work, phone and face-to-face interviews and being thrown into a school camp-like scenario with the short listed candidates at a base in Tasmania, where they were put through team-building exercises, problem solving, emergency management and overnight hikes.
An easy-going approach to whatever’s thrown her way seems key to Comery’s success. Even when it comes to dealing with the cold.
“I prefer the cold to the heat. You can dress for the cold,” she tells me when asked how she’ll cope with the temperatures. “But weather’s weather. No amount of complaining is going to change it. You just need to change your attitude.”
Comery’s path into leadership came later than most, and she cites a number of realisations as being the key turning points that put her career on its current trajectory. She remembers one specific major pipeline project involving a complex team.
“The project grew around me,” she explains. “I remember looking back and seeing this team of people and they were all looking to me. Everyone was looking to me for the next move and I realised I was completely comfortable with it.”
She finished her environmental engineering degree at 32, after spending her twenties travelling around the world, exploring and working in ski fields. A few years ago, she set sail from Thailand to Indonesia with her partner, an eight-month journey marking the ultimate relationship test. They lasted the distance and are still together today — albeit preparing for a long stint apart.
“It was confronting and difficult and fun. I came back and was ready to go again,” she says on the sailing trip.
In 18 months, Comery’s promised to share what 12 months on a remote island can teach a woman about leadership, resolve and completing a serious challenge.
“The key is not to know all the answers, I’ll have this wealth of knowledge right there with me in my team. It’s about managing them so that they are inspired and motivated and operating like a community,” she says.
“That’s the most exciting thing for me: I’m not a researcher. I’m not a tradie. The only job for me is this leading job, it’s an opportunity to touch on all these different roles.”
The short facts on Comery’s leadership story:
Born. Melbourne, Australia
Grew up. Melbourne, Australia
High school ambitions. I think I was trying to survive high school! I used to read exploration books and dream of exploring.
First job. I had a paper round
Daily reading material. Travel articles and plenty of ridiculous science articles, especially blogs. And something about bicycycles.
How she managers her wellbeing. I eat really well. I’m a vegetarian, no processed foods.
An average day in the life. My cat jumps on me at six. I get up, try and go for a bike ride. At work by half seven and it’ll normally be catching up on emails, following up on projects, checking on deliverables. Some days involve field work. Wrap it up around 5:30. Head home, a bit of exercise. I did have a scuba diving business last year, would do that at home.
Leadership superpower. I keep things relaxed and fun. But when it’s go time it’s go time. People understand me in that way. I’m not a hard arse. There’s a place to turn up the heat.
Career advice to her 18-year-old self. Don’t be afraid to change direction.
Jacque Comery’s story is the 1st of our 100 Stories Project, in which we’re asking women about a turning point that’s shifted her leadership career. Telling 100 stories from January 1 2015, the project showcases the diverse range of leadership careers available, as well as some of the brilliant achievements and fascinating career paths of women. It also demonstrates how planned and unexpected forks in the road can take you places you never thought possible.