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Transparency, trust, and “beer tests”

Darrell Wade’s crisis management wisdom from a 30-year career as an impact founder

This year, the Giant Leap Fund brought our portfolio company founders together with Darrell Wade, Co-Founder and Chairman of Intrepid Group, for a candid Q&A session. The following post covers some of the most memorable bits of wisdom from the conversation. For more insights, sign up to our newsletter Small Steps.

Darrell Wade and a helicopter.

Few would describe founding three-decade-old Australian travel giant Intrepid Travel as a happy accident. But according to its co-founder and chairman Darell Wade, that’s exactly how it came into being.

Back in the 80s’, Wade landed a corporate gig after finishing a commerce degree at The University of Melbourne. Realising he was stuck in the grind, he quit and decided to backpack around Asia and Africa for around two years.

He returned, ready to again bear the drudgery of corporate life until an encounter with his would-be co-founder and university friend Geoff Manchester forever changed his career. After university Manchester had taken a similar path after graduating; finding a job, quitting and then travelling around the world.

Upon reuniting after their travels, they realised that there was a gap in the market curated travel experiences — the kind aimed at adventurous young travellers. That idea evolved into a business and Intrepid Travel was born.

Much like its founding story, Intrepid Travel has gone on to break a few conventional business adages in Australia. In an era where greed typically drove the most defining stories in the Australian business landscape, Intrepid became the country’s first, and largest, certified Benefit Corporation (B-Corp). It’s a title that Wade says more or less fit the company rather than being something Intrepid strove towards.

That habit of giving back to the community is also reflected in Wade’s actions towards the startup ecosystem. He was instrumental in the founding of both the Melbourne Accelerator Program and Skalata Ventures, where he is currently a Director and has mentored countless founders on growing their business.

Wade’s advice for managing culture and companies during COVID-19 is to be completely candid with stakeholders and staff.

“I’m very pro-transparency,” he told a group of founders from the Giant Leap Fund’s portfolio companies, “I don’t mind disclosing stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable or may even make others feel uncomfortable.”

The key product of transparency is trust between managers and employees, which is an essential ingredient for getting through crisis times when misinformation is rife and anxieties run high.

“What you ultimately need with your staff is trust. That’s the biggest, most empowering thing you can have [in] a group of staff. I think the way you get trust is by demonstrating behaviours yourself, but also just being transparent. Even to the point of saying, ‘hey, we don’t know how to handle this’.”

He also says founders need to show leadership, pull everyone together, communicate regularly and if you’ve hired correctly, your company culture should help you get through a crisis.

On hiring for culture, Wade says it comes down to values, and whether they align with the company. To try and weed this out, Intrepid would run a multi-stage interview process, where the last phase — unknown to the participants — was a beer down at the pub.

“Every now and again after a couple of beers, you’d see a different side of a person,” Wade says. This helped identify those candidates who really were a good culture fit, and weren’t just turning it on for the formal interviews.

For Wade, hiring ultimately came down to one question: “Do we still want this person with us in five years’ time? Ten years time?”

As for crisis management, Wade has ample experience to draw from. Intrepid has managed many tough situations in the past, such as having travellers stranded overseas when the 9/11 terrorist attacks grounded flights around the world.

Intrepid Travel has made a habit of building their learnings from past crises into an Incident Management Plan, a playbook for setting up incident teams with priorities when a crisis hits so that employees know what they need to do.

Though, Wade does admit that COVID-19 presents its own set of unique challenges, and is in its own right “unprecedented” in its impact on businesses.

To proceed, Wade advises that founders trust their instincts and have a bias to action rather than self-doubt.

“Sometimes people are too timid. They don’t trust their instincts. They don’t trust their experience and their abilities,” Wade says.

“None of us know the answer. This hasn’t been done before. Just give it shot, trust yourself. Don’t ask me, I don’t know either. If you want a second opinion, sure I’ll give you a second opinion, but trust yourself in having a go.”

This story was originally published on the Giant Leap blog.

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