Episode 126 – Leading Through Tragedy, Finding Purpose

Episode #126
Original Air Date: 04.05.2021

45 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Peter Baines

“True leaders are not defined by the position they hold, but their actions.” These are the words of our guest Peter Baines. In times of crisis or opportunity, it’s not the title you have but what you do which is most critical. As leaders we should bring clarity of purpose into our teams. Our conversation is about taking action when things look overwhelming, staying grounded during crisis, and leading through it. Listen in as Peter shares his experiences and the leadership lessons he learned from working in extreme tragedies.

Have you ever lead a project in a hostile environment? Peter’s advice to project managers in these situations is to be present and take care of your team so that they can perform to the best of their ability. He explains how responding to a crisis is like managing a project without the lead-in time. When there’s no time for preparation, it is vital to follow a process, make decisions and keep progressing. Peter shares the four stages of a “Crisis Clock” model which he implements to lead teams through times of change. If we can acknowledge the stages in a crisis, we’re in a better position to manage our own energy and help our teams through the difficulty.

As he describes his charity work with Hands Across the Water, Peter talks about building engagement through corporate social responsibility and the resulting shared benefits for teams and individuals.

Peter Baines is a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for his efforts leading international identification teams into Indonesia and Thailand following acts of terrorism and the 2004 South East Asian Tsunami. Peter worked in the counter terrorism area of Interpol, spent time with the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime, and also worked in Saudi Arabia and Japan after natural disasters hit those countries. After meeting the children left orphaned by the Tsunami in Thailand, Peter founded an Australian charity called Hands Across the Water. Today, Peter has a successful consulting business building engagement through corporate social responsibility and presents across the globe to major corporations and governments on Leadership.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“The most important ... is that third stage where our energy is so low. That’s when we need the leaders. That’s when we need to understand our real clarity of purpose, or why we do what we do,... And for leaders it’s when we should be bringing that into our teams.”

- Peter Baines

“for the listeners who have studied project management, worked as project leaders, and then be invited to be a part of a project which is the largest on the world stage, and do you want to go? Do you want to contribute? And of course you do.”

- Peter Baines

“...if we want to bring about long-term change, we need to make long-term commitments.”

- Peter Baines

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. As leaders we should bring clarity of purpose into our teams in times of crisis. Hear how to take action when things look overwhelming, stay grounded during crisis, and lead through tragedy. In times of crisis, it’s not the title you have but what you do.

Table of Contents

02:45 … Peter’s Early Career
04:13 … A Forensic Investigator
06:17 … Entering a Project as a Subject Matter Expert
08:40 … International Assignment: Bali
10:45 … Performing in a Hostile Environment
15:58 … International Assignment: Thailand
18:32 … Leading Through Tragedy
21:59 … Four Stages of the Crisis Clock
27:13 … When a Project Changes Your Perspective
31:20 … Finding Purpose: Hands Across the Water
34:11 … Measuring Success
38:48 … Shared Benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility
42:56 … Food for the Soul
44:19 … Find Out More
45:04 … Closing

PETER BAINES: The most important stage I would suggest is that third stage where our energy is so low.  That’s when we need the leaders.  That’s when we need to understand our real clarity of purpose, or why we do what we do, the importance.  And for leaders it’s when we should be bringing that into our teams.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast for project managers by project managers.  I am Wendy Grounds, and this is the part where I usually say, “In the studio with me is Bill Yates.”  However, Bill is not with us in the studio today.  But he is joining us from home.  Welcome, Bill.

BILL YATES:  Thank you, Wendy.  Appreciate it.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Today we’re talking to Peter Baines.  We came across Peter and discovered some of the work that he is doing, an incredible story.  He was a forensic investigator, and he worked in Bali in 2002 after the terrorist bombings, as well as in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  He went to Thailand and worked there as a forensic investigator after those disasters.  And he’s going to talk more about that on the podcast.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Wendy, this is going to be an interesting conversation with Peter.  He has had unique experiences that kind of hit a theme that we’ve had some prior episodes on.  We had conversation with Dr. Chuck Casto about the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  We talked with Dave Gibson about the development of the MRAP team.  More recently we spoke with Matt Harper about the USS Cole bombing.  And we had a conversation with a fire chief, Mark Von Tillow, who’s been chasing wildfires.

So there’s a common thread there of times of incredible crisis that Peter can speak to, and through that he’s got a lot of wisdom to share with us.  He can help give us perspective on our projects of what actions to take when things look overwhelming, how to stay grounded during crisis, and just how to lead through it. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, just a little more about Peter which we don’t cover in the podcast is he worked for Interpol in France, leading counterterrorism projects.  He also spent time advising the United Nations Office in Drug and Crime in Southeast Asia on leadership and counterterrorism.  And he will go on to tell us about a charity that he started called Hands Across the Water.  And we’re very excited to hear about the work that he’s been doing there.  Also he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his international humanitarian work in 2014, and in 2016 he received the Most Admirable Order of Direkgunabhorn awarded by the king of Thailand for his services to the kingdom of Thailand.  We really are so honored to have Peter with us today.

Welcome, Peter.  Thank you so much for joining us on Manage This.

PETER BAINES:  It’s so nice to join you.  Thank you for the invitation.

Peter’s Early Career

WENDY GROUNDS:  I want to go back and find out about your career, how you became a forensic investigator.  What led you into that field?

PETER BAINES:  So I joined the New South Wales Police, and I was a serving police officer here for several years.  And what drove me was not a desire to join the forensic area, it was a desire to change what I was going.  To be honest, I got sick of dealing with drunks and going to domestic situations and thought there has to be something else.  And just found my way into the forensic area, and it just became the career for me.  I’d spend 18 years working in there and did a lot of tertiary education.  And it provided the diversity and the challenge that I was looking for, and I really found a home in that area.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Do you think there’s anything that prepares you for your career?  Was there something that you felt that you’d learned that really prepared you for it?

PETER BAINES:  I think when we reflect on our careers and what we’ve done, whether we acknowledge that there’s contributing forces or actions or time or people, I think it’s the sum of all of our experiences that lead us there.  And I guess we gravitate towards what feels comfortable.  And certainly the work that I did in uniform was a good lead-in to the forensic area, and I was surrounded by good people and lots of good mentors, and some not so good mentors.  But again, I think you learn as much from the bad as you do from the good.

A Forensic Investigator

BILL YATES:  And I agree with that, for sure.  Now, tell us more about a forensic investigator, like walk us through what’s a day in the life of a forensic investigator.  And then talk about some of the leadership strengths that you saw in that role.

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, sure.  So a typical day is I would turn up at the office at 7:00 in the morning and leave at 4:00 in the afternoon.  And then you’d be on call after hours.  So I worked in country, New South Wales, for 10 years in a place called Tamworth.  And we serviced a very large geographical area.  And we were totally reactive within the forensic area.  So we’d get a call from police who would be on the scene, and it might be a suicide, a suspicious death, a homicide, a fire, a serious car accident, a farming accident, a drug operation, a sexual assault, something where there was a major or serious criminal crime or suspicious death.  Then we’d be called out to the scene.

And basically the role of the uniformed police, once a major crime had been identified, was to preserve the crime scene.  So as you’d see on TV in television shows where they put crime scene tape around, they have the guards at the outside saying “No, you can’t go in there, who are you,” and would wait until we got there.  And then it was the role of the forensic investigator.  We owned the scene until we were satisfied that we had done all that we could, and then the scene would be released.  And our role at a scene would be there to interpret, identify, record, collect, and gather the forensic evidence, record the crime scene.

And as a rule of thumb it was basically probably three to four times that you’d spend in the office of the amount of time that you spent on scene.  So if we spent a day on scene, you’d have another three days of follow-up back in the office, preparing the evidence that would go off to laboratories, doing the reports and the eventual statements that would go to the courts.

Entering a Project as the Subject Matter Expert

BILL YATES:  Peter, one of the things – you brought it up, and I hadn’t even thought about it.  But one of the things that I want you to share with our project managers, sometimes as a project manager we’re assigned to a brand new customer.  Or it could be we’re replacing a project manager that a lot of the team liked.  There’s like high intensity with the environment that we’re walking into.  And we have to walk in with authority, not like cracking a whip, now everybody listen to me.  But when you walk on a scene like that, how did you find that balance of, yeah, I am the subject matter expert on this.  I’ve got this now.  But also not walking in like you’re the king of the universe.  So what advice do you have for PMs that are walking into a scene like that?

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, it’s a really good question, Bill.  One of the things that sits beneath that, as well, is that a lot of the time as a forensic investigator we were junior in rank and  seniority to many of the people who would be leading the actual scene preservation or investigation.  I think part of it was an acceptance of roles, so there was an acknowledgment that, as we would turn up, that people understood this was our role, this was our scene, and this was our job. 

And I think certainly the way to build that relationship and build the trust and confidence was then in the communication between us and those on the other side of the crime scene tape.  If you went in there, and you disappeared and didn’t come out for hours on end, or didn’t feed back anything, I guess that wasn’t the best way of building relationships.

And if we knew that the investigators or detectives and so forth standing on the other side of the crime scene tape were looking for early insights from us, if we could provide them with updates and information and keep the communication flowing, so that we could hear what they were looking for, we could provide them with early assessments, early observations, early opinions, they then felt empowered.

So it was while we were in charge of that scene it was very much an acknowledgment that it was a team approach and the investigation of serious crime.  It will go through different stages, and we will have ownership only for that one part of the project.  And then it passes on to someone else who will have ownership.  And then the finality is when it gets to court and it’s passed onto someone else.  So it’s your project for that amount of time, and acknowledging that it’s a long process involving a lot of different people.

International Assignment: Bali

WENDY GROUNDS:  Peter, I want to move on and hear about your first international assignment.  Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about, and what you did?

PETER BAINES:  Yes.  The first international project or assignment I was involved in was with the Bali bombings.  And I guess I have to frame this up is that for a member of New South Wales Police, and particularly in the forensic area, to think that their career would involve international deployments is highly unusual.  And it was – it’s just not our arena.  It’s not something that we ever signed up to do.

So I remember just laying in bed on a Sunday morning and woke to the news of what had happened in Bali.  And because Bali was so close in a geographical sense, Bali was my first international holiday as an 18 year old.  It felt like big-time, jumping on a plane, flying to Indonesia to experience all that they offered, and for many it was and remains a strong affinity between both countries.  And as in a lot of crisis and disaster, there will be the initial reports, and those initial reports in my experience won’t necessarily reflect the enormity of the situation.  That was certainly the case with Bali, where the numbers of victims continued to grow.  And importantly, the number of Australians who were impacted continued to grow.

It was within the next couple of days that I was requested to be part of the team that would head over there.  And there were three simultaneous investigations running in Bali.  One was the criminal offense of the bombings.  The second was the processing of the scene to gather the forensic evidence, and the third was the disaster victim identification, to identify those people who had died and repatriate them to their families, either in Australia or Indonesia.  My role was in the disaster victim identification work, so what we call DVI, so identifying the bodies and sending them home.

Performing in a Hostile Environment

BILL YATES:  When I was thinking about that, Peter, and the role that you and your team played, again, it’s gut-wrenching to think, okay, this is the work that I’ve been called to do, but I’m the right guy to do it, and my team is the right team to work on it.  And then I think you shared, when I was listening to a prior conversation, just about the sense of security or the lack thereof, that your team was feeling.  Describe that for a bit.

PETER BAINES:  Certainly it was unusual, Bill.  The sense of a lack of personal security I guess was something that I hadn’t experienced on that scale.  It became very clear to me on one of the early days I was at the scene because the Bali bombings there was a suicide bomber who walked in with a IED strapped to his back into Paddy’s Bar and detonated that device.  And that forced a lot of people out onto the road, and then there was an L300 Mitsubishi van which is parked out front of the Sari Club that contained the explosives.  Once the people came out of Paddy’s Bar, the timing of the detonation of the second device caused mass destruction.

I was standing within the crime scene tape on the other side of the crater that had been left after the explosion.  And a motorcycle pulled up, the rider jumped off the motorbike, had a full face helmet on, had a backpack on, and walked just straight up and just stood on the other side, probably only two or three meters away.  It felt very confronting because that was the MO of the bomber who went into Paddy’s Bar.  At that point in time I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed.  But he was like a lot of people.  He just came to look, and hopped on his motorbike and rode away.

But the hotel where we all stayed, which was called the Kartika Plaza Hotel, the occupancy was 100% occupancy for police and forensic staff and so forth who’d come in to Bali for this.  The rest of the hotels through Bali had next to zero occupancy.  And there was bomb threats.  There was abduction threats made to the police at the hotel, and the hotel was guarded.  And each day we drove to the hospital we’d have to take different routes.  So it was certainly, I guess, a mental barrier or inhibitor to your work, a fear for personal safety.  And I know that played out strongly on the team in their ability to do their job, importantly to sleep and recover, and to come back.

BILL YATES:  And to think of a few, almost hours, but certainly just earlier that week you’d been at home.


BILL YATES:  You were in your place of security with those whom you love the most.  And now you’re in this environment where you feel like your life is threatened even as you try to do the work that you’re there to do.  And then that responsibility for your team to feel, you know, you’re feeling the pressure.  You know they’re feeling it, too.  And thinking, okay, wow, how do we get a decent night of sleep?  That had to be incredible.  As a team, how did you guys keep each other’s morales up, your spirits up?  And what advice do you have to project managers who are sometimes in difficult situations, they’re in a hostile environment or one that doesn’t feel safe, yet they’ve got to get their team to perform.

PETER BAINES:  I think that the relationship between the two is very similar.  And I’ve often talked about the work that we do, particularly in these long deployments, is it is exactly project management, but without the lead-in time.  We don’t have time to…

BILL YATES:  Good point.

PETER BAINES:  …plan what we’re about to do, or in six months’ time this is the new project that we’ll start on.  Our planning starts after the event.  So the event will happen.  There will be phone calls.  We’ll start building teams, and we’ll deploy.  So we’re deploying, and then we’re starting to plan for these events.  And so I think the nexus between project management and what we’re doing is very, very close.  Working in these environments, very much the role of the leaders is to look after the people.  I think in our situation you’re taking people away who are technically competent.  So there’s no question about their technical competence, their ability to do the job, in many cases a good understanding of what we’re doing, even if the surrounding bits like accommodation and meals and transport and communication back home, even if all of those things are unknown.

And they’re really important things to take care of, and often that’s the role of the leaders is to take care of that so our teams can perform to the best of their ability.  And I think in these environments there’s an increased importance on presence, of our leaders being present with your team and talking to them and observing them.  Because if we know our staff, if we know the teams that we’re working with, when we’re looking at them we can see who’s traveling well, who might not be traveling so well.  And then having those interventions to check in and then, if we need to shorten their deployments and return them home, if they’ve found that the time and place that they’re in, that it’s not the best for them.

BILL YATES:  Good advice.

International Assignment: Thailand

WENDY GROUNDS:  So in 2004 – I’m going to move us on because we have so much to unpack in this episode.  But in 2004 the tsunami hit in Asia, and you ended up heading to Thailand.  Did you volunteer for this, or were you called up?  How did that assignment come about?

PETER BAINES:  I was on holidays on the south coast of New South Wales and saw the news break on the television that there had been an incident.  As I said before, the enormity of these events can just grow and grow in time.  As I saw the news reports, and I saw the numbers of people who were missing, presumed dead, I guess it became pretty clear to me at that instance, because of the work that I’d done in Bali, because of the position I held within New South Wales police that is quite senior within the forensic area, I knew that the phone call for me to return from holidays and head to Thailand was imminent.  And indeed it was.

And your question, did I volunteer to go, no one went to Thailand who didn’t want to go.  So we all felt it was an absolute privilege and an honor to be asked.  I was heading over as the head leading the Australians, and I’d lead an international team, and that was an incredible honor.  I did multiple rotations to Thailand, and each time I went, I felt honored to be asked to go.  So at any point in time I could have said no, I don’t want to go.

But I guess if I can frame it, Wendy, for the listeners who have studied project management, worked as project leaders, and then be invited to be a part of a project which is the largest on the world stage, and do you want to go?  Do you want to contribute?  And of course you do.  I spent many years at university studying my craft.  I spent all my time as a crime scene investigator.  And then there’s this opportunity that presents to go and apply your skills, apply your craft in what is the world’s biggest event.

And in Thailand we recovered 5,395 bodies.  That was and remains to this day the world’s largest ever disaster victim identification attempt.  It was thousands bigger than 9/11, and thousands bigger than anything that’s been seen before.  So to be invited to go, as I say, it was and has always been an honor to be asked to go and lead the Australian team in that time and place.

Leading Through Tragedy

BILL YATES:  Peter, I was thinking about just the enormity of this, event, and you just stated that with those statistics, it’s amazing just thinking of the enormity of it.  We had a conversation with Dr. Chuck Casto on the podcast, and it was about the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  He was here in the U.S. and happened to have a specialty as a nuclear physicist with the type of reactors that were involved. So he was sent over as a part of the team.

And I recall him saying just how overwhelming it was at first, when you first arrive on the scene.  You’re trying to get readings on things, and the numbers and the statistics are such that they’re off the scale.  You know, he was describing metrics and measures, devices that were on the scene that were normally giving you something within a certain range.  And he said it’s like, okay, you’ve got a completely different feel now.  We’ve got a – I think he used the phrase of “established goal posts”.  How did you figure out, okay, this is huge.  How do we break this down into something that we can methodically approach and make progress day by day?

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, really good question, Bill.  And I think it takes me to this point in time where I was sitting on the steps of a temple.  When someone dies in Thailand they’ll take the body to a temple.  Temples in Thailand are called a Wat, a W-A-T. There was a temple at a place called Wat Yan Yao.  And it was in the main area of Khao Lak, which is the resort area and where probably 70% of those who died were located.  So the natural reaction of the Thais was to take the bodies to the temple, where we might here in Australia or the U.S., you take them to a hospital.  Here they took them to the temple.

And through the enormity of the numbers they started arriving.  And when I say quite literally by the truckload, that’s exactly what I mean.  They were tipper trucks, and a truck would turn up, and it was full of bodies, and the bodies were placed on the ground.  And it continued to grow around this temple. 

I sat on the steps of this temple with one of Australia’s leading  pathologists, and what I overlooked was the decomposing bodies of three and a half thousand people in this one temple.  And he said to me, he said, “All we can do here is a token effort”.  We would finish our deployments to Thailand some 12 months later.  And of that 5,395 bodies, there was approximately 400 that were left unidentified.  So far from a token effort, but it’s a case of starting to do some of the little things to take action.

And with the more action you take, the clearer you become.  It’s putting in steps that will lead you to keep making decisions and keep progressing.  Spending so much time in these areas of crisis, we’ve spoken of Bali and Thailand, and I go on and work in Saudi Arabia and Japan, as well, and of course the time in investigating scenes in Australia on a much shorter duration, I saw a model developed to me, and it’s very much around project management.  And I talked to our teams about it. I talk to businesses now around how you lead your teams through times of change and so forth. And I think there’s four stages to it. 

Four Stages of the “Crisis Clock”

And if we look at it, I call it the “crisis clock,” and it has four quadrants to it.  The first is that frantic stage where we turn up.  And where it sits really nicely is we deployed into Thailand for about four weeks at a time.  That was our average deployment.  And so this model sits nicely when we think of each stage as a week long. 

And our first stage is, if we’re on that plane to Thailand, and you’ve never been there before, there’s a lot of emotions that are going through you.  There’s anxiety, there’s nervousness, there’s excitement, there’s wonder.  And there’s a question of your belief that your skills, will you be good enough?  How will you get by in a country you don’t speak the language?  What will the food be like?  Where will I be staying?  How will I get around?  Who will I report to?  Who reports to me?

All of this is going on before the wheels even touch down.  But that first week is very much adrenalin going.  It’s crazy times where you’re learning everything that’s going on.  And the second stage will be the second week.  And I would suggest that this is the most productive stage of our projects. Because by that second week you know where to go.  You know who you report to and who reports to you.  You know who’s the key players.  And I’d suggest that that’s when you’re functioning on the best physical and mental state because you’ve settled down, and you’re there, and you’re in that controlled stage.

The third week I would suggest is the most challenging stage of the project, and that’s the working stage.  And by this stage, this is when you’re sick of getting up at the same time to go to the same restaurant, to look at the same food, to get on the same bus, to go to the same location, to do the same things.  This is when for three weeks you’ve been moving bodies of children, of loved ones, of meeting families.  This is when you’re tired, this is when you’re missing home, this is when your energy is the lowest.

And I’d suggest that third stage is the most important stage for leaders because when we launch projects, many times we’ll have senior people there.  We’ll have a launch party, and we’ll celebrate, and everyone’s there. The heads of business and government are there at the beginning.  But if we’re not excited at the beginning, well, we’re doomed for failure; aren’t we?  The most important stage I would suggest is that third stage where our energy is so low.  That’s when we need the leaders.  That’s when we need to understand our real clarity of purpose, or why we do what we do, the importance.  For leaders it’s when we should be bringing that into our teams.

And finally the fourth stage is the exit stage.  This is when either the project’s going to come to an end, and we finish, or there’s continuity in that we’re handing on to someone else.  And for our guys in Thailand, this was – the energy came back up because this is when you knew you were about to go home.  You’re going to see your family again.  You’re going to see the kids.  And this four weeks of being away was coming to an end.  I think I’ve seen that play out so many times.

And I’d suggest that the four stages of this model exist.  It’s just the speed that we move through it.  And I’ve been talking to businesses in the last nine months or so around COVID and how they manage and lead their teams, and I suggest to them these four stages, they’re present right now.  And we think about when we all got forced out of our office. We had to set up our home office, and that was exciting.  So we could sit at the desk in our pajamas, if we wanted.  We were close to family and everything.  You know, that first it was all new. 

The second week we were productive.  By the third stage of it, the kids were annoying us, the husband was annoying us, the wife was annoying us.  We wanted to go back to the office; didn’t we.  You know?  And so this stuff just repeats.

And I think as leaders, if we can be aware, particularly that the third stage is going to occur. Firstly we’re in a good position then to manage our own energy.  It won’t mean that we can avoid it.  We can just acknowledge that’s going to happen.  But then we’re in a good position to help our teams, as well.

BILL YATES:  That’s fantastic advice.  I can just see how that plays out.  And in your case these were, we could call them four-week projects.  But no matter if it’s four weeks or four months or two years, there’s a project lifecycle, and you just nailed it.  There’s that point when you can’t quite see the finish line yet. So it’s not like you can see the finish line and press home.  And you’re just depressed; man, you’re tired of it.


BILL YATES:  And maybe you’re tired of the work you’re doing.  You’re missing home.  You’re missing the routines of home and the office.  There’s something about that project that’s just sucking the life out of you.  And that’s when I need that sponsor or that leader to come alongside me, to empathize, to connect. To remind me why we’re doing what we’re doing.  The good news is the projects that you’ve done, they made a huge difference.  They helped a nation heal.  They helped families have closure.  Those are heart-tugging deliverables.


BILL YATES:  For many of our projects, they’re just not that meaningful.  So we’re got to have somebody remind us, why are we doing this?  This new system’s going to make this group more productive, or it’s going to remove these obstacles, or make our customers happier for these reasons.  We’ve got to get pumped up, man.  It’s just the way we’re wired as humans.

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, correct.

When a Project Changes Your Perspective

BILL YATES: So I really appreciate that cycle. Peter, many times project managers and those on the team get completely engulfed in their work.  And it’s hard to turn off work and then go home.  And especially the types of projects that you worked on, where you’re literally out of the country.  You’re dealing with crisis situations and life or death.  And then you either have a call at the end of the day, and you touch base with home and see how the wife and kids are doing, or see what’s up with the family.  And then when you actually finish up the project and return home, life continues; right?  At times I think our work overwhelms us and keeps us from staying engaged.  So what advice do you have?

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, sure.  You know, it certainly can be what we’re exposed to can change a perspective.  And in the area that I’ve been involved it can change a perspective beyond what so many people would normally see that it takes you too far one way.  I’ll share a quick story, that I lived in Sydney.  And in between my tours of Thailand, my family had gathered out the front of our house at the end of a storm. And we lived in a cul-de-sac.  As the storm started to abate, the neighbors came out to look at the house just across from us where a branch had gone through the roof – they had a three-story house – had gone through the roof.

So we’re all standing and looking and pointing, and people were somewhat concerned about this hole in the roof and the damage it would do with the subsequent rain.  And I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and “That’s what insurance is for.”  The comment was, “But it’s going to destroy a carpet and a bed, and that’s Angie’s bedroom.”  And I said, “Don’t worry, that’s what insurance is for.”  And my wife looked, and then she said, “Just because there’s not thousands of people dead doesn’t mean that this isn’t important.”  And I said, “Fair point.”

I think in this year, particularly with COVID, where we look at what’s been taken from us. Whether it’s our freedom, whether it’s our jobs, whether it’s our financial security, or even the lives of loved ones, our loss is our loss. And it doesn’t help to compare it to someone who may have suffered greater.  A story, though, I was back in Bali, and I was coming towards the end of my time there.  And it was real crisis management, and we’re working extremely long hours, really difficult environmental conditions.  The threat of violence against us was present as we discussed.

And I spoke to my wife, and it was something I’d do every day, to connect back in with family.  And she called me, it was during the day, and I answered the phone.  She said, “You’re not going to believe what’s happened”.   I was standing surrounded by this death and destruction, and I thought, well, I haven’t been in contact with the media.  I don’t know what’s going on.  And I said, “What’s happened?”  And she said, “Well, you’re not going to believe it.”  She said Lockie – who’s our oldest son.  She said, “I sent him to school with a new lunchbox, and the first day he’s come home without the lid.” 

And I quite literally took the phone away from my ear and looked at the phone.  And I went, “Are you serious?”  But, you know, it’s an example for her what was going on that was important, and for me the fact that my family was safe.  Whether they’d lost their lunch boxes or not wasn’t important.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it’s so hard to stay grounded in that, and to stay connected to your life.  And when sometimes I fall into it where I get so focused on my project that I’m ignoring other areas.  Could be physical; right?  I may stop working out or sleeping or eating properly.  Or it could be key relationships that I need to maintain. Because at the end of this push, those are the relationships that are most important to me.  So you’d touch base daily.  That’s good.

PETER BAINES:  So they’re the ones that are going to be there when the project finishes.


PETER BAINES:  We enter back into life.  And I have a real distinct memory of coming back from overseas deployments and finding myself in the supermarket, restocking with food, and looking and going, no one knows what you’ve done.  No one really cares what you’ve done.  They’re going about their life, and you’ve got to fit back into the community.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, great advice.

Finding Purpose: Hands Across the Water

WENDY GROUNDS:  As a result of your work in Thailand, you started Hands Across the Water.  Can you tell us how you came about starting it? And the impact that this project has had in the community in Thailand?

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, sure, Wendy.  It was during one of my last tours of Thailand that I was introduced to this group of kids.  And they were all local Thai children.  They’d lost their families, lost their carers as a result of the tsunami.  And they were living in a tent in the grounds of a temple.  And the interesting thing was this wasn’t some temporary structure.  They weren’t waiting for something.  This was their home.  It was eight months on from the tsunami.  And by that stage a lot of the media was gone, the interest was gone, and we weren’t talking about that.  We weren’t seeing it on the television.

I met these kids, and I realized I couldn’t change what had happened.  But I felt within my capacity to change what happened next for them.  So I started this organization, Hands Across the Water, with a colleague from the U.K.  And we both decided that we’d do what we could to raise some money to see if we could change the way they spent each night.  And the commitment was we’d pool our resources and by 2006 were able to open a home that we built for the children.  It was a beautiful home.  It could accommodate the 32 kids who were living in the tent, along with the Thai staff who cared for them.

But something interesting happened, that in the 12 months after opening the home, the number of kids that were then living there doubled.  It went from 32 to 64, and we saw the boys were sleeping on the floor, and the girls were sharing beds.  And what was occurring was something I’d seen occur in a lot of different crisis situations I’d worked in.  And if we want to bring about long-term change, we need to make long-term commitments.  A lot of people in times of crisis and disaster will turn up to offer support.  There will be governments.  There will be NGOs.  And there will be corporates.  There’ll be charities.  And they arrive, and they put their resources in.  Six months later they pack up their tents, and they leave.

And the message is you’re on your own.  If we want to bring about that long-term change, we have to commit long-term.  And I’m not saying that those who arrive and provide food and shelter, temporary shelter and water purifying and all, I’m not saying that’s not valuable.  I’m just saying their needs certainly exist well beyond.  And as I saw the number of kids continue to grow, I thought, well, we’d probably need to build something else.  So we built another home.  And it’s now 15 years since I made that commitment in Thailand, and now we have seven projects across Thailand.

Measuring Success

And we don’t measure our success in the numbers.  We’ve raised $30 million since we started the project.  And the way that we’ve done it, we’ve never spent any money of donors’ money on administration.  I set up a social enterprise that would be the engine that would drive the funding for the operational costs.  We’ve got seven projects over 350 kids.  But as a charity, our end goal should be to cease to exist.  Our ultimate goal as a charity has to be that we’ve met the need. And we shut down where there’s no longer any need to exist anymore.  And our success is not in having more kids or more homes.  That just demonstrates the problem’s not being solved.

So we measure our success not in terms of dollars raised or homes built.  We measure it in creating a life of choice, not chance, for the kids.  We look at when it’s time for them to leave, and we say, what opportunities have we created for these kids.  And if we’ve provided access to accommodation, food, and medicine, and that’s all we’ve done. I’d suggest we haven’t done the best that we can do. 

And we look at when it comes time for the kids to leave.  We offer university scholarship programs, we offer internships, we offer training into future employment.  We’re there for the kids until they decide they don’t need that support anymore.  Because if our kids leave, and all we’ve done is provided that immediate care, if they end up in a bar or a brothel or in a rubber plantation being paid $10 a day, we haven’t been successful. And we haven’t used donors’ money to the best effect.

We see our kids graduate from university.  We’ve got one of our boys who at the age of 12 was forced out of home because he was given an ultimatum by his auntie that he lived with.  And she said to him. “If you want to stay living in this house, you need to stop school, get a job, and pay your own way.  If you want to remain at school, then you need to move out.”  The house he lived in was full of alcohol and violence, and it wasn’t a happy place.  He went to school, and he said, “I’m going to have to leave because at the age of 12 I can’t live on my own. I need to get a job so I can stay with my auntie.”

And school saw what a travesty that would be.  They came to us and said, “Do you have room for one more?”  And we said of course we did.  So he was able to move in with us and remain at school, remained in contact with his auntie.  And something quite beautiful happened.  He was the first of our kids to graduate from high school.  He was the first of our kids to go to university.  And he would go on and graduate with a law degree.  And now he’s the director of one of our homes, the home he grew up in.  The lady who I started the whole thing with, she died from breast cancer.

And so Game, having graduated from university, he would first work for us as our general manager in Thailand, and now he’s a director of that home.  He studies his MBA on weekends.  This is a type of opportunity that we can provide to the kids when we commit long-term.  And the real benefit in this is that when Game chooses to have kids of his own, if he does, he will be able to provide them with a standard of living which is so much greater.  For him, and for his children, that poverty cycle’s been broken.  That’s where the success comes from.

One of our other girls who lost her entire family in the Boxing Day tsunami. She has no known living relative left in Thailand.  We supported her through school, through university.  She graduated with a marketing degree, and she now lives in Sydney, working in an advertising agency.  She has no desire to go home to Thailand because she has no family there.  She’s made her life here.  And again, if she chooses to have children, what she will be able to provide for them is so much greater.  And this, as I say, is how we measure our success.  It’s the choices the kids have as opposed to living a life of chance.

BILL YATES:  That’s so inspiring.  And to think that here you are, you’ve got your head down, performing the work that you’ve been trained to do.  Then one day you kind of raise your head up and look around you at the needs that are a result of the tragedy that you’re having to help manage.  And then you responded to that call and created something amazing, an incredible organization, with others.  We just commend you in that.  We are so glad to help you get the word out about that fantastic organization, Hands Across the Water.

Shared Benefit of Corporate Social Responsibility

WENDY GROUNDS:  You wrote two books.  The one was “Hands Across the Water,” and the other one was “Doing Good by Doing Good.”  And in it you talk about the concept of shared value.  Tell us about the benefits to a business or to a project manager on a project. The benefits of their engagement with community partners in some type of corporate social responsibility, and just some words to motivate our project managers to really get out into their community and how they will benefit from that.

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, sure.  I think the whole book around “Doing Good by Doing Good” is the title.  And I remember when I was sitting with the publishing house, and they had courted me for six months.  I kept saying, “No, I’m not going to write another book.  I’ve done it.”  And they’re saying, “No, we think this is a really unique position here.”  Then when we finally agreed, and we’re talking about the title, and we’re tossing it around. And I said, “Well, to me it’s about doing good by doing good.  That’s the whole concept.”  And they said, “And that’s the name of the book.”  And it was settled on there.

And in society we’ve been taught and our language is around we support a charity or so forth.  We give without an expectation of anything in return.  And we have corporate social responsibility.  And we give that because we’re a good corporate, we’re a good community.  But having come from the side of the charity and working with corporate, I sit in this position on this fence which is I think somewhat – it gives me that unique perspective of both sides.

And for us in the charity, and this has been the growth of what we’ve had a hand in. If we can provide meaningful value to you, either as an individual, as a project manager, as a leader of a team, or as a leader of a company, if I as a charity can provide value and meet your needs, and there’s a whole range of things that we can do there, if we can provide that to you, then you’ll stay with us.  You’ll support us.  So my whole views around corporate social responsibility is that it should be a profit center back to those who are involved.

And when we say CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility, you don’t need to be big to benefit from this.  We don’t need to be a corporate to be involved.  As a family, as an individual, I’ve seen this over the last 10 years or so. Since I started this work with consulting with businesses to help them create programs that are profit centers to them by supporting charity, and the growth that comes back to them.

And the simple way of looking at it is that, if you’re a business that wants to support me at Hands Across the Water, if I can help your business benefit, whether it’s through retention of staff, attraction of new customers, brand differentiation, loyalty, whatever these measures are, if I can help you grow that, and you increase your profit, well then the pie to carve up and give away has grown.  So surely it’s in my interest. Because, when it’s just a case of you or as a business giving through generosity, that’s philanthropy, and that’s not CSR.

The first thing that happens when the family budget or the business budget starts to tighten is you reduce your cost centers.  And give to charity can be a cost center because, if you’re not seeing a return, you go, right now we can’t afford to continue to support the way that we did.  When business gets good, we’ll pick that up again.  But here’s the thing.  During those difficult times, that’s when people lean into charities.  When the economy contracts, that’s when there’s a greater reliance and greater demand on the charity sector.  But that’s when business is saying, well, we need to tighten our belts here.

So this is why it’s fundamentally important that business does well, that family does well, that individuals do well from their engagement with charity. Because then they’re not going to wind it back.  Because if it’s a profit center, you’ll continue to feed it while it continues to return a profit.  So that’s my whole philosophy.  There is 200 pages in a book condensed down, and you don’t have to read now.

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s excellent.  I still think we should get the book, though.

Food for the Soul

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Peter, I was so impressed.  This is just an off-the-cuff comment, that the rides that you guys put together to provide support to the charity, so many businesses see the value in that.  And the 75% of the riders come back, they continue to stay engaged with it.  Food for the Soul I think is what you called it.  And it’s not about the competition, it’s just about the entire experience.  And I think you’ve really tapped into something with that.  So my hat’s off to you for that.

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, thanks, Bill.  It really is something that is – it’s an experience that has to be experienced to understand it, and the growth, and that retention rate.  And it’s a really interesting thing.  If you came on the ride, you think that you are doing it, and you tell yourself, you tell your supporters, you tell your community you’re doing it to support the children.  The reason you come back is because of what it gives you.  It gives you this sense of community, this achievement.

And I had a guy who’d ridden with us, it was his fourth time riding.  And he came up, he put his hand on my shoulder mid-ride, and he said, “I get it.  I understand why I do this now.”  And it’s because of what it meant for him.  And that’s why they come back.  And we’ve almost been schooled to say that we can’t say that. That we should be doing this for someone else.

Find Out More about Hands Across the Water

BILL YATES:  Just let people know, how can they reach you or find out more about that organization, Hands Across the Water, Peter?

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, thank you.  Just a search through Google, through either Hands Across the Water or Peter Baines will bring you to either of our locations.  And the web address for Hands is HandsAcrosstheWater.org.au.  And for me it’s PeterBaines.com.au.

BILL YATES:  This was a phenomenal conversation.

PETER BAINES:  Thank you.

BILL YATES:  I really appreciate it, Peter.

PETER BAINES:  Yeah, fantastic.  And thanks so much for the opportunity to spend time with you guys.  And for me, thank you for the work you’ve done.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We just value the conversation and thank you very much for what you’re doing.  And I know that the children in Thailand are deeply grateful to you, too, for what you do.


That’s it for us here on Manage This.  The good news is you’ve just earned some professional development units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  Thank you for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

2 responses to “Episode 126 – Leading Through Tragedy, Finding Purpose”

  1. Thomas Mascarin says:

    Great Webcast. Some great information based on real life experiences.

  2. MEGAN OMALLEY says:

    Great Podcast. I was just sitting in on another PMI chapter’s meeting where a very similar topic was presented and discussed.

    The leaders need to be the example and empower the team to know when to say “when”. Take a break. Take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

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