When You Go Through No Man’s Land, Keep Going

Feb 28, 2022

Here's what a trip through Africa has thought me about business and personal transformation

At the age of 28 I left a promising career as a marketing executive working for a well-regarded multinational in Switzerland and decided to spend eight months crossing Africa from North to South, in a Land Rover, in the company of two guys I met on an online travel forum.

My peers told me this was a professional suicide. Less than a year before I had graduated from a top MBA school in Europe, and I was lucky to get a good job immediately after graduation in a climate of severe recession (it was 2002 immediately after the dot.com burst).

“You will never be able to come back into the business world” they told me.

They were wrong.

A year later I was working for a consulting firm in London earning almost double my marketing executive salary in Switzerland. And what I learned during that 8-month trip throughout Africa would stay with me forever.

Here are the top five things:

  1. When you go through No Man’s Land, keep going.

I learned this at the border of Chad and Niger. The road our of Niger ended by the border control point, a little wooden hut in the middle of the desert like landscape. They stamped our passports and wished us ‘Bonne Voyage’. We followed the dirt track in the desert like landscape expecting to find soon the border control of the next country, Chad. But it was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, a sandstorm started, and our visibility got reduced to only a few feet in front of the car.

We were tempted to stop and wait. Wait for the storm to pass. Wait for the border point to miraculously materialise. Wait for someone to pass by and rescue us.

Fortunately, we didn’t. That’s because the sandstorm lasted a few days, no one was passing by and the next border post – as we found out after a full day of driving - was, well, a full day’s drive away.

On our neatly folded map, one country ended and another one began immediately afterwards. But in reality, one country ended and we had to drive ahead in a sandstorm for a full day until the next country showed up. The only indicator we relied upon was what the border police had told us as they stamped our passports when we exited Niger. ‘Tout droit’. Keep straight on.

So we did exactly that. We kept going, kept straight on with no visibility, no reassurance, and no end in sight. We only had faith. And it was faith that paid off in the end.

I always remember this when I go through a business transformation exercise. Or a personal transformation. The map is useful but has its limits. The storms can hit you and it’s pointless to wait for the storms to pass. You may run out of resources by the time they’ve passed. There’s no direction, there’s no reassurance. There’s only faith in what your instinct tells you: that you’re doing the right thing. But if you keep on following that path straight ahead, you’ll eventually arrive on the other side.

  1. Live in the Present

If Africa has taught me one thing, it’s the power of the everlasting moment. My life is now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. Now.

During my African trip, this lesson hit me hard whenever I asked a local how long something would take.

How long until the bus comes?

How long until the bus leaves?

How long until we get to the next town?

The answer was always the same: Maintenant. (Delivered in French, as we were in West Africa). Now. Everything was happening in the now. And that now was ranging from a few minutes to a few hours.

In business (as well as in your private life) this means that the reality of the present is what should call your attention. Sure, learn from the past and have a vision for the future. But don’t dwell there. The present is the only moment where you can do anything to make that future happen and where you can heal the past. Don’t dwell on the mistakes, learn from them and move on. Correct your course, adjust your approach. Stay present. Stay in the now. Know where you’re going and keep the vision alive, but act now.

  1. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

This sounds like a cliche, but I eventually got its real meaning. It happened sometime in the second month of my cross Africa trip. At the beginning, we were focused on the destination. The next route, the next city, the next country. Reaching South Africa. We had the whole trip planned.

But then, at some point, time started to slow down. And it happened when I started paying attention to what was going around me, when I started deeply connecting to the people I was meeting, the places I was visiting. It was when I allowed myself to fully absorb this experience. Then the destination simply vanished. It remained a hypothetical place, somewhere south.

‘Where are you going?’ we often got asked.

‘South’ was what we learned to answer. We had a compass and a direction, and it was all that mattered.

Same when you go through a business or personal transformation. Don’t obsess about the destination. It may turn out to be a different thing than what you had in mind. Allow yourself to enjoy the ride. Allow this journey to transform you, your team and your organisation. Allow yourself to discover new destinations that take you even further than what you thought was possible. Allow yourself and your organisation to fully go through the transformation experience and emerge… well, transformed.

  1. Sometimes living up our dreams is not as easy as it seems

I heard this rhyme on a public bus in Angola as we went through one of the hardest days of my 8-month journey. I was stuck without cash in a country recently out of a 30 year civil war, a country that had no ATMs. No possibility to get cash. No credit cards accepted. The only viable alternative seemed a flight out of there and a premature end of my trip. Thankfully another solution emerged, but I learned one important lesson that day: it’s not easy to live your dreams. To make them true. You must be prepared to pay the price.

When a business goes through profound transformation, there will be moments when you hit the bottom. As you do this, you'll have no idea how to get yourself and the company out of what will seem a very harsh reality. But it is only there, close to breakpoint, where the most ingenious solutions come up because it is only at the edge of what you can deal with where you learn who you truly are.

So, when you hit the bottom, take a deep breath, and let it be the way it is. And trust that the deeper the bottom, the more creative a solution will come up. On one condition only: if you allow and trust yourself to find it.

In my case, in Angola, I found the embassy of my country and asked to see the ambassador. I pleaded for help. I knew the embassy could not lend me money. It was against their rules. So, I did not ask for this. But I wanted to see if we could find another solution. And we did. The ambassador gave me a personal cash advance against a bank transfer and he agreed to do this as a personal favour because he was intrigued by our trip and admired our courage.

  1. You can’t complete a journey and be the same person that started it

And this was my biggest takeaway from my cross Africa trip. You cannot go through a journey of this magnitude and end up as the same person who has started it. It will change you and it will do it in so many ways that you’ll find it impossible to go back to whom you once were. And nor should you wish to go back. After all, this transformation is the biggest gift.

Who I was at the end of the trip had little resemblance to who I was at the beginning.  I noticed only some of the changes. Other changes I didn’t, but others did. And yet some others come out only months or years later. The trip had changed my path in life, my outlook. It changed my very DNA. And it was precisely because I allowed it to change me that I made to the end.

When you lead a business transformation initiative, you are not only changing a company. You are changing yourself with it. And you must be willing to change yourself in order to demand change from your people and culture.

In some ways you’ll expect this, maybe it will even be the reason why you embarked on the transformation in the first place. Yet some other changes will take you by surprise. Some others will only be spotted by outsiders – your customers and suppliers might perceive you differently. And some others will become clear only years afterwards, when you’ll reach places you would have never been able to, should you have not embarked on the original business transformation. Allow the new to surprise you. Allow it to take you places you would not have dreamt to go to before.

And one more thing: Don’t just read about it. Get out there and try it out for yourself!

Go on that journey. 

Go discover your path.

Transform yourself and the reality around you.

And as you do so, know that it will always be for the best. 



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