How an off-road adventure notorious for testing motorbike riders to their absolute limits inspired executive coach Kate Tojeiro to write a book sharing her leadership lessons with entrepreneurs
It was the moment when Kate Tojeiro found herself at the foot of a mountain some 900 miles from home that reality began to bite. Just nine months after she’d first sat on an off-road motorbike, Tojeiro was about to take on the Pyrenees Enduro Challenge – an extraordinarily dangerous adventure across treacherous, unforgiving terrain.
“I overheard somebody say they had been racing with David Knight,” she recalls. “At first, I thought there must be more than one person with that name who rides a motorbike. Then it dawned upon me that they were talking about David Knight OBE. This was 2011 and he had recently won the Enduro World Championship for the third time.”
Enduro is the motorcycle sport for off-road bikes and Tojeiro was the only novice in a group of 15 experienced riders. “Later, I was in the support truck and the driver told me, ‘This is the first Enduro Challenge where nobody has been hospitalised!’
“There was one moment where I was going along a track. It was a bit rubbly, very narrow. I remember looking ahead and thinking, ‘Are they shrubs? They’re very pretty. Ah, they’re not shrubs – they’re treetops!’
“Then I was up the side of a mountain with an incredibly steep slope in front of me. There was rock, shale and moss, with water running down. I had to scale that mountain and do an extremely sharp right at the top. It was a melting pot of fear, excitement, adrenalin and a sprinkling of terror.”
That moment forced her to tackle her fears head on, ultimately changing her outlook on life and inspiring her to write a book. Tojeiro is an executive coach and the managing director of X-fusion.
Along with a team of 14 associates, she works with businesses from Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 companies right through to start-ups. Her roster of clients includes Google, Barclays, Rio Tinto and Accenture.
“It’s about helping them achieve success, whatever success means for them. So, perhaps it’s acting as a catalyst to enable somebody to do those things we thought weren’t possible, to be who perhaps we thought we couldn’t be and taking our skills to the next level.”
Change of course
Having previously spent seven years with Marks & Spencer, Tojeiro went into recruitment and later set up her own headhunting firm, focusing on tech, media and telecoms.
A trip to the European Technology Forum in 2005, where she met Google founder Sergey Brin, inspired her to change course from headhunter to coach.
“I got to know some venture capitalists and investors who asked me to sit in on a pitch and hear what the guys were saying. It turned out that another person who I had been speaking to earlier, that I knew was so passionate about what he did, was making that pitch.
“But his delivery didn’t quite hit the mark and the dynamic of the team looked a bit clunky in front of the investors. They didn’t get the money.
“A few weeks later I was chatting to a woman at a party. I asked her what she did and she said, ‘I’m an executive coach.’ I asked, ‘What is one of those?’” The memory of seeing that team failing to deliver when it mattered led Tojeiro to consider whether she could apply her skills in a different way. “That was 11 years ago and I’ve never looked back!”
But it was a night spent in front of the TV that inspired her to get on a motorbike. “I was at home watching the Long Way Round, the series where Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor go around the world on big, off-road motorbikes. I thought I’d love to do that.”
There is a certain irony that she chose an adventure on two wheels rather than four. Her late father-in-law, John Tojeiro, was a hugely influential racing car designer; Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss and Graham Hill all competed in models designed and built by ‘Toj’.
Yet that trip would redefine the way she worked and provide the inspiration for her book, The Art of Possible. “Later, I had what I guess you could call an epiphany. I thought, ‘This is what I deal with on a daily basis with my clients.’”
“For me, it was about taking on that mountain but it might be about your first plenary as a CEO, or giving a talk at a conference or you’ve just started your own business or you’re expanding into new territories.
“It honed my coaching skills and took them to another level. Business leaders who like adventure get to know more about themselves and know more about other people. Leaders who understand their people and know their team are invariably the best ones.
“Certain feelings, emotions and fears have the capability to derail what we’re doing. But being comfortable with discomfort from a leadership perspective is a great skill to have. And the fantastic thing about having a sense of adventure is that it takes you into new territories.”
She went on to interview business leaders and elite sports stars for The Art of Possible. “I didn’t want to write a big academic tome, I wanted something accessible, albeit with some neuroscience, theory and rigour behind why being comfortable with discomfort will work.”
Tojeiro still dons a Kevlar suit to go off-roading. It serves as a reminder that a sense of adventure can take you to places you’ve never been before. “The more we can allow ourselves to go beyond our own boundaries, the more we get there and realise it’s not so scary after all.”
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