One night in July 2012, participants at life coach Tony Robbins’ personal development program were literally burning from the experience.
Of the 6,000 who had assembled to listen to Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within” presentation in San Jose, California, 21 received second- and third-degree burns when participating in its climactic walk across 10 feet of coals burning at 1,200 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Robbins’ events are argued to be both helpful and hoaxes, but when any development program ends in catastrophe, it’s easy for learning leaders to revert to the old standbys of classroom role play and Management 101 textbooks.
But don’t throw the baby out with the hot coals just yet. Leadership development experiences that get employees out of the office and into unfamiliar territory can have benefits as long as there’s a clear set of goals and a plan to make sure what’s learned off-site doesn’t stay off-site.
“In our super-sped-up culture, we spend so much time on task but not enough time on how we’re working,” said Jody Gold, associate facilitator for the Matrix Leadership Institute, a leadership development company. “People are willing to reflect and be slower with each other as long as they can see how it will impact their performance.”
The Me, We and It of Leadership Development
Jody Gold, associate facilitator for the Matrix Leadership Institute, said there are three parties leadership development must address: the employee, the team and the organization’s goal.
Me: Employees have to learn things that help them be more effective, address their deficiencies and emphasize their strengths. More importantly, they have to see how a leadership development experience is going to teach them these things.
We: Leadership development has to build a relationship infrastructure to help employees tackle challenges together. Gold said this piece is often absent from programs, which usually emphasize personal development rather than team-building.
It: “We’re not here to grow as people, although I believe everybody wants to,” Gold said. “We’re here for certain organizational tasks.” Leadership experiences have to prepare participants to meet the needs of their clients. — Kate Everson
Employees and executive sponsors might not always be quick to grab hold of a nontraditional leadership development experience, however. Several factors work against leadership development adventures, such as how much they cost in both time and money, irrelevance to a job or industry and just their theoretical nature.
“I once tried pitching learning maps [a gamified e-learning program] to help employees understand company strategy, and that idea was met by the executive team with the sound of crickets chirping,” said Dan McCarthy, the director of executive development programs at the University of New Hampshire’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. “They couldn’t get past the idea of having employees play a board game as a way to learn.”
Although McCarthy said skepticism is rarely the reason for participants’ and sponsoring executives’ reluctance. To combat any initial negative response, he recommends that learning leaders launch smaller pilot programs, enlist champions and sponsors, and use supporting research or provide case studies of companies that have seen results from nontraditional development programs.
Here are three examples of unconventional leadership development experiences that can build leadership vision, strategy and networks.
Balloon Towers and Toxic Rivers
Imagination-based leadership development pushes leaders to establish goals and help others do the same. Pepper Construction Group, for one, needed mentors.
“We wanted our senior leaders to gain the competencies of really teaching,” said Michelle Lieb, the Chicago-based construction company’s chief human resource officer. “When you teach, you learn.”
Jeff Wolf, president of Wolf Management Consultants and executive coach to Pepper Construction’s CEO and president, developed a program that paired 12 senior-level leaders with 12 high-potential employees in a mentor-mentee structure. The participants participated in group challenges that blended competition with leadership vision building.
“A person can sit in a classroom and get a lot out of it,” Wolf said. “But when they walk out a door and start putting out fires, they forget half of it or more.”
That’s why he has participants learn by putting out those fires, albeit imaginary ones. Group exercises included crossing a “toxic river” using nothing but paper plates, creating the outline of a house using three lengths of rope while blindfolded, and building a tower using nothing but 30 to 40 different-sized balloons and three rolls of tape.
These activities all draw on seeing what’s not there. Wolf said they also cultivate the ability to create a vision based on real resources, as is necessary in the workplace, and articulate that vision and align people to it under difficult circumstances.
The mentoring process demands that same capability, which is why Lieb said the exercises met Pepper Construction’s need to prepare leaders to guide their potential successors. The company’s talent strategy has always focused on growing employees from within and providing strong career paths, she said.
But the real results came when Lieb saw differences in pre- and post-assessments. In a two-year period, leadership competency scores as delineated by Pepper Construction’s leadership model significantly increased. Engagement also has improved while turnover has declined.
Lieb said the organization is also better prepared to fulfill its vision for succession. Not only are more people prepared to move up within Pepper Construction’s ranks, but also her team has a better grasp on how to develop the next wave of employees and integrate them easily into the pipeline.
“Talent continues to be a real challenge in construction,” Lieb said. “Having talent and developing them to move through succession plans is huge for us, and that’s definitely the biggest takeaway.”
Learning Is War
A military-based paintball venue teaches strategy-based skills on the battlefield that leaders can bring back to the board room.
Company paintball outings have become the setup for sitcom-style jokes about shooting the boss or taking out that annoying administrative assistant everyone loves to hate.
“They’re like, ‘Yay, I get to shoot that person, and that’s fun!’ ” Matrix Leadership Institute’s Gold said. “When asked how this relates to what you do, people say things that are smart and make sense, but how does that translate into people actually bringing it back to the office?”
For Mount Pleasant Paintball’s patrons, leaders-in-training learn how to not only communicate and function in the heat of battle but also take that strategy and succession planning back to the office.
That’s exactly what founder Ken Glasson did when developing the Charleston, South Carolina, paintball arena. After 31 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he applies the principles he learned from military practice and history to create a war-zone experience that goes beyond pigment-filled pellets.
“We took all of the negatives associated with paintball away,” he said. “Usually you get a gun, you get a debriefing and you go out and kill each other. Here you have to understand the battlefield to be successful. You can’t just walk out there and play that field without building the team and the leadership inside it.”
For example, Glasson said Google Inc. employees participated against a local church’s football team in what he described as a brains vs. brawn competition on a recreated World War II battlefield. There were almost 100 people involved who had to not only establish a strategy but also create a leadership hierarchy so if one person was shot, another step would in.
Mark Monaghan, vice president of corporate training and development for business process outsourcing company iQor Inc., helped Glasson set up the corporate leadership programs. He said the top skills learned during the experience included how to make tough decisions when under fire, how to identify leaders for specific tasks and how to read team dynamics.
“It’s a camaraderie-builder,” Monaghan said. “If you’re having a hard time with people getting along, they come and it’s like they’ve gone through an actual battle together. It brings cohesiveness to that group.”
Don’t Leave Them Cliff-Hanging
Three days of ropes courses and rock climbing give leaders the chance to flaunt their skills and recognize others’ abilities.
Sharon Cereska wanted her Duffy Group Inc. employees to get outside and bond. As marketing director at the Arizona-based recruitment firm, she had to put together a company retreat that would draw 20 employees from Georgia, New York and Texas. She found One Day Adventures, or ODA, a leadership retreat center that offered ropes or courses, rock climbing and other outdoor experiences.
Jake Parafinik, program development manager at ODA, had a different idea. For Duffy Group, he customized a three-day minicourse called the Team Adventure Quest, which blended classroom and active learning to fit the company’s virtual culture.
Participants competed in teams to complete activities, such as creating short videos featuring everyone in the team, solving brain teasers and playing bongo drums together. One of the standout activities for Cereska was an obstacle course challenge that required one team member to walk blindfolded across a floor dotted with sponges and mousetraps while the team verbally directed them. Teams received bonus points if the walker went shoeless.
“It allowed people to naturally step up and lead, rather than stage a situation where people took turns,” Cereska said. “We could see people lead who don’t usually take on leadership roles, and it gave us insight into those members’ strengths. Now that we’ve seen some of those, we’ll be able to utilize those members.”
Parafinik said ODA’s clients often request competitive team-building programs that include leadership development as a topic but not the focus. This means networking and communication are at the forefront of the experience — two skills valued in an organization like Duffy Group, where employees are scattered across the country and rarely get to connect with each other.
To mitigate this disconnect, the organization has held other events to give leaders a chance to network. In February, CEO Kathleen Duffy Ybarra sent Starbucks gift cards to all her employees and asked them to send in a selfie with their drink so the company could have a virtual coffee break.
Not every company that comes to ODA has the same commitment to giving employees a chance to network. Parafinik said many clients need damage control after tricky mergers or a poor performance streak.
That’s where more extreme leadership experiences, like rappelling, come into play. Parafinik said rappelling down a mountain alone won’t make a difference.
Despite the name of the venue, One Day Adventures, the organization’s leadership program is actually three days: one of classroom preparation that covers the concepts learned through the experience, one actually on the mountain and one for debrief discussions to enforce what participants bring back to the office.
“They’re thinking, ‘I’m going rappelling, but I’m doing it with my team and seeing those classroom concepts in action right now,’ ” Parafinik said. “You won’t be rappelling in the workplace, but you’ll be using the same leadership principles in the merger meeting.”