March 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Go for the goal March 1999 Current Issue
March 1999

Go for the goal

Groups are going to new extremes in the name of bonding

By Amy Drew Teitler

Her body becomes one with the car, and the hypnotic purr of the engine drowns out the rest of the world. Work is forgotten, and tension is mounting at the starting line. She waits for the green flag, glancing at her longtime opponent in the car to the left. He may be wearing a helmet, but she’d know that self-assured posture anywhere. She grips the wheel tighter, knuckles whitening, and thinks, “There is no way Bob from the Peoria office is beating me this time!”

Race day at the Indy 500? Hardly. This is the not-so-cutthroat realm of team building, a forum in which the friendly spirit of competition and the merits of decisive teamwork come together in an exercise that can bond co-workers into a lean, mean, efficiency machine and ultimately benefit every aspect of an organization.

High-octane options for staff bonding are growing in popularity these days programs that take employees around the track at breakneck speeds or to new heights on a seven-story indoor rock wall. It is a new age of team building that is appropriate for adrenaline junkies and their more sedentary counterparts alike, since all of the best programs have a multitude of important team roles to get everyone involved as a vital part of the process.

Karlene Sugarman, M.A., a sports psychology consultant in San Mateo, Calif., and author of Winning the Mental Way (Step Up Publishing, Burlingame, Calif.), feels communication is one of the perks of using high-adrenaline tactics when it comes to building better working relationships.

“Activities such as these require direct and honest communication so the group can be successful,” says Sugarman. “Plus, positive feedback and encouragement to one another while participating helps complete the task while building self-confidence.”

Kicking asphalt
Zakary Brown, president of Indianapolis-based Track Attack, Inc., maintains that driving race cars can be used as a metaphor for many business agendas. “It’s great for team building because you can’t win unless you’re in sync with your teammates,” he points out. “Races, for the most part, are won and lost in the pit lane [where the cars make stops for tire changes and the like].”

Track Attack can tailor race outings around any company goal. One such game is a Le Mans-style endurance race in which staff members are divided into teams to do driver rotations and real pit stops. “The race is timed, like the qualifying races at the Indy 500,” says Brown. “We give participants the sensation of a real race...wheel-to-wheel with other cars.”

Track Attack’s race cars can tear up the asphalt at 130 miles per hour (although “the average driver won’t go above 90 miles an hour,” says Brown), and the company can take the show on the road to create safe tracks where none exist, eliminating the need for an organization to travel to Indiana for camaraderie’s sake.

Another option is Skip Barber’s Racing School, headquartered in Lakeville, Conn., whose client list includes Norelco, Pepsi and Lucent Technologies. The company was founded in 1975 by Barber (an accomplished Formula 500 and Formula One racer) and offers programs on 21 tracks throughout the country from Nevada to New Hampshire to Florida.

“[Racing] really works, even when you get back to the office,” says Katharine Campbell, event marketing manager for Weider Publications, a New York City-based publishing company. “You’re all out there doing something very challenging that no one has done before. There’s fear and anxiety, and you lean on one another and learn the personalities of the people you work with while you’re figuring out who will play what role. When you get back to work, you realize you’ve built stronger relationships.”

Higher ground
If the heady aroma of scorched rubber isn’t appealing, you may want to look elsewhere. Up, perhaps.

The Chicago-based team-building firm Corporate Climb employs the strategic and physical challenges of rock-wall climbing as a link to the idea of reaching new goals at work. The company’s client list includes Ameritech, NEC Technologies and Andersen Consulting.

“One of my clients said it perfectly,” says Susan Harper, Ph.D., who co-founded Corporate Climb in 1995 with Tony Peeters, an instructor and member of the American Mountain Guides Association. “She said, ‘There is a seriousness to [climbing] just as there is a seriousness in business. Like in business, if you screw up here, there are consequences.’”

Randy Melcher of Interep, a Chicago-based radio advertising sales firm, says his company’s experience with rock-wall climbing helped staff morale.

“I worked with the Corporate Climb staff to create a challenge that related to what my staff does on a day-to-day basis,” says Melcher. “We mapped out different spots on the wall, and tags were put there the higher the tag, the higher the dollar amount.”

Melcher’s crew was charged with banding together as one cohesive force to figure out how to get the most tags with the highest dollar amounts. Part of this involved designating roles for each team member. Who will climb? Who will coach? Who will strategize?

“It really created positive energy within our learn who the risk-takers are, who’s more conservative, who’s more flexible and who’s a strategizer. If it taught us one thing, it was that if we all put our minds together, we can accomplish anything.”

From Harper’s perspective, it’s gratifying to see people who think that, because they’re middle-aged or out of shape, they can’t climb only to discover that they’re better at it than those who are younger and seemingly more fit. Some participants, however, whether because of a fear of heights or a physical problem, just won’t go up.

“We always give them a choice at the beginning, because there are very important people on the ground who are necessary to complete the task,” she says, adding that the disappointments she sees are never with people who don’t climb, but rather with those who don’t do as well or get as high as they thought they would.

“One time,” Harper recalls, “the CEO of a smaller company brought his whole staff in for the exercise. At the end, he was a little down because since he has always been a successful man, it was tough to see that some of his employees were better at climbing than he was.”

Later on, she noticed, he let himself become more open to the fact that he could get support from the people on his staff. “He said that it was nice for a change to take coaching from other people...And it was cool that he could say that openly in front of his team. I think the challenge really brought that out of him.”

Cohesion is an important element not lost on team-building experts. “A lot of high-adrenaline exercises teach people that in a group environment, no one person can do everything,” says Sugarman. “They have to coordinate their efforts to complete a bigger task. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

To Allison Levy, president of Berkeley, Calif.-based Aspiring Heights, the real analogy between business and rock climbing lies in communication. Her company illustrates this by teaching the climbing basics to one group, then having that group try to explain it to the next.

“Even with something as basic as knot-tying a vital skill in rock climbing it’s rare that any two people will go about explaining it, or learning it, the same way,” says Levy. She points out that some learn better by repetition, others by writing everything down. “It teaches them that they have to be flexible when talking with people and opens them up to new ways of communicating.”

Trust, of course, is a big issue when you’re scaling a rock face. “You do not want to climb with someone you don’t trust,” says a serious Levy. “The exercises on the mountain like one where a group of climbers are tied together and have to reach the top as a team really teach them a lot about trust and working relationships.”

Levy adds that in exposing who is good at what, co-workers learn how to put everyone’s skills to the best use in figuring out how to solve problems.

Back to work
As effective as adventurous activities like rock-wall climbing and race car-driving can be at building better relationships within an organization, they’re certainly not mandatory.

Fred Kusch, president of Lacrosse, Wis.-based JFK Associates, has run team-building programs for many companies over the past 17 years most of them highly effective, few of them high adrenaline. While he agrees that adrenaline-infused activities are exciting (his company offers a high-ropes course 800 feet over the Root River gorge in Minnesota), he points out that it’s up to the facilitator to make sure that participants get the important points of team building from doing them.

“A skilled instructor will be able to get clients to figure out why these activities relate to the work situation. If he or she has to tell the clients why it relates, then the course is not doing its job,” he says.

Furthermore, Kusch believes it’s not the activities themselves that forge the bond among staff members. “Often these programs are costly, and companies can only afford to send a handful of employees to do it,” he says. “And when they come back to brief the others on what they’ve learned, no one cares since they didn’t get to go on the trip. Budget it so that everyone can reap the benefits and have fun. You don’t have to shoot the Colorado rapids to learn how to work together more effectively.”

Methods Without Madness

For those not interested in taking physical risks, opt for team-building programs that are a little less adventurous. Offerings range from sailing the high seas to simple scavenger hunts. Peruse these Web sites to get started.

  • Taylor-Nelson
    This organizational development company, based in San Bernardino, Calif., offers basic team-building programs as well as golf-related outings and events that use the principles of sailing to build a better team. (909) 686-8471.

  • Lakewood Consulting
    At Orlando-based Lakewood Consulting, program participants work as a team to finish a custom-designed race or solve problems tailored specifically to company goals. (407) 248-0985.
  • Urban Outing Club
    Based in Brookline, Mass., UOC uses scavenger hunts and other games (like designing and building your own mini-golf hole) to inspire performance and camaraderie within a staff. (617) 738-2111.

  • Oregon Challenge Course, Inc.
    Ropes courses designed to be safe and not physically strenuous are the focus of this Portland, Ore.-based outfit. (503) 774-1581 A.D.T.
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