Meetings & Conventions Go for the goal March
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
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
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
“[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.”
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
“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
“It really created positive energy within our group...you 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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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