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Sound the Retreat

September 2, 2003
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article, Training & Development

Decked out in T-shirt and tennis shorts, Howard Atkins, the chief financial officer for Wells Fargo & Co., balances precariously on two wobbly wooden planks stretched between two boxes. If he and the dozen other corporate honchos gathered on a sun-splashed lawn at a luxury hotel in Sonoma, California, successfully have worked as a team, Atkins will make it across the jerrybuilt bridge without falling off. With a final lunge, he triumphantly makes it to the other side. His team of senior financial execs clap and cheer.

    The banking leaders are part of a larger group of 73 financial executives, risk managers, accountants and group presidents that Atkins has pulled together for team-building exercises during a three-day retreat that also included more conventional business meetings with reports and presentations. The top company players are participating in seemingly silly activities for a serious purpose: improving teamwork to achieve better business results. Atkins describes them as "very high-powered, very capable, very technically skilled, very competitive people."

    Although they are top performers, the CFO says he wants an even higher level of performance. "They are very individualistic in their approach to their work," he says. "What I have been trying to do is get them to see the power of acting more like a team." By the end of the day, Atkins is clearly pleased. "It’s really a terrific success," he says, adding that Wells Fargo in recent quarters is showing double-digit gains in income and earnings, which he credits in large part to the bank’s people programs. "Success more often than not is a function of execution, and execution is really about people, so we invest pretty heavily in our people."

When business is down
    While Atkins chose relatively low-stress challenges involving activities such as balancing on planks, building tents blindfolded and stepping through complex webs of ropes, other companies use whitewater rivers, rock walls, treetop rope bridges and even fire pits as metaphors for the business world. The idea is to get people out of the office, stretch their boundaries and create some fun, all the while reinforcing serious messages like the value of team-building and pushing personal limits. But the value of off-site retreats and physically challenging exercises is a source of considerable debate, particularly in a weak economy that puts extra scrutiny on every discretionary program that can’t show solid ROI. Retreats are billed as leadership training, brainstorming or strategic thinking, but can those really be accomplished on a mountain climb, a fire walk or a whitewater rafting trip? Are companies building loyalty? Or lawsuits over seared soles and dunked human-resources directors?

    Retreat reputations were also called into question last month with the resignation of U.S. Postal Service Inspector General Karla Corcoran. She was accused of wasting public money on $1 million-a-year retreats at which employees dressed in costume, participated in mock trials and recorded testimonials to Corcoran.

    Although some companies like Wells Fargo continue to invest in team-building events, other companies are backing away. Break-out numbers on how much is spent on team-building are not available--they get thrown into training and development budgets, which are down. A study by the American Society for Training & Development published earlier this year said that training expenditures dropped from 2 percent of payroll in 2000 to 1.9 percent in 2001, reversing an upward trend between 1999 and 2000. Susan Harper, a business psychologist who runs rock-climbing programs for corporations through her company, Synergy Consulting, is one of those who feels the pinch. While other parts of her consulting business remain strong, "team-building has definitely gone down," she says. "People are reluctant to spend money on what they think is not an absolute necessity." With a recent uptick in the economy, her business has improved.

"I know intuitively the payback here is huge. It’s a very small investment
to make for the payback we are
going to get."

    Harper charges rock-climbing clients from $2,000 to $4,000 or more a day, depending on the size of the group. Other events can cost from $500 for a few hours with a stand-up comic at a corporate meeting to $10,000 and up for a team of professional facilitators pushing executives through physical challenges. Atkins estimates it cost Wells Fargo about $50,000 for three days and two nights at the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. That included a fee of $13,000 for Adventure Associates, which brought in six professional facilitators to organize the half-day program that had the CFO walking the plank. Atkins does not try to guess what kind of dollar return Wells Fargo might expect on this people investment. For one thing, the financial managers are not directly accountable for producing revenue for the company. But the CFO is convinced that teamwork can help other parts of the company make money. "I know intuitively the payback here is huge," he says. "It’s a very small investment to make for the payback we are going to get."

Productivity boost
    Author and professional retreat organizer Merianne Liteman thinks it’s a mistake to try to assess benefits in dollar terms. "Where good retreats have a quantifiable effect is on retention, on morale, on productivity," says Liteman, co-author of Retreats That Work. Given that the widespread use of electronic technology, e-mails and cell phones provides filters to keep personal contact at a minimum, Liteman thinks the benefits of bringing people together in one place can be invaluable to an organization.

    Daryl L. Jesperson, CEO of RE/MAX International, a real estate company based in a Denver suburb with 85,000 franchised agents, says he sees a payoff in productivity. "We think if you work together, play together and stay together, things work better," he says. He believes that senior management’s average stay with the company of 17 years is a direct result of an esprit de corps stemming from company-sponsored whitewater rafting and scuba-diving trips, and outings featuring golf and NASCAR races. "There is a productivity boost anytime you have one of these. People feel better about themselves, they feel better about the company, and as a result will do a better job."

    Depending on the degree of danger involved--or the bonds of friendship that can develop--these events can define a corporate culture. Jesperson says that off-site adventures are part of his company’s DNA. It goes back to the 1970s, in the company’s infancy. Money was so tight that RE/MAX executives couldn’t afford to fly to a national Realtors’ convention, so they rented a motor home and partied all the way. "This is a group that has stuck together through thick and thin." But a lot more goes into the mix. "Retreats are only one part of it," he says. It begins with hiring. "We are particular when we hire. We hire personality and attitude."

    The attitude among some of Harper’s rock-climbing clients in the late 1990s was "high fun, high risk, high energy." These were New Technology companies, and were a nice fit with rock-climbing. Even today, clients will sometimes hire her for new-employee orientation that can include a rock climb. "It can be daunting to walk in on the first day" and see a 100-foot rock face, she says, even though no one would be asked to climb that high.

Tarzan meets Gandhi
    Cornell University’s team-building program, which has a client list that includes Corning Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase and Procter & Gamble, started out with programs designed to introduce incoming freshmen to the school and each other. Now it has expanded to provide help to corporations needing to integrate corporate presidents and vice presidents under one roof after mergers. Among the outdoor courses Cornell offers is Tarzan Meets Gandhi, a three- to four-day workshop that includes climbing a network of treetop ropes coupled with discussions about self-awareness, balance and vision. Hiking and rock-climbing are often the order of the day. "Outdoor expeditions often succeed or fail because of the lack of teamwork and leadership, not technical expertise. The same is true for corporations," says Karl Johnson, Cornell’s team-building director.

"If a group wants to build a team, it’s more important to figure out what’s hampering them--dealing with real workplace issues--than to say because I climbed a wall with someone, I now feel I am part of a team."

    Liteman, who has designed off-site retreats for Fortune 500 companies as well as public and nonprofit agencies, is sold on the value of retreats, but not on physical activities. She thinks they waste too much valuable time. "If a group wants to build a team, it’s more important to figure out what’s hampering them--dealing with real workplace issues--than to say because I climbed a wall with someone, I now feel I am part of a team." She says workers may end up liking each other better but still not being able to work with each other better. "Good retreats are a lot of fun. They are not serious, plodding, heavy things. People laugh, people engage their creativity. Even when you are designing with that fun in mind, it should be for business’ sake. Let it be about business," she says.

Fire-walking hard to sell
    While Liteman may not think fire walks have a place in a business setting, others do. Some retreat organizers are still living down the bad publicity that developed in 2001 when a dozen Burger King employees burned themselves during a fire walk. One was taken to an emergency room; others were treated for blisters on their feet. Headline writers had a field day, writing about "flame-broiled feet" and other similar themes. Cork Kallen, who organized the Burger King fire-walk fiasco, says his once thriving business is so bad that he derives most of his income these days from selling teak furniture in the Philadelphia area. "Unless a CEO wants a fire walk, they don’t happen," Kallen says. Still, he and others believe in the power that comes from overcoming the fear of walking barefoot over 1,100-degree coals laid out over an 8-foot-long fire pit or strip of grass.

    Four-day sessions featuring motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, perhaps the world’s best-known advocate of fire-walking, still sell out. Fire-walking occurs on the first night of the Robbins events, held in venues like the Meadowlands Exposition Center, near New York City. Individuals, rather than large corporate groups, buy most of the tickets to these events, which cost from $695 to $1,290. "The experience is empowering," says Walker Fenz, Robbin’s spokesperson. She says that the experience sets the stage for his message.

    Even when corporate adventures don’t turn out as planned, they have the desired effect of bringing people together, proponents say. Whitewater rafting trips, which can range from half-day outings to overnights, may represent the least predictable of the corporate challenges. George Johnston, human resources director for a group of community health centers in California, discovered that a half day on the Kern River was about as much as most members of his group could handle. Ten clinic executives started the rafting trip, which was organized by one of California’s oldest river-guide firms, Whitewater Voyages. Only two hardy members of the original group of 10 returned for the afternoon session after several of the morning group went headlong into the river, chilled by Sierra snowmelt. In whitewater rafting, getting wet is just part of the experience. Still, Johnston says it was worth it. The group worked as a team, and had fun, he says. "We had a heck of a nice time together. We’re still telling stories, weeks later."

    Business consultant and Whitewater Voyages alum Jib Ellison says: "Whitewater rivers, by their very nature, are analogous to business situations." Like business, rivers are dynamic, he says. "In rapids, you can’t stop and figure things out. You have just got to deal with things in front of you. You have to learn by your mistakes and move on. Feedback is incredibly swift, one way or the other. You are either in the boat, dry, or upside down, wet." Ellison, managing partner of The Trium Group in San Francisco, says rafting is terrific for team-building. With uncertainty, hazards and dangers lurking downstream, he says, there is a constant need for teamwork. As for the danger, Bill McGinnis, Whitewater Voyages founder, says that there is an element of risk to any outdoor adventure, but perceptions are usually worse than reality. "The truth is that when done with professional guides, rafting is actually safer than the drive to the river."

Proving its worth
    On this mid-July day, a platoon of Wells Fargo honchos, clad in a scruffy collection of shorts, T-shirts and running shoes, gather uncertainly after lunch on the lush green lawn at the wine country resort. They cautiously eye a half dozen challenge setups that look like garage sale items--boards, string, helmets, bits of pipe, nylon straps. Atkins, the Wells Fargo CFO leading the retreat, has to reassure some of the financial officers that they won’t be put in danger. "We’ve taken a couple of opportunities to reassure people that they are not going to be forced to fall out of trees and be caught, and things like that," he says.

    For the next four hours, under a canopy of sycamore, pine, ficus, olive and maple trees, the bankers’ patience, their dexterity, and their imagination and good nature are put to the test. Six facilitators from Adventure Associates run the show. They are wearing shorts and knit shirts carrying their company’s logo, giving off the appearance of some sort of uber camp counselors. Ed Tilley, president of Adventure Associates, and his wife, Rebecca Tilley, are on hand. So is Don Taylor, associate dean of San Francisco State University’s College of Health and Human Services, who participates in corporate training exercises as a facilitator during summer breaks. The well-established firm, based in a suburb of San Francisco, has put on events for a long list of corporate clients, including AT&T, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard and Charles Schwab.

    A risk manager joins hands with an accountant to make what looks like a human pretzel, an exercise designed to break the ice and promote physical contact. Taylor, a friendly sort with tufts of gray hair poking out from under a baseball cap, tells a group of 30 bankers to form a perfect square. After several tries, they succeed. "Sometimes in a leadership role we have to follow," Taylor says. "Sometimes we have to take direction." And sometimes, "the way to go fast is to go slow."

    As the day wears on, blindfolded bankers will set up tents, guided by the verbal commands of team members. They will roll golf balls down narrow handheld tracks of plastic tubing or split garden hose, trying to keep the ball alive until it can be dumped over a finish line. The idea is to have fun, but with a decidedly hard-nosed goal in mind. "They know each other, but they don’t work together very often," Taylor says. "So they are trying to learn to be more effective in the way they interact, especially around communication and trust."

    The retreat doesn’t end in the Sonoma countryside. Ruth Ross, a senior vice president of human resources for Wells Fargo who helped Atkins shape the program and also was a participant, says the day’s ultimate success will depend on how much is remembered about building teamwork and communication. If a retreat serves only as a party, Ross says, "then I think it’s going to be a failure, and you are not going to get a return on investment." Only time will tell if the lessons that began with webs and planks have really built a team.

Workforce Management, September 2003, pp. 38-48 -- Subscribe Now!

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