Endurance Racers Go the Extra Mile

Challenger World runs "business Olympics" events that test teams on skills that Washington Groups tries like teamwork and leadership to instill in its employees. The company views the competition as a one way to differentiate itself to young recruits.

February 16, 2006
As the sun rose on the second day of the race, Paula Bowman was wondering what she had gotten herself into. Sleep-deprived, dehydrated and hungry, she and her six teammates had spent the night hiking down a mountain in the pitch dark with only their headlamps to guide them as they dodged the falling rocks that often came loose and tumbled by them.

    Since 5:30 the previous morning, they had biked, rappelled, run and kayaked over a 120-mile race course at Big Bear Lake in Southern California.

    And that was just practice.

    Bowman, an electrical design supervisor at Washington Group International, and her teammates were preparing for the U.S. Challenge, where 30 teams of employees from companies like Cisco Systems, Dell and Accenture race through physical and mental challenges for two days.

    For 10 years, the event’s sponsor, Challenger World, has been running similar "business Olympics" competitions in the U.K. and continental Europe, where they are widely popular. Last year, the group decided to bring it to the U.S., says Andrew Hawkins, marketing manager at Challenger World.

    The competition tests teams on the skills that Washington Group tries to instill in its employees, like teamwork and leadership, says Jennifer Large, vice president of integrated staffing and talent development.

    The company also saw the competition as a way to differentiate itself to young recruits, says Larry Myers, senior vice president of human resources. It conveys the image that Washington Group is a dynamic, high-performing organization and not just another construction and engineering company, he says.

    Washington Group invested $20,000 in training, entry fees and travel, putting the team through intense preparation. This included a weekend orientation at its Boise, Idaho, headquarters, where team members engaged in trust exercises like being blindfolded and allowing their teammates to guide them through various tasks. But it was the grueling 120-mile race course that really brought the team together, Bowman says.

    On October 24, the team flew to Asheville, North Carolina, for the race. For three days they ran, biked and kayaked, stopping along the way to solve complicated puzzles like the Japanese teaser Sudoku. In one part of the race, Bowman would write down the puzzles and show them to her teammate, Rudy Bellinger, a riddle expert, who would figure them out as they ran.

    Their teamwork paid off: Washington Group finished first.

    More surprising than winning, however, was the reaction that Bowman and her teammates received when they returned to their offices. People they didn’t know would come up and congratulate them. "It really brought the whole company together," she says.

    Large is hoping to keep that mood up and plans to feature the team in this year’s employee development calendar, which presents 12 skills, like teamwork and leadership, and provides examples for each. The company is also producing a film and other recruiting materials featuring the team.

    In December, the team flew to Crystal River, Florida, for the World Challenge, where they competed against 26 teams from around the world. Although they placed 18th, CEO Steve Hanks says that for the branding and morale boost the company got from the event, "it was the best investment we have ever made."

Workforce Management, February 13, 2006, p. 29 -- Subscribe Now!