Fast Track: A steep learning curve

Want to teach your graduate trainees a lesson? Send them to Lapland. By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Culture
Awaiting my flight at Heathrow last week alongside nine strangers with whom I was expected to "teambuild" over the next four days, I felt scared. It's one thing learning about individual strengths, compensating for weaknesses and improving interpersonal skills in the safe environment of an office. But it's quite another when it's beyond the Arctic Circle where snowmobiling is the chief means of transport and temperatures are as low as -20C.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of graduate recruits are experiencing assessment, development and training in extreme climates. Team Dynamics International - A British company which runs such trips - claims the latter half of the Nineties has seen a huge growth in bookings abroad.

"Employers have one of three objectives," explains Colin Wallace, director. "First, they use the trips as a recruitment tool. After all, graduates don't have a track record and many employers want another something other than interviewing and psychometric testing to reveal for sure true characteristics. Second, the trips are a method of deciding what role would suit the graduate once they've been recruited. Third, they are a means of team-building." Additionally, of course, it's a perk - a way for an employer to say: "We value you." Finnish Lapland, for instance, is one of the world's most untouched and exotic regions. One participant asked me: "Where else are you likely to go this year in which a single afternoon incorporates visiting a husky dog farm, playing snow golf, reindeer sleighing and eating in an ice restaurant?"

The bonus for the firms themselves is that it's not much more expensive a location than Scotland or the Lake District.

But are such trips more than a jolly? Even our first morning (8am start after arriving at the hotel at 3am - a theme to be repeated throughout the weekend, although often through choice) suggested they must be.

A series of indoor projects based on tactics for survival - including one exercise involving decisions over how to stay alive in an avalanche - demonstrated that teams consistently made sounder decisions than individuals, even where experts were present.

With this in mind, we were deemed ready for the harsher environment outside, although one last indoor assignment - completing the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator questionnaire - revealed the best and worst each of us would be likely to bring to any given team. For my team, the results were particularly interesting, since we all had the same profile of being extrovert rather than introvert; feeling rather than thinking and perceiving rather than judging. The result? We threw ourselves into the afternoon's tasks (getting a team member on top of 14 crates balanced on ice without touching him, and hoisting a team member up a tree while the rest of us were blindfolded) with enthusiasm, taking mistakes in our stride, and ignoring time-management.

"All good fun," laughed our co-ordinator afterwards. "But what if you worked on a company project in that way?"

Indeed, every group activity over the ensuing days included a review process so comprehensive that each of us was forced to analyse every participant's behaviour and relate it to the office. How could we make our enthusiasm more productive? What individual qualities could be worked on to balance the chaos of the way the group worked?

But can't such lessons be learned in any location? Kumud, a course participant, believes not. Having attended other programmes back in England, she says: "The surreal surroundings allow the imagination to think that anything is possible. Also, the clean air and feeling of altitude is lifting."

We all agreed that experiencing the dramatic exposed our best and worst qualities in a way that astounded us and that it rapidly increased the speed of the bonding process. After all, you quite literally "need each other" even to walk across flat ground where the snow is deep. You are also forced to recognise that other people's qualities which you may have initially considered weaknesses could in fact be valuable. I, for instance, hate being hurried at the cost of a good result, but realised a sense of urgency can be useful.

"Being so far away from home gives you the rare opportunity of taking off your baggage," adds Kumud. "In some cases, that's just inhibition or pressure and problems from work that you often bring with you to a training programme."

Where else would you find yourself dancing to an Abba medley on the stage of a cheesy night-club called Doris with people you'd only just met and had every intention of trying to impress?

The activities for the latter half of the trip appeared, at first glance, to be "just for fun". We shed ourselves of our team badges and rode off on snowmobiles, husky dogs, rally cars, quad bikes and reindeer. A reward for all our hard work? Not so, says Mr Wallace. "It's a way of improving self-motivation and self-confidence. There's bound to be some of those activities that scare you, and if you wind up going for it and getting over that fear, it gives you an sense of achievement and shows your potential. And because everyone notices that about everyone else, it builds up confidence between the team members."

It also has the effect of ensuring people don't feel their every move is under scrutiny. Mind you, we were undoubtedly more relaxed than during the more formal team exercises - something that co-ordinators were aware of and so they secretly checked out our responses and characteristics from time to time.

And it works a treat. Several times, a few of us took one look at an activity and shrieked: "No way!" But on at least half of those occasions, because of the unfamiliar surroundings as well as a lack of coercion, we found ourselves coming round to the idea and achieving the unthinkable.

"The programme is for the graduates and is about helping them to realise their own strengths, acknowledge their weaknesses and how to tackle those," concludes Jackie, a participant. "Not least is the fun element and, of course, to make a mistake in this environment is simply to learn from the experience."