Managers who climb every mountain to get to the top

Going to the physical limit on an outward bound course can boost confidence and build vital teamwork skills, says Philip Schofield
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IMAGINE being a management trainee out in the hills on a mountain rescue exercise with a number of your colleagues. One of you is firmly tied to a stretcher being lowered down a cliff, interrupted midway by a ledge. The stretcher hangs from two ropes, each handled by a colleague anchored on the cliff edge. Another, supported by a third rope - the barrow boy - walks backwards down the cliff at the foot of the stretcher, controlling its descent and steering it past obstacles. Once the stretcher is past the ledge the three rope handlers lose sight and sound of the stretcher and barrow boy, so another person is positioned on the ledge to relay instructions from the barrow boy to each rope handler.

In an hour-and-a-half you learn many important lessons from such an exercise: the importance of pre-planning, good teamwork, clear communications, safety procedures, preparation of equipment, and ensuring everyone knows their responsibilities. The consequences of getting it wrong are obvious to everyone.

Below the cliff, company directors are driving Land Rovers blindfold over steep, mud-covered, wooded hills, with detailed guidance from instructors. This exercise serves to remind drivers that only by unwavering reliance on those beside them can they steer a company in the right direction. Because the risks are real, such exercises require concentration and total co-operation. Unlike simulations and case studies, the experience is vivid, memorable and fun.

Outdoor activities are normally associated with recreation or with development programmes for the young. But each year thousands of workers at all levels undertake such activities as part of their career development. Unfortunately, outdoor development programmes are sometimes associated with macho management and testing people's physical and mental toughness in rugged conditions. TV documentaries and press stories about one centre in Scotland have reinforced this image.

Trying new activities in an unfamiliar environment helps people to explore their own abilities, limitations and motivation. It also gives them the confidence to handle new situations in which they have no prior experience. Managing change is an integral part of management jobs today.

The outdoors is also used for team building. This involves sending an entire working group, such as a project team or a board of directors, on a course together. It is also used to help a cohort of new employees, such as a new intake of graduate trainees, to gel into a team of people who will collaborate with each other.

Recently it has also been used for team re-building. As organisations have restructured and downsized, many outdoor development programmes are helping them to re-build and re-motivate teams from the insecure survivors of the old.

Most outdoor course providers can design programmes to serve the specific needs of a client. This become an integral element of the employer's staff training and development programme. The client lists of the major providers read like a Who's Who of top employers.

A typical course starts with several small projects - such as moving the team, together with some equipment, from one spot to another without touching the ground. The aim of these is to look at how people relate to one another, how they initiate problem-solving ideas, how they communicate, who emerges as a leader and why, and the whole process of interaction.

Subsequent activities may involve longer tasks such as building and sailing a raft, abseiling, and caving. Others may be more directly work-related.

Outdoor courses are often integrated into a wider programme. For instance, some MBA programmes include outdoor activities. Specialist development programmes for boards of directors, such as those designed and run by the Highlands- based Core Solutions, include elements of coaching, counselling, driving blindfold and crewing freight canoes.

A programme usually has both trainers and instructors. The trainers design the programme and brief and debrief the participants. The instructors are concerned with ensuring the safety of participants and running the outdoor activities in a way which gives relevant learning experiences. All major course providers are safety-conscious and accidents are rare. If participants start to do things which put them at risk, such as tying an insecure knot during a mountain rescue exercise, instructors intervene.

Participants are not normally asked to do anything which they think is beyond them, although they are encouraged to do so. If they can overcome their anxiety, this helps them to see that most of us can handle unfamiliar and what initially appear to be frightening new challenges. As new challenges often arise in the workplace, and many people avoid these by settling for safe options, the lesson is important.

Teams on such courses gel very quickly. Colleagues assess each other informally and provide feedback to one another at debriefing sessions after each exercise. One of the responsibilities of the trainer is to ensure that this feedback is constructive and does not undermine the confidence of the individual. At the same time, new and unexpected strengths and qualities are revealed. Mutual esteem within the group is normally strengthened and based on more realistic criteria. The result is a highly motivated team, bonded by mutual respect, which works well and welcomes new challenges.