It's a jungle out there

Mucking in with colleagues out in the wild - is this the best way to develop managerial talent?
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The Independent Online
Squelching thigh-deep in Bohe-mian mud, facing tropical pit vipers, a torrential rainforest deluge, vodka-sodden Mongolian horsemen, or tracking leatherback turtles around the Virgin Islands may sound unlikely ways to develop managers.

Each is a real example. They show how companies from firms of consulting engineers such as Ove Arup to public bodies such as the Metropolitan Police are lending out managers to leading charities to work on these types of challenging projects. In return, the businesses use the opportunities to develop rising men and women.

Unlike some outdoor development hell camps, however, the projects not only broaden the individual and bind teams in an almost unparalleled way, but leave completed projects to benefit emerging democracies or the developing world.

Dale Haddon, Royal Mail area manager for Cleveland, has recently returned from a week monitoring the environment in Bohemia, an area of the Czech Republic so polluted it is known as the black triangle of Europe.

He went with eight other Royal Mail managers on a scheme organised by Earthwatch, the charity and international science foundation, which has its British base in Oxford. He says the experience was more valuable than other outdoor programmes. "This was a real situation with real work, real time."

This was not a case of management swanning off on a jolly foreign outing. Mr Haddon says clearing streams and checking water quality and the health of trees struck by acid rain was no walkover. "It was hard work in a rough environment that looked like a barren heath," he says. "It was all tough, physical work - 11-hour days filled with digging ditches and collecting samples."

Jerry Scutts, Royal Mail director of personnel for the North-east, is a veteran of a pioneer RM expedition last year and went along as mentor to draw out the development lessons this time. He says the company's goals for the week were to develop the cross-functional team working in a project which agreed with the Royal Mail's environmental policy.

Mr Haddon adds: "A cross-functional team is not people you work with every day, but people you work with on key issuesmaybe once a month. But by going away with them, sharing a room for a week and digging ditches for 10 hours a day, you get to know them pretty well. You learn much more about how they tick, how they prioritise, what their concerns are and what their breaking point is. We trust and understand each other."

Maureen O'Neill, Earthwatch education and development manager, went on the first managers' expedition to Bohemia last year and says this year's venture marked the launch of management development programmes by Earthwatch.

Companies can tailor any one of around 40 scientific projects throughout the world out of 165 run by Earthwatch, including some in Africa, Europe and the UK, where monitoring golden eagles on the Isle of Mull is an option. It costs about pounds 1,500 per head a week. A management consultant is on site to help design projects.

Ms O'Neill says the scheme, as well as sharpening developing managers' skills, enhances an awareness of the environment and opens participants' eyes to different cultures, language and communication issues and the wider world.

Royal Mail managers, for instance, were able to witness hand-sorting of mail in a Czech post office. They also took in a night at the opera in Prague.

At Raleigh International, the youth development charity for conservation and the community, a new tailor-made management training and development scheme has been launched after a successful pilot last year in Botswana. First off the block was Hewlett-Packard, which sent a team of nine managers to Uganda last month to set up the Raleigh office and prepare for the first expeditions of youngsters there next year.

A key task was using their business skills to raise sponsorship in cash and kind from business and commerce operating from the country. Graham Valentine, Hewlett-Packard's European local products manager, says organisers were staggered by the scheme's success. The company's multinational team of managers worked without leaders, discarding politics, one-upmanship, internal competition along with the hierarchical structure. Mr Valentine says: "They did not care who did the deal so long as it was done. There was no point-scoring against each other."

The group's resident coach, Dr Keith Milmer from Ashridge Management College, helped select management lessons as the team progressed. Mr Valentine says: "We have a team in the company which can take on anything. It is incredibly powerful. You don't believe anybody can stop you."

Earthwatch can be contacted on 0171 730 9292.

Raleigh International is on 0171 371 8585.