Off-Site Executive Trainer The Buzz


What do you do when productivity in your company is low and there is a serious lack of teamwork? Why, you take your employees sailing or mountain climbing, of course.

Don't laugh. Off-site training for executives is serious business in North America. Just ask the people who make their living putting executives through the ropes.

You can't help but laugh when Jim Wilson shares his Santa Claus story. The owner of Outreach Adventures had set up a "learning experience" for executives of a corporation that had turned to him to help improve trust and communication between the employees.

The experience involved something called a "spider's web." A network of ropes was stretched between two trees. Executives had to take turns squirming through the spaces between the ropes without actually touching the ropes themselves.

It was clearly going to be a challenge for one of the men in the group, says Wilson. He was six feet tall and weighed about 290 lbs. Many of his co-workers doubted he could complete the feat.

"He hit the web the first time," says Wilson. "But before his second try, he took his shorts off. It was the funniest thing. There he was -- this big guy with white hair, a white beard, a red shirt and, we found out later, red underwear. He looked like Santa Claus.

"But he got through the hole without hitting the web. Afterwards, he turned around and said, 'Don't ever question my commitment.'"

There was a lesson to be learned by that exercise. The man's co-workers knew at that moment that he was willing to do what it takes to get the job done. That is how off-site training for executives works.

But don't mistake this for fun and games. The goal is to transform the workplace into a happier, healthier environment. Happier employees mean more productive employees.

Most off-site training companies will model a program to suit the needs of an individual company. If trust, team spirit or communication are issues, the exercises are designed to address those areas, says Wilson.

Each off-site training company uses different exercises. Outreach Adventures uses rope courses that include several levels of difficulty.

Participants can find themselves suspended high above the ground on a flexible facility constructed of ropes and poles.

Wilson stresses that these training programs aren't intended to improve an employee's specific job-related skills. "We're not going to teach a surgeon how to cut open a patient."

Instead, they work on the so-called "soft skills." That means helping co-workers communicate more openly and effectively; cooperate with and support others; adapt to change; identify personal strengths; develop leadership skills; and see the potential for continuous learning.

Bob Root was a Fortune 500 executive in Silicon Valley in California before he shed his suit and tie to become a partner in Orion Learning, an adventure training company in Maryland.

Through programs such as sailing and whitewater rafting, Orion professes to help people understand their strengths and simplify and solve complex problems. "Instead of teaching them theory, we show them through experience," says Root.

"Companies measure us. What we do is quantifiable. They come to us when there is a problem and goals have to be met."

Root recalls a time when a man with a severe fear of heights was asked to climb a tall pole in the middle of a redwood forest and stand on a pizza-sized platform perched on top.

The man, determined to overcome his fear, slowly made his way up the pole. Once he'd made it to the top, he stood up on the platform, looked out over the forest and, to the amazement of people below, began to dance.

"It was like a ballet. He was doing all these moves," says Root. "When he climbed down, everybody said to him, 'That was incredible.' He looked at them confused and said, 'What was?' He didn't remember a thing. He was in this total zone."

Another time, he took a group of employees from a well-known Internet company out sailing, all of whom claimed to be experienced sailors. But once on the water, it was clear they didn't know what they were doing.

Later, he learned the only kind of sailing they had done was "virtual sailing" on the Internet.

Life as an off-site executive trainer does have its perks. Just ask Wendy Quinlan-Gagnon and her partner Yvette Leclair of SATI International.

"Over the last year, Yvette and I have worked in Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Japan, England, France, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, the United States and, of course, Canada," says Quinlan-Gagnon.

It's not all fun and games, however. It is often hard work. The days can be long and tiring -- and not everyone is up for the challenge.

"A typical day, when it's not sipping champagne on Dragon Air for example, might consist of making presentations, conducting focus groups, leading visioning exercises or participating with our clients in outdoor activities such as climbing, hiking, skiing [or] canoeing.

"Of course, some part of our day is taken up with administration and with researching and writing materials for our programs."

And not every off-site trainer offers physical adventures. Tigrett Corp. in Virginia, for example, uses case studies from history to help executives develop their leadership skills.

"We use strong role models like Abraham Lincoln, Sitting Bull [and] Civil War heroes like Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain to help participants learn how to solve business problems like downsizing, lack of resources, dealing with difficult co-workers and losing focus and direction," says Antigoni Ladd.

Ladd, Wilson, Quilan-Gagnon and Root don't believe off-site executive training is a fad that will fade. All have enjoyed some measure of success, some more than others.

"With the right background and motivation, the sky is the limit," Quinlan-Gagnon says.

She recommends anyone interested in starting an off-site executive training company have a broad outlook. "Get lots of varied experience -- intellectual, physical, practical -- and strive for balance and fun. Don't take life or yourself too seriously. Develop a commitment to lifelong learning."

Links

Orion Learning International
Offers adventures like performance sailing, high ropes, simulations, whitewater rafting, orienteering and habitat adventures

Tigrett Corp.
Virginia company that offers leadership lessons collected from history

Training and Development Magazine
Official publication of the American Society for Training and Development