Outward Bound – Why leaders need to get physical

At 6.20am on bitterly cold winter’s morning the little bay of Anakiwa in the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds echoes with the soft slap of running shoes on tarmac. Thirteen human resources specialists are trialling Outward Bound’s courses for corporate managers.

Their three kilometre run will be followed by complete immersion in the water, cold shower and, later the same day, blindfold exercise and high ropes course.

They do it in the name of leadership skills, team-building and motivation.

Internationally, Outward Bound has challenged people’s personal boundaries since 1941. In New Zealand, more than 40,000 New Zealanders have slogged their way through its often arduous courses in its 40-year history.

Most have fronted up as individuals. But in the past five years the organisation has refocused its energies on corporates, firstly with its Compass course, remodelled this year as Navigator, and more recently with custom-designed programmes for individual companies.

Customer manager corporate Darren Quirk says Outward Bound works at the attitudinal and behavioural level to help managers deal with the current “whitewater business environment” in which nothing stands still.

According to John Luckner and Reldan Nadler, authors of Processing the experience: strategies to enhance and generalize learning participants in Outward Bound’s experiential learning programmes are engaged in “posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibilities, being creative and constructing meaning”.

Facilitators help draw out the relevance of each activity through series of techniques based on reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that companies posing as experiential facilitators but merely offering two-hour kayaking trip, don’t cut it with senior managers looking for significant and long-term change in staff attitudes or behaviour.
Ironically, many such senior managers undermine the very effectiveness of Outward Bound’s courses themselves by their reluctance to front up in person.

Quirk admits that, not altogether altruistically, many senior managers often delegate attendance at course to their more agile junior colleagues.
“The problem I face,” says David Crawford, the Maritime Safety Authority’s divisional manager, analysis and strategy, “is that the more senior people are, the less likely they are to do something experiential”.

The same manager charges that experiential learning is still ridiculed due to the money-no-object excesses of the ’90s.

Quirk agrees there is problem but suggests that this stems from the historically poor debriefing processes employed by some operators. Others suggest it’s simply that few senior managers relish the prospect of appearing ridiculous or unfit, or of facing their very private fears in front of junior colleagues.

If that is the case they’re missing key point. The aim is not to be first back from that early morning run – although it helps if you want to squeeze in hot shower after the obligatory cold one – but to be taking part. Sure, that sounds naff. But the courses are varied enough to ensure that everyone will at some point face task that is challenging for them. What matters is how they deal with it.

Reluctant managers would do well to pack rucksack full of Daniel Goleman-style emotional intelligence and roll up with plentiful stores of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

The problem of just how to encourage more senior managers to front up may eventually be solved by the passage of yet more years.

Quirk asserts that people who did Outward Bound courses 10 or even 20 years ago are now in senior management roles, remember the experience with affection and are driving others in their companies to try it too.

One of the organisation’s most visible advocates, Hubbard Foods managing director Dick Hubbard, and an Outward Bound graduate of 1964, is so enamoured of the course that he not only sends his staff but has created an Outward Bound cereal and donates 50c from the sale of every packet. So far he’s raised $750,000 for the organisation.

To help draw out learnings on its programmes for corporates, Outward Bound also works closely with management and HR consultancy The Hay Group, which provides 360 degree assessment of participants’ leadership competencies prior to their departure for Outward Bound, following up with full-day review at Anakiwa.

Consultant Gill Hopkins stresses that this is not one-size-fits-all model. “We help people understand what’s appropriate for their particular style and work environment.”

Tocker Associates’ business learning facilitator Ali Tocker digs in further with sessions on understanding workstyle preferences, providing tools and techniques on leadership and management for when participants eventually swap their polyprops and all-weather gear for suits and head back to the office.

Keen to emphasise the importance of aligning the body physical with the corporate world, Quirk faxes to us copy of “The making of corporate athlete”, Harvard Business Review article in which performance psychologist Jim Loehr and LGE consultancy executive Tony Schwartz outline their work on what they call the performance pyramid.

This is four-parter incorporating the mind, emotions, spirit and the body. Each part profoundly influences the others and failure to address any one of them compromises performance.
Understand the performance pyramid, Loehr and Schwartz reason, and you’ll understand why some executives thrive under pressure while others wilt.

Loehr and Schwartz say they have tested their thinking on thousands of executives and recorded dramatically improved performance and enhanced health and happiness.

Rather than trying to attract the nation’s current top managers to its courses, Crawford suggests Outward Bound may well best focus on New Zealand’s leaders of the future. “See it as way to say to them ‘We want you to have the confidence to look life in the face’.”

“Once you learn something through experience it stays with you for life.”

Or as Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn, once said: “We are all better than we know. If only we can come to discover this, we may never again settle for less.”

Ruth Le Pla attended the course as guest of Outward Bound. Her senior manager, who had originally been invited, was unexpectedly busy that weekend and had to delegate the assignment to her.

Ruth Le Pla is editor of Marketing Magazine.
Email: [email protected]

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