Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What I learned from a day in the woods

Leadership in the woods

A few years ago, I went on a one-day leadership course outdoors. We did various team-building and leadership activities, all based on outdoor exercises. I gained something from the experience, but there were positives and negatives. I would send people on a similar course, but with reservations. Here’s what happened, what I got out of it, and what I would do differently.

The woods
(Image credit: Mike Woodward, copyright Mike Woodward)

What happened

The group of us that did this course were all employees of the same company, company X, but from different departments. Some of us worked together occasionally, others did not. We knew one another, just not very well. The goal of the course was to prepare us for leadership positions.

The course took place at a facility in the countryside, not too far from civilization. This definitely wasn't an extreme survival course; the worst survival hardship was getting the wrong sandwich at lunchtime.

Once we'd all arrived, we were briefed on the day, split into groups, and given exercises to do on outdoor equipment. Before each exercise, we were informed of its purpose, and instructors helped us through it. 

One exercise was walking across a log suspended about 5m in the air; all perfectly safe because we wore harnesses and helmets etc. The instructor said the point of the exercise was to face fear and uncertainty and move forward with the support of the team. The team was encouraged to shout positive things to the person walking across; but nothing that might cause them to fall! However, the main instructor left halfway through, leaving us with more junior staff who focused on safety and didn’t reinforce the message about teamwork and support. 

In another exercise, we were led around blindfolded to build trust. 

The rest of the day went on in a similar vein, with similar exercises, and we had a debriefing session at the end of it.

What happened afterwards

I liked the program a lot and I took the message to heart about teamwork and support. Some months later, I faced a business decision that made me very nervous. I thought about my experience walking the log 5m in the air, and I went forward with my decision with more confidence (if I can do that, I can do this). However, my log walking boost wore off after about a year. Overall, the gains I made from the course only lasted for about twelve months.

Smaller, but not insignificant benefits of the whole thing for me were a day out of the office and the sense that my employer was investing in me.

There was a major problem with the day though; some people absolutely hated it. They hated the exercises, they hated having people watch them fail, and they hated the whole idea of running around in the woods; they got nothing out of the day. Bear in mind, this kind of group physical activity may bring back painful school memories for some people, and this is what happened when I was there. There was just too much baggage to learn. Although I felt good about the course, some people felt worse about the company for making them go and I'm sympathetic to their position. Did this make them less suitable as managers? I don’t think so.

Lessons learned

Would I spend corporate money to run an event like this again? Yes, but with reservations.
  • I would consider very carefully people’s objections to these kinds of events. I would not coerce anyone to go. If there were a number of people firmly opposed, I would try and find something else. 
  • I would consider disabled access very carefully. If someone on the team was a wheelchair user, for example, I would execute the program in an inclusive way, if at all.
  • I would make sure the teamwork and leadership message was reinforced all the time. There would be a briefing before the day, and afterward. 
  • I would schedule something like this once every year or two to reinforce the learning.

There are things to learn from a day in the woods, but maybe not everyone learns the same things.

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