For an adult-learning experience that is truly outside the box, you can't beat the Executive Experience, a by-invitation-only event produced by the Disney Institute and the Professional Convention Management Association, held November 2 to 5 at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.
The program, now in its second year, involved taking a couple dozen meeting planners fishing with top professional bass anglers for two mornings in the bass-stocked lakes within Walt Disney World, and then coming back to the Floridian to weigh in each team's catch, eat lunch, and meet as a group to talk about what the experience taught them, or could teach them, about leadership.
Weirdly, it worked. Most participants, myself included, didn't know a lick about bass fishing. We found ourselves literally outside the “box” of the classroom, in the middle of a lake, trying to figure out how the heck to cast without injuring anyone onboard, including oneself.
Paired with the three-time Angler of the Year Kevin Van Dam — a very nice guy who did not once laugh or grimace at my antic casting technique — I quickly learned something critical about leadership. A leader knows when to ask for help from the pros — and can figure out quickly how to apply that knowledge. I found I was a pretty good leader in the first respect, but, alas, not so good in the latter. In two mornings of fishing, I caught but one small fry, which I had to throw back.
Luckily, my teammate, PCMA president Deborah Sexton (a bass fishing neophyte as well) and I were fishing with “KVD,” the reigning king of bass fishing, and our team managed to come in third place anyway. Our team also had the help of Disney Vice President of Resort Sales and Services Ann Hamilton-Chehab, who, having grown up in the Florida Keys fishing with her dad, also hooked a couple of big ones.
The afternoon sessions were led by an able facilitator from the Disney Institute, which offers executive training/leadership programming based on management philosophies and strategies that have contributed to the success of the Disney company. On the second afternoon, we had two surprise speakers. The first was Walt Disney Resorts' Vice President of Operations, Lee Cockerell, who spoke about leadership from the Disney perspective. “Number one: take the time to hire good leaders. They are the silver bullet,” he said. “Without them you won't get very far, no matter how talented the rest of the team is.”
The second speaker was Clay Dyer. Dyer was born without arms or legs, but that has not stopped him from pursuing his dream — to earn a ranking as a professional bass angler — a goal that he has come close to achieving. We gave him a standing ovation, and came away thinking differently about our own obstacles.
The closing banquet at the fabulous American Adventure rotunda (within EPCOT) was a fun yet elegant affair. Susan Katz, director of events for True Value Co., won the award for largest fish caught (by a planner), a prize won last year by Amanda Rushing, director of meetings and expositions for the National Association of School Principals. This year Rushing was on the first-place team, along with Shelly Cohen-Renn, director of meetings and programs, American Association of Blood Banks; and professional angler Guy Eaker. It was a great evening, and, overall, a fun learning experience — even if I didn't catch a keeper.