THINKING EXPEDITIONS

Rolf Smith is looking for a few good men and women who are struggling with some pretty tough corporate challenges.

A colonel who retired from the Air Force after 24 years and after founding the military's Office of Innovation, Smith boasts several military decorations, has set six long-range national shooting records (with an M-1 rifle), and led expeditions to the far corners of the world. These days he runs the private Office of Strategic Innovation Inc. and Virtual Thinking Expedition Co. (www.thinking-expedition.com) in Cypress, Texas, taking corporate execs to places they've never been.

There are several possible training approaches when hiring Smith's team. One is an “operational thinking expedition.” This usually involves a division that has been charged with solving a problem. Pricing depends on what the company wants for results and how big its team is. Another program, known as The School for Innovators Expeditions, takes longer, is adventure-oriented, and costs $3,800 per participant. Operated on-site in Estes Park, Colo., it is a weeklong, largely outdoor session for a small group that typically includes representatives from different companies. Its objective is to provide participants with the tools and techniques — mental and physical — that they need to lead groups in their respective companies.

Behind the School for Innovators is a process that Smith calls “Me, Inc.” It focuses on mission, principles, goals, values, action plans, and determining an individual's strengths. “We realized that we could put together the best tools and the best training, but if people didn't change and see themselves as innovators, the whole thing would go on the shelf the first time they hit a roadblock,” Smith says. “When we hit on ‘Me, Inc.,’ we saw a tremendous upsurge in success.

“The rock-climbing and mountain-climbing activities are serious. The first day is an introduction, when we climb 90 feet. There's an ‘I can't believe I did this’ moment when it's over. The next day we might get them up to 300 feet. When somebody does that on top of ‘Me, Inc.,’ there is nothing they can't do. From that point on they see that things aren't impossible, just tough.”

Smith has written a book, The 7 Levels of Change, that ties together creativity, innovation, change, and ideas. He also holds a patent relating to the expedition process. He claims that 25 percent to 35 percent of participants in the School get promotions, a raise in pay, and/or big overall jumps in their careers.

Another Smith approach is a toned-down version of a Thinking Expedition that he and his staff of three can overlay on any corporate meeting or off-site gathering. “We have a 60- to 90-minute starter that gets everybody into this meeting being an expedition,” he says. “It tells them that this one will be different. We chop the traditional, longer expedition into pieces. We might get them into a Long Trek into the Unknown, or Base Camp. If the meeting is more informational, or in preparation for a product launch, the group may not need to Summit. They might just need to Base Camp or get everybody thinking and exploring new things.

“We did one in Canada for a Cadillac sales group,” Smith says. “We built it around a modified Thinking Expedition for 170 people. The following year, the group had its most successful year ever. When I met the man who hired us, he was the COO. A year later, he was the CEO.”

Any of the Thinking Expeditions can include outdoor activities, but Smith says that isn't necessary. “It really takes place in your mind,” he says. “It's a function of time and travel. In most cases we do it close to the company's location to minimize travel. To be most successful, we need at least three overnights. The first night gets people grounded in the basics; it shifts most skeptics to our side. The second night gets the rest of the skeptics and a few cynics. The third gets us to breakthrough.”

ATHLETES' PERFORMANCE

Athletes' Performance (www.athletesperformance.com) was founded just two years ago by Mark Verstegen, a former Washington State football player and assistant director of player development for Georgia Tech, who also spent some time with the IMG sports agency. Since then, the company's little-known spot in Tempe, Ariz., has become the preferred training locale for professional athletes such as the Boston Red Sox's Nomar Garciaparra, Olympic soccer champion Mia Hamm, and Los Angeles Lakers player Rick Fox. Now the 30,000-square-foot training facility is opening its doors to corporate groups, starting in January, in conjunction with the five-star Hyatt Gainey Ranch (20 minutes away).

Executive athletes, as they are called, will train for half a day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings, and play golf on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. The ideal group will be five to 10 participants, guided by a coach and an assistant. Cost for seven days of half-day training: $1,500 (lodging package not included). Two-a-day training sessions bump the cost up to $2,000. The program also includes a staff interview, various health screenings, and lunches with a registered staff dietitian. Knox says the ideal candidates for the Athletes' Performance experience would be upper level executives.

The executive training program can also be designed to accommodate on-site business. “Let's say that a pharmaceutical company wants to do a meeting in Tempe,” Knox suggests. “They can train with us in the morning, take a shower, get something to eat, then do their strategic marketing work in our theater, which accommodates 10 to 15 people. Afterward, they can get in the pool and play water polo.”

FRONT SIGHT RESORT

There are teambuilding programs and then there are team-protecting programs. The 550-acre Front Sight Resort (www.frontsight.com) in Pahrump, Nev., offers both.

Former chiropractor Dr. Ignatius Piazza started Front Sight seven years ago in Bakersfield, Calif., after a drive-by shooting in his neighborhood sent him in search of self-defense training. He sold his chiropractic business six months later because Front Sight “took off like a rocket.”

An organization that signs on for a Front Sight training experience can pick and choose what it is interested in, including sessions on martial arts, mental awareness, and executive protection. Activities can include ropes, rappelling, the Burma bridge (a high rope walk), and even zip lines to 1,100 feet. There are also various rescue and survival scenario-based activities, as well as driving courses. Students can mix and match whatever they want.

“Our philosophy is to take the individual's interest and develop their confidence,” Piazza says. “Then we bring them together and create the team challenges that require them to communicate through their new skills.”

The training operation, which Piazza touts as “IBM-quality,” moved to Las Vegas in 1998 and has enjoyed dynamic growth of 400 percent annually ever since. The company can handle groups of up to 100 people, and maintains a ratio of one instructor for every four or five students.

Clients can do programs of one, two, three, or four days; Piazza recommends at least two days. The cost is $350 per day, per student, no matter how many take the courses. The daily rate includes all the gear participants will need. Clients must make their own lodging, transportation, and food arrangements. When they're all done with the program, participants receive a certificate in their area of training and a rating based on skills testing.

“People leave us with life-saving skills,” Piazza says. “We're not teaching how to become a black belt. We're teaching people how to defend themselves and those around them should someone assault them at work or if someone comes into their building and attempts a violent encounter.

“The program empowers people,” he adds. “They walk away with a level of confidence in themselves they didn't have before. And once you've got that, you've got it forever.

“Our typical corporate client has a number of executives or staff members that they want to turn into a better working team and then establish who the leaders are,” Piazza says. “It could be a group of teachers who want better communication skills and to push themselves to the edge of the envelope. Within that group, you'll see the leaders emerge. It doesn't matter what background they have; it's what skills they want to learn.”

The more knowledge and training employees are given, he says, the more responsibility they're willing to take.

“It's amazing, sometimes, the things you see,” says Piazza. “People who weren't necessarily leaders in the past will rise to the top. We might have a Fortune 500 CEO taking a rappelling course. He's never rappelled before; he starts at the same beginning level as everyone else. Then they all come together to rescue somebody high in the tower. Sometimes everyone is surprised who steps up and shows leadership traits here. And they'll talk about it for years to come.”

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