Feel the shock of an icy waterfall — two fists of crystal froth, crashing down a granite wall, framed by a tangle of vines. With a rope secured around your waist and anchored to the top of the rock, you start rappelling, creeping backward down the 150-foot vertical face. You're in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle, feeling helpless on these massive rocks, trying to manage your fear — and not to look down. But you're not alone. Below, one of your colleagues is anchored to terra firma, guiding you down from a place where every step could be your last.
“It's a long way down, or up, and it looks insurmountable,” recalls Rassami Hök Ljungberg, director of communications for Razorfish Europe, which brought 30 employees — or “fish,” as they're called — to Costa Rica last fall for a weeklong Outward Bound experience. “I didn't have a problem climbing up or down those waterfalls, or putting my life in someone else's hands. But it was hard when I was on the other end of the rope, and someone else had to trust me to secure him. I thought, ‘If I do something wrong, this person could die!’”
Dubbed Catapult 2.0, last fall's program was a second incarnation: Catapult 1.0 sprang to life in 1999 as the brainchild of Jeff Daiches, CEO of the 6-year-old, New York City — baseddigital solutions provider. The 30 participants who found themselves under a waterfall or out on a limb were considered Razorfish's rising stars: They were hand-picked by the heads of the company's 15 offices in nine countries as outstanding “fish” who fit the company's profile for emerging leaders.
In 1.0, Catapultees had participated in four-day workshops on weekends once a month for four months in Rogue River, Ore. Then the company decided it would be more cost-effective and less disruptive to consolidate the program into an intensive eight-day experience, organized in collaboration with Hurricane Island Outward Bound in Rockland, Maine.
“We decided early on that one of the best ways to achieve the greatest degree of personal and group development in a short time was to take people far outside their comfort zone,” says Cindy Pound, Catapult's program director. “It's a great way to move quickly beyond cultural or personal barriers, to equalize people and get them thinking collaboratively.”
Outward Bound's training style was in sync with the Razorfish company environment. “Their corporate culture is real go-getter,” observes Bob Gordon, director of professional development programs at Hurricane Island. “They fight to get a project done on time. They're highly motivated to be number one.”
The program, which ran from November 4 to November 12, began at the company's headquarters with a series of six workshops led by Razorfish's top executives. Each presented a business problem related to his or her area of expertise. The Catapultees then broke into small groups and generated solutions, which they presented to the leaders.
“The goal was to give participants an understanding of our executive leadership team — their roles, responsibilities and major challenges,” says Charlie White, Razorfish's director of network services on the West Coast. Getting feedback from the executives about their solutions was a real learning experience for participants. “We saw how complex their problems are and how difficult and time-consuming it can be to solve them,” recalls Ljungberg.
“People had to help each other navigate through some tough terrain. By the time they had reached their destination, they were exhausted — but in high spirits.”
— Charlie White, director of network services, Razorfish
The Catapult schedule called for participants, along with Charlie White, Cindy Pound, and a team of nine people from Outward Bound, to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, the morning of November 6. “We had our first unplanned leadership experience when we got to JFK and found that our flight was canceled,” jokes White. “Some of the Catapultees took charge and got us booked on a different flight from LaGuardia, while others arranged for transportation there.”
The group's first foray once in Costa Rica was a two-hour ride in cattle trucks into Costa Rica's back country, over dirt roads, up and down hills, and through areas of startling beauty. Because of delays, the second half of the trek was done in the dark, through rain and mud. Then they group split into three squads, each paired with several people from Outward Bound.
“The squads were responsible for leading themselves through the jungle trails to the place where we were staying,” says White. “People had to help each other navigate through pretty rough terrain: riverbeds, rocky trails, and knee-deep mud.” One team member became so thoroughly winded that her teammates decided to take her backpack and distribute the contents among themselves. By the time they reached their destination, everyone was exhausted and soaking wet — but they were in high spirits.
For the next two days, base camp was a 40-by-60-foot open-air hut with a tin roof, the home of a local family. The Catapultees bedded down in sleeping bags, shared the outhouse, drank water from a stream, and ate meals heavy on rice and beans. “They were just fantastic,” says Ljungberg of the host family. “Everyone was so friendly to us, even with the language problem.”
The day after they arrived, the Catapultees tried their hand at waterfall rappelling, waterfall climbing, and tree climbing. “The outcomes of those activities were all about coaching and support,” says Eric Denny of Outward Bound. “If I'm about to climb up the waterfall, what do I need from a coach on the ground? Moral support? Words of approval? Or guidance, like pointing out where the handholds are? Talking through the kind of support you need is an important transfer point to being a leader.”
Denny checked in once or twice a day with Pound and White to get a sense of how the group was holding up. “One of the things you have to do, just as you would in business, is constantly monitor the dynamics,” says Gordon. “If you see that the group really needs some down time, you want to have the flexibility to go where they need to go.”
All of the activities had been carefully mapped out in advance by Pound, Gordon, and Denny. Gordon, who didn't go on the trip, went to Costa Rica beforehand with several Outward Bound staff to do the setup work. “We ran through all the program events while we were there, because you have to know the environment and the logistical pieces so that you can maximize the flow and the learning.”
In the next phase of the journey, the Catapultees retraced their steps to the village where they had begun their jungle trek, formed new teams, and boarded white-water rafts. They were immediately plunged into class 3 and 4 rapids. “The level of complexity was pretty difficult,” recalls White. About a third of the way down the river, the rains swept in, bringing with them a mass of chilly air. “People suddenly got very cold, and there was a lot of sharing of personal items to keep warm.”
For Ljungberg, it was a frightening experience. “I was in one of the only rafts that didn't overturn,” she says. “But no one really got hurt. One woman fell into the water and bruised her foot. She was OK, but it was really scary for the rest of us to see her go floating down the river.”
The rafting experience was designed to focus on situational leadership. “Each leader had the raft for half a day,” says Denny. “Before you'd go out, you'd talk to your crew, decide who would do what, plan how you want to run the rapids. After the run, you'd come back and evaluate everything. How effective was your leadership style? Was the team clear about your goals, and its own roles? What would you change next time?”
Fatigue was a very real part of the whole adventure. “We were up late, and Costa Rica was tiring,” says Denny. “But in Razorfish's world, where a project team has to build an entire IT solution for a major financial institution and they [the clients] want it yesterday, that kind of fatigue is exactly what these people are going to face.”
The next day, the group rafted to the Pacific Ocean and hiked about two miles along a pristine beach to a wooden bungalow, where they made camp. In the early evening, the Catapultees all headed out for six-hour “solos” — the only period of sustained, solitary reflection they had had all week.
“That's an important part of the action-learning cycle,” says Denny. “It's about getting alone on a beautiful beach with no one around and having time to process your thoughts, think about your personal action plans and about what you've learned about yourself over the past few days.”
On the last day, Catapultees woke up anticipating a killer challenge. “We had prepped people for this enormous final event, something like crossing crocodile-infested rivers,” quips Gordon. So, to knock people off balance, we engaged them in an activity that was analogous to the projects they were going to be leading and managing at home.”
Using bits of Costa Rica's natural environment — a palm frond, a piece of driftwood — participants were directed to build real catapults that they could use to propel coconuts into the sea. The teams were given an hour and a half to create their products, as well as apresentation, for a prospective buyer.
“It was a great way to culminate this whole event,” says Gordon. “It really played into Razorfish's remarkably creative culture.”
“In Razorfish's world, where a project team has to build an entire IT solution for a client and they want it yesterday, this is exactly the kind of fatigue they'll face.”
— Eric Denny, Outward Bound
During the trip, daily evaluations were conducted with Catapultees. Other assessment tools were built in as well. “The program has success metrics in place,” says Pound. “Each Catapultee, in both 1.0 and 2.0, underwent a 90-day assessment, and they'll have six-month and one-year assessments.” Coyle is working closely with Pound, using that feedback as the basis for the design for the next Catapult (which is not yet scheduled).
As for Rassami Ljungberg, her eyes were opened in two significant ways. “First, I learned the importance of clear strategy and clear leadership — how crucial it is to give all your team members a distinct vision of where you're headed. That was my foremost lesson.
“Second, being thrown together with 29 people from different nationalities and disciplines, I developed a fantastic network to call on. It really helps to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I have this question, or this problem. How do you think I should solve it?’ I had never interacted with these people before. Now we know we're there for one another.”
Margery Stein is a freelance writer living in New York City. She is a frequent contributor to CMI.