Colorado Outward Bound School: Turning Managers into Leaders

Ever since educator Kurt Hahn founded Outward Bound in 1941 to teach survival skills to young British seamen, the organization has built a reputation for encouraging leadership and teamwork through rigorous outdoor experiences. But white-water rafting, mountain climbing, orienteering--not to mention staying eight to a room in sleeping bags and sharing bath facilities--all sounds a bit extreme for executives whose exercise routine more often involves climbing the corporate ladder than the face of a cliff.

Keeping in mind the apprehension some corporate types might have about getting physical, Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) developed a series of professional development programs geared to the corporate world. Adventurous executives can go sea kayaking in Baja, Mexico, or embark on an alpine mountain expedition in the Colorado Rockies. Or corporate groups can participate in less strenuous activities at the COBS Leadville (Colo.) Mountain Center at the base of the 14,000-foot Mount Massive.

This summer Gallileo, a Chicago-based company that provides electronic global distribution services for the travel industry, booked an intensive four-day leadership development program for managers at the COBS Leadville campus.

Method to the Monkey Business
It may not be immediately apparent what a bunch of managers could learn about their day jobs by making a square out of a length of rope while blindfolded, bridging an imaginary acid river, finding points on a hiking course using maps and compasses, and clambering around on ropes strung 30 feet off the ground. But Mark Laurin, Gallileo's senior manager, global training and development, and Michael Black, COBS Professional program director, who has a PhD in counseling psychology and is a licensed psychologist, custom-designed these and other elements of Gallileo's program to ensure that leadership-related challenges were at the core of everything the group did.

"To train managers to have confidence in their actions, you have to create a situation that parallels the high risk of management decision-making," Laurin says. "The heart rate increases, the throat constricts, the back of the neck tightens up. Managers who've been through this type of program can say, 'This is the way I felt when I was about to take a leap of faith off the high ropes course. When I trusted myself and believed in my decision, I could make the leap. I can do it here, too.'"

Another exercise asked the group to cross an area designated to be an acid river using just a few planks and "islands" of safety in midstream. "We had to make ourselves turn away from reaching a fast conclusion in order to find a good solution," Laurin says. "Leaders have to learn the consequences of their decisions. Making a decision to go one way will block access to other possible solutions."

Andrea Steffy, Gallileo's director of corporate relations, was impressed with the orienteering exercise. "Using a map and compass to find the various targets out there in the woods, we really got to see how we jelled as a team," she says. "Even though we weren't the winning team, we felt good that we had learned how to work well together."

Preparing on Paper
"Sustained success happens when you understand what makes you successful," says Laurin, who was the instigator behind the experience as well as a participant. To make this program fly, Laurin and COBS organizers used a battery of personality assessment instruments before the outing, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (a questionnaire that determines personality type), and Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation- Behavior (FIRO-B), which shows how a person's own needs affect relationships.

Another tool, the Leadership Effectiveness Analysis (LEA), also was done pre-program and will be readministered six months down the road to help assess participants' progress. For the LEA, the managers had their bosses, peers, and direct-reports fill out a questionnaire relating to various aspects of the participants' leadership skills. Once compiled, the data create a Leadership 360 Report that profiles how others perceive the person's leadership abilities.

"The LEA is our real driver," says Laurin. "Now we have the baseline data, and we can measure our progress."

The Naked Truth
Facilitators used debriefings following each activity to show the participants how their leadership styles, personalities, and interaction patterns played out in real-life situations. "Say someone went off on their own during the orienteering exercise," says Andrea Steffy. "They would know from their assessment that they tended to act before they thought, and now they had seen themselves do it, and we'd talk about it."

This could be a daunting prospect, as Eric Siegler, senior manager, links development, discovered. "During one exercise, I decided I knew the solution, and I stuck my neck out trying to get the team to do it my way," he says. At the end of the exercise, facilitators asked the others to critique his leadership skills, one by one. "It wasn't always easy to hear," says Siegler. "But I want to grow and improve, and sometimes growth can be painful. It was a very revealing exercise for me." And for the others, because another aspect of the exercise was learning how to give constructive feedback.

The Shrink Wrap
Because the participants get such an information overload during the course, COBS does something unique: On the last day it provides each participant with an individual two-hour session with a psychologist, who helps them put it all together and develop an action plan.

"It was a big relief for me," says Siegler. "Being the most junior in my position of the people in the group, I had a lot of growth areas to work on. I was overwhelmed. The psychologist helped me to clarify the results." He even gave Siegler a template explaining how to communicate effectively with different types of people, which already has proven useful.

Steffy, who was a little apprehensive about the physical aspects of the program, is now an enthusiastic supporter. "It was so powerful," she says. "It pushes you and challenges you on every level. It borders on being a major life-changing experience."