Leaders on track in the outdoors

JOEL NGEAW
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014

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Imagine awork day where you're woken up at six for a run, have to jump out of a boat in less than warm waters and then climb a wall blind-folded.

All of this in front of people you have to face at work again.

For more than 20 years, outdoor team building outfit Outward Bound has subjected workers from all sorts of New Zealand businesses and government departments to just that sort of treatment.

Outward Bound encompasses the physical, mental and emotional challenges of the outdoors and working together in a team for personal awareness and development.

Participants are required to undergo two days of sailing and rowing, hike for 11 hours and spend two entire nights alone in a bush, among other rigorous activities.

Martin Devereux, group manager of team development in transport firm Mainfreight, said: "The honesty that comes from being in that environment and having to rely on each other helps form really strong bonds and relationships."

Devereux was part of an original group of 13 Mainfreight employees who were sent to Anakiwa in the Marlborough Region in 2002. Since then the privately-owned firm has sent a total of 419 employees from 13 different countries through the course.

"We're relying on people in different regions to help each other. So when you've got relationships across continents, communication and the commitment to getting things done is better."

Other Kiwi companies have had similar long ties with Outward Bound, including Fisher & Paykel Appliances since the 1960s.

Sir Woolf Fisher, the co-founder of Fisher & Paykel, and his wife, Lady Joyce Fisher were big supporters of youth development and played an integral role in setting up Outward Bound up in 1961, said F&P learning and development consultant Reema Chauhan.

F&P Appliances employees are usually sent on the Navigator course, which Outward Bound business course manager Shane Wratt said was aimed at new managers and leaders.

The course combines rock climbing and sailing with in-class coaching sessions from experts in leadership and development.

Chauhan said those attending the course gained a sense of self awareness about how far they could push themselves - physically, mentally and emotionally.

"One candidate came back and successfully applied for a role that he wanted even though it was outside of his comfort zone," she said.

Mainfreight has taken the Navigator course and tweaked it to reflect its individual culture.

The programme is run over eight days in Anakiwa and Mainfreight added in a ninth day based in Auckland to ensure the team have clear action plans they can use back in the workplace.

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"Day nine is connecting the OB experience to their career path," Devereux said.

Selecting the right people for the courses is a stringent process. Chauhan said about two to three employees are sent annually.

F&P managers nominate their team members and employees can also put their hands up for selection.

Central to the choice is what the successful applicant hopes to get out of the course, and how they will use that back at work.

Mainfreight branch managers around the world nominate team members for review by the executive team.

Devereux and managing director Don Braid then make final decisions for the 14 employees per course. The company pays for three courses a year.

"We're looking at the future of our business, and making sure that the people who are attending aren't just going as a reward but they're going because they've achieved this much to date and they have the potential to achieve more," said Devereux.

"It is an investment. There's the direct and indirect cost. The cost of running the programme, the cost of getting people to New Zealand and the cost that our branches around the world is absorbing in the absence of an employee."

The investment seems to be paying off with employees returning with higher levels of initiative and confidence.

"They tend to make decisions faster and communicate much more extensively with people in the business. That starts to become their default position - to collaborate," he said.

A 2014 study undertaken by The Skills Organisation showed the positive impacts of the Outward Bound courses on businesses.

The study showed employees who had done the training were generally better able to supervise teams, developed a greater openness, maturity and an ability to manage conflict and diverse opinions more effectively.

- Sunday Star Times

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