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Corporate Team-Building Muscles In

Time was, sports and recreation were something you did in your off-hours. Sure, there was always the company softball team. But at least you could choose who was on the squad. No geeks allowed -- and that guy in sales and marketing who showers once every pay period? Forget it...
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Time was, sports and recreation were something you did in your off-hours. Sure, there was always the company softball team. But at least you could choose who was on the squad. No geeks allowed -- and that guy in sales and marketing who showers once every pay period? Forget it. That's why karaoke was invented.

Now, however, your boss has co-opted even that small pleasure. Sports and the other escapist arts have been discovered by the boardroom. Healthy, off-hours fun just for the sheer hell of it has been folded, spindled and mutilated into...corporate team-building.

Remember simple, glorious paintball? It's history. These days, in the words of a brochure put out by the Paintball Arena, a Michigan company, you have to "experience the chaos that results when you don't know the strengths of your teammates and when roles are not defined." It very nearly takes all the pleasure out of ventilating the boss with hot latex.

Blame it all on Outward Bound, the original outdoor-adventure/ character-building organization. Sometime in the 1970s, the company discovered that its stressful wilderness experiences might have an application back in the conference room. Since then, executives and sales forces have flocked to the school in hopes of finding better rapport and sales figures on rock faces, raging rivers and ice walls.

Naturally, not everyone agrees that corporate learning has to be so uncomfortable, and the leisure market has embraced the new "corporate event planners" with enthusiasm. Every play emporium that has the facilities to throw two or more people together now has its own highly specialized "team-building" program. What was once a small, attendance-mandatory day of hell consisting of hauling your pasty co-workers through a terrifying ropes course has spread to everything good and right about life: miniature golf, go-cart racing, gourmet cooking, laser tag, fly fishing, dog sledding, and, yes, even Whirlyball.

It's enough to drive you back to your isolated and windowless eight-by-eight cubicle. Which, come to think of it, is probably the whole point.


Nothing says team-building like pointing a gun at the same people you've been working next to for the past three months to get the project in under deadline and pulling the trigger. "Well, there is that," agrees KyleMullen, manager at Laser Quest on East Hampden Avenue. "You are shooting at each other."

But underneath it all, there's so much that's positive. Teamworks, the laser emporium's new four-hour, $2,400 corporate enhancement program, stresses the Four Pillars of Effective Teamwork: fun, cooperation, communication and trust, all within a nurturing environment of armed conflict.

The format is simple. Co-workers play three games, starting with a solo shoot-and-destroy program to familiarize themselves with the equipment. Next, groups square off against each other and attempt to accomplish tasks under fire. Between games, says Kyle, "you have time for a personal reflection, then a team reflection." In addition, there is a team-building video and a workbook, then lunch, to be enjoyed.

Similarly, there is a paintball/team-building connection. "You're in an environment where the boss is no longer the boss," notes Anthony Navarro of Action Pusuit Paintball in Greeley. "You're talking about primal instincts here."

Although he has hosted such corporate titans as Merrill Lynch and Hewlett-Packard, Navarro says paintball corporate team building has really caught on with small, high-tech firms. "You're talking about people who are cutthroat anyway," he says. "They absolutely crave this sort of stuff. It's pure adrenaline right off the bat."

Two of the facility's most popular team-building games are "Saving Private Ryan" and "Search and Destroy." Beyond colleagues discharging their weapons at each other, Navarro says there is no group facilitation necessary.


"It's a team sport, five on five. As you're driving your bumper car, you want to use your Jai-Alai scoop to throw the Whiffle ball to hit the middle of the backboard," says Renee Scheeler.

Regrettably, Whirlyball has not yet made its way to Denver, but airfare is a small price to pay for the team-building that will ensue. "It kind of gets co-workers into a bonding session of 'Let's get 'em! Let's get 'em! Let's get 'em!'" explains Scheeler, who markets the company's corporate enhancement events.

Plus, it's inclusive. "Myself, I get asthma real easy," she continues, "so I can't play, say, basketball. But I can sit in a bumper car all day."

Even the intense -- and occasionally physical -- competition can forge unforgettable bonds. "When you lose or get hit hard with a bumper car, it can make you feel worse," she acknowledges. "Sure. But it's a learning experience."

Closer to home is TBC (Team Building Concepts) Indoor Racing, on East 46th Avenue. "Our programs address many issues that companies are struggling with today: communications, employee bonding and harmony, time management, and crisis management," the company stresses. To an outsider, this first appears to be a go-cart race.

But sales manager Rod Kirk cautions event planners not to get the wrong idea about the rigorous nature of the team-building, which runs somewhere between $600 and $1,000 an hour. "There's a lot of misconceptions about what we're doing," Kirk says. "This is not bumper cars or simply a circular track. We've got ten turns on a quarter-mile track. The cars can get up to 35 miles per hour."

"It's a chance to get to know each other better so we can have better working relationships," agrees Jane Gibson, an event planner for Coors, which has used the track to build corporate camaraderie. "A few times some of our people tried to run each other off the track. There are a few people who came out hurting a little bit because they were crashing into each other so often."


Some companies feel that a mock execution of your office mate or easing your boss's car into the turn wall at high speed isn't the optimum bonding environment. Even for these softer executives, there are plenty of opportunities to facilitate communication and establish strategic goals outside of the office hothouse.

Through fly fishing, for instance. "It's just sort of a natural thing that happens," explains Jim Cannon, owner of Blue Quill Outfitters of Evergreen, which runs team-building programs. "It breaks down walls. They're no longer compartmentalized. They've run into The Creation, which equalizes everything. Getting in touch with the river and fish spontaneously brings about the dynamics."

Of course, while you can get the executive out of the office, sometimes it's not so easy to get the office out of the executive. "There's a lot of competition about how big your fish is," Cannon admits. Such corporate growth runs about $125 per person per day on the river.

Yet, perhaps dropping mayflies in an eddy isn't your style. Maybe even such a zenful pursuit would be too much for your padded workforce. Don't despair.

"Say you've been assigned to the pastry group and you're working on the apple crostada," begins Karen McPherson, director of marketing for the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking. "It is truly a team-building event." Although she adds that the school, which charges $2,500 and up for its corporate growth programs, offers no formal facilitation, McPherson points out that "working through the food is a way to digest that information."

After a cocktail-based communication and rapport-building segment, the program moves directly into the menu-planning portion of the system. There groups of co-workers build effective organizations through food prep.

In theory, that is. "We have had some situations where the organizer hates the cook," McPherson notes. "Then they just want to hang out and drink wine."


Once upon a time, Outward Bound had a monopoly on this technique. But as marathons have evolved into ultra-marathons and executive compensation has matured from mere millions of dollars into billions, the standard "go-into-the-woods-and-bare-your-soul" approach has, for some hard-charging vice presidents, come to seem, well, indulgent.

While S&M dungeon team-building has not caught on yet, there is BOSS.

"Lots of people are doing ropes, teamwork, that sort of thing," scoffs Walt Woolf, director of the professional-development programs at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. "Everybody's done that. We're different."

Thus are such diverse team-building topics as "knife use," "traps and snares" and "risk management" placed side by side in BOSS's five-day Executive Leadership course, which runs a little over $3,000 per boss. The secret, says Woolf, is using the primitive to understand the modern.

For example, "learning to make fire by friction. That's a new skill, so you focus on the process of it, which has an application in changing management roles," he explains. "Everyone talks about thinking outside of the box," he adds, ominously. "This is definitely outside of the box."

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