Experientially Learning To Lead, Follow and Collaborate – The VIP Story
When you’ve reached the highest levels of management in an organization, you’ve got a lot of years’ experience under your belt. You’ve learnt ‘everything’ you need to know about leading, teamwork and the technicalities of your roles…or have you? There are times when you stumble, feel challenged… Once in a while, it’s a great idea to step out of the everyday office environment and get a fresh perspective of the things you already know – about yourself, your colleagues, and how the way you work together can lead to a new direction.
VIP Industries Ltd. (VIP) gave Natura the responsibility of putting together an outdoor adventure and learning experience for the nine members of VIP’s leadership team. This experience was to be complementary to the annual Strategic Business Planning process that the team was having spread over the three days. Involving only a very small number of participants, the exercise had to be in-depth and suited to specific objectives.
From 30th August – 1st September 2012, six educators from Natura accompanied the VIP team to Duke’s Retreat in Lonavala, and embarked on a journey of fun and self-discovery that would lead to:
- Recognizing their own leadership patterns and how it fits into the overall agenda
- Learning how to adapt their own styles to mesh with those ofcolleagues in corresponding leadership roles, in order to achieve objectives
- Building better bonds with colleagues through open and constructive feedback
- Understanding and taking into account each member’s qualities and capabilities,and how they approach a task
Experiential Learning for Leaders
Whenever there’s learning involved, the most favoured approach is to learn by doing…better still if that doing is incredibly fun and doesn’t seem even remotely like work. It’s amazing the kind of life and business lessons you can learn from playing a few simple games!
Natura’s expertise in adventure-based experiential learning provides a unique setting in which to participate in the learning games. In three days, they had to combine the planned business sessions with experiences that would draw upon their qualities as team leaders as well as team players through a series of management games and outdoor adrenalin-driven activities that drive introspection and contemplation.
Every event or occasion needs a warm-up session to get everyone into the right frame of mind. So, on the first evening, before the official commencement the next day, the group was asked to play a simple game – form a circle facing outwards, link hands and then turn themselves inwards without breaking the link. After trying and failing with the “obvious” solution, they started to explore new ideas; thus highlighting the need for exploring new ways vis-à-vis accepted ways of functioning…a lesson learnt in mere minutes.The next three days had a range of different games and activities designed to be as learning-filled as the traditional sessions, while still being physically engaging and fun.
The “Caterpillar Walk” is done by joining the participants’ ankles to each other with ankle straps, so that they have to walk in a coordinated manner – effectively creating a human caterpillar. The point person, as the head of the caterpillar, is the one briefed about the goal and the route they have to take, and it is up to him to guide the team while trying to beat the other competing teams. Besides the lack of free movement, what affected each team was whether or not the leader chose to share the information, and if so, how much and when! During the review of this experience, players reflected on what they as individuals and as a team need in terms of uniform clarity of goals, persons’ differing needs for amount of information, etc., and how perhaps they could be relating to each other in a better way in the context the ‘pushes and pulls’ that are an inevitably experienced by individuals in a team’s functioning.
The objective of “Passing Through the Ring” was to pass the “ring” through the group until it returned to its starting point, without breaking the circle of linked hands…seems simple.They were first asked to estimate how much time they thought they would need to successfully pull this off – while each member proposed durations between four and 10 minutes for planning and execution, with the consensus leaning towards more time, the execution (once they decided on a method) actually took only one minute; quite a gap between planned and actuals! This exercise highlightedthe concept of “Group Think”, which refers to groups’ tendencies to lean towards mediocre decisions despite possibly brilliant ideas from individual team members.A key discussion point here was the necessity to think beyond“task level” and think “people and processes”, wherein they could be receptive to individual ideas and bring in a process where each such idea is evaluated on its own merit – thus helping the team rise above Group Think. This session also was an opportunity to discuss styles of group decision making.
Another team-based game, “Stamping” involved stamping on “mines” to disable them. These mines had to be disabled in a sequential order within given time constraints and with no communication between members once the game had started – all strategizing was done prior. With each attempt at bettering their time, the players increasingly experimented with their own processes of planning, coordination, bringing about collaborative teamwork and examining roles and responsibilities in the context of competence and facilitation of performance. Each strategizing session before a new attempt was used to focus on “the meaningfulness of meetings” which helped participants discuss ways of making their meetings more effective in arriving at actionable plans. One significant aspect that got highlighted during this activity was how effective on-the-spot feedback can be!
One exciting activity was rappelling down the steep side of a stonequarry. While completely safe, the activity presents a perceived risk as the rappeller stands high over a drop, preparing to step off the edge. Besides the sheer pride of conquering personal fears and accomplishing the goal, this activity served as a window into how each individual handles stress and anxiety in challenging tasks, how the environment and people around them provide the support they need as they face the challenges that come with growth, and how the individual steps and processes established (in this case, the rappelling equipment) cangive them the facilities in the form of a support system to overcome it. This is especially important for a top team which needs to create a suitable environment with plans and processes that enable peak performances from their people.
The most exciting activity was a walk in the hills at dusk. The group motored down to the village of Kondana, beyond Karjat, and began walking towards the Kondana Caves. As it became darker and the ongoing drizzle became a downpour, people were walking by the light of their headlamps. The walk involved a steady incline and several stream crossings, which, in normal monsoon conditions are tricky thanks to slippery rock surfaces. In this weather, Natura team members were lining themselves along these crossings to help the VIP team members. At one particular crossing however, the flow was so strong that support from a Natura team member was likely to be ineffective. And just as these experts were contemplating the prospect of tying a ‘rope-handrail’ across the stream was being considered, the force of the water increased such that stones along the riverbed started getting dislodged! At that point, the Natura team came up with alternatives for the group, who then unanimously decided to abort the walk and return, considering not only safety but also the fact that waiting for the downpour to abate and for the waters to recede enough to proceed would take too long.
Looking back on it, the hike and all its incidents highlighted how critical decisions had been made and how they could be linked to key learnings – top management plans exciting journeys that involve uncertainty and ambiguity; starts operations and persists through difficulties, what helps this perseverance, and how the environment can influence existing plans and how team members need to come together to make the requisite and sometimes hard, decisions. This whole process reinforced the previous discussions on group decision making in highly intense circumstances.
The End of their Journey
At the end of an extended period of participation, discussion, humor and adventure, while you might not say it’s been a life-changing experience, you will know that you are nevertheless a little bit different today than you were yesterday.Similarly, at the end of their time together, the VIP team was exactly the same, and yet transformed.
A meaningful pause for the team, this programme enabled them to get to know each other better in a foreign and challenging environment, while providing a platform to discover new ways of looking at each other’s qualities, and improving how they conducted meetings and brought in process improvement measures. They had also the opportunity of having the impacts of their outdoor experiences to influence the way they conducted their business sessions for evolving their strategic plan through the three days. Individually, they also reflected on their personal styles of functioning and the need for flexibility to achieve effectiveness, exploring new perspectives to understand situations, and the joy in the sense of achievement! “Refreshing” was how they termed the experience…and that’s what it was.