Not enough information: It’s every type-A executive’s nightmare. Yet, it was with scant details that in March this year, a small group of sustainable building industry professionals packed their bags for a week-long training session called WinterCAMP in Breckenridge, Colo.
Although they were already bought in on the premise—at least enough to pay the tuition and set aside three days for the training—they didn’t know the format, the schedule, what their role would be, or even what, exactly, they would get out of the experience.
Welcome to the burgeoning world of out-of-the-classroom, motivational training events, where training looks a lot like the amorphous, ever-changing workplace of today. It’s challenging and intense. And it’s also shamelessly fun.
WinterCAMP, run by Michael Anschel, Kurt Nelson, and Ross Iverson combines classroom-style sessions with physical outdoor adventures at 12,000 feet. After morning talks and interactive exercises that challenge participants to examine key business issues, share and get support from peers—and, in truth, dream—participants play in the great outdoors.
While engaging in activities, the lessons amass. A scavenger hunt pushed skiers to look for clues while negotiating slopes a little above their comfort level; advanced skiers helped novice skiers down the hills to pre-negotiated meeting spaces for group lunches. Long rides up chairlifts gave participants the opportunity to get to know members of the camp who they may have thought they had little in common with. At the end of the day, dinner offered time for reflection and further networking. Next day: new topics, same exhilarating physical challenges.
“WinterCAMP is a reaction to the typical conference,” explains Anschel, owner of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build. “Everyone runs around in their little silo of thought, sharing and re-sharing information with the same group of people. They stay in their vertical silos of industry with virtually no cross-pollination. WinterCAMP takes the multidisciplinary approach to green building up one level and asks us to consider what it takes to create a green business—and sets participants on that course.”
“Most times when you go to a seminar, you are talked at and spoken to and there is very little interaction with the speaker,” says WinterCAMP participant Stephen Davis, director of engineering for spray foam manufacturer Demilec. “If something they say touches a passion point, then they’ve got your attention for about 90 seconds. The difference with an event like this is that the speaker isn’t the center point—you are.”
The format at WinterCAMP is designed to get people out of their comfort zone. “What we do is not traditional,” says Nelson. “We put people out on a mountain with strangers they don’t know. We ask them to look deep into who they are and what they want to achieve with their whole lives (not just work). We entrust them with coming up with many of the answers themselves, and we hold a mirror to them when we feel they are trying to avoid the real issues or blind spots. The format works because we are able to build trust quickly because of the activities that we do and because people engage with each other in a non-traditional sense.”
The format also works, Nelson believes, because people are asked to spend time alone thinking about deep questions, which they may not have the opportunity to do in their workaday world. Yet the leaders keep introspection from turning to navel gazing by punctuating downtime with small groups sessions where people bring their own experiences, knowledge and wisdom to the table, and are open to sharing that with the other participants.
“A benefit of WinterCAMP is being somewhere where the common thread is people trying to make a difference in their respective arenas,” adds Chaden Halfhill, a developer from Des Moines, Iowa. “I like that each attendee was an expert in their own right. The atmosphere is not detached like a standard conference. The intermixing is positive, as many of us are leaders where business and personal lines blur.”
Steve Coats, managing partner of International Leadership Associates (ILA) in West Chester, Ohio, promotes the idea of physical activities to bolster classroom lessons, much like what is done at WinterCAMP. The ILA course employs high-ropes challenges to instill leadership skills. “We incorporate outdoor experiential learning with our classroom study. We find that it helps reinforce the lessons because the activities bring out the particular lessons of leadership.”
The high-ropes challenge course offers the opportunity for participants to learn about decision making and leader skills. “Envision that you are 40 feet off the ground and you move from one platform on a telephone pole to another one 20 feet away,” says Coats. “What do I hold on to? How do I keep myself balanced? So in that activity, many folks are watching other people to see how they are solving the problem. It is about role modeling. Many people didn’t realize how they were role modeling. But in fact, leaders are being watched all the time. In the work environment they are watching even when you don’t know it.”
For both WinterCAMP and ILA, the point is to learn about yourself and to also learn from others. “We spend as much time debriefing the lessons as we do in engaging in them,” Coats says. “What did you learn and how did you learn it? How can it help you in the workplace? What did you learn that will benefit you or that you should avoid? We translate the lessons.”
Training budgets of all types took a hit when the economy fell five years back, but many industry experts say it’s slowly returning, though in some professionals’ opinions, not quickly enough to counteract the uncertainty and pace of work in most industries today.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, organizations are launching more major change initiatives than ever before (three to five per year, on average). The Corporate Executive Board reports that globally half of employees expect a major change in six months. And probably no surprise to anyone, IBM’s Global Chief Executive Officer Study reports that 79% of CEOs say that the level of uncertainty and complexity will get even higher, with less than half saying they are prepared to manage it.
Can training help with this new faster world of corporate adaptation? “We realize that sometimes what keeps us stuck in our ruts is that we don’t know how to tap into our own motivation,” says Nelson, an expert in employee motivation. “In order for people to achieve the dreams and goals that they identify at WinterCAMP, we need to be able to help them find the motivation within themselves (or create it externally) so that it can help them maintain their enthusiasm and dedication throughout the year.”
The scenarios set up by camps—such as facing down a steep slope or wondering whether you can step across a chasm toward safety—is to challenge risk taking and experimentation. “To solve a problem, people have to problem solve,” says Coats, “Can I take that step or can’t I? Your body, heart, soul, mind and spirit are involved, and in
that way you can feel the practice of risk taking.”
While there are many reasons that alternative training programs may get more attention, they dovetail with the more academic-type training programs with which companies are more familiar.
“We are seeing more focus on ‘organization leadership development’ versus just focusing on the individual—working as a business to understand how your leadership strategy leads you to the larger strategy throughout your organization,” says Ellen Van Velsor, a senior fellow with the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education. She notes that in today’s workplace, leadership training is often not offered to people below the middle-management level. “These people have had lots of opportunities to lead before middle management, yet they had to lead without skills or information about what to do differently.”
Van Velsor advises companies to offer training and leadership development to employees earlier in their careers so they can build on what they learn. “Companies always say, ‘Everyone is a leader in this company,’” Van Velsor says. “But the leader development is not offered throughout the organization. They are more interested in developing skills on the job.”
Van Velsor notes that collaboration is a burgeoning training trend. This complements the missions of many alternative training programs. “There is a greater focus on collaboration and boundary spanning,” she notes. “Think of all the boundaries you need to cross in your job—boundaries of level, function, other organizations, geography, culture. You need to work with people, so ideally they are good at crossing all boundaries.”
Davis notes that boundaries are crossed left and right at WinterCAMP: “The experience was not just mental, it was physical and emotional,” he emphasizes. “That’s not something a lot of us are prepared to grapple with in a public forum. There is soul bearing, and you have to trust people enough to show emotional weakness, leadership, strength. They purposefully didn’t share the guest list ahead of time so you couldn’t go look people up on LinkedIn, which created this covert type of entry into a world of exploration where you pay your dues at the lodge [in the classroom] to earn your freedom on the mountain.”
Boundary busting is indeed a core concept fostered by format. “Within hours upon arrival, campers of all experience levels connect,” says Iverson. “The format of WinterCAMP encourages these connections over the three days so participants leave not only connected to new knowledge and ideas, but also leave with a deeper connection to their peers.”
It’s About People
While companies may question whether outdoor-based experiences are right for everyone, the leaders of ILA and WinterCAMP insist they are.
“Some people have the wrong mindset that when you do outside training it must be like boot camp for the military,” says Coats. “Most physical challenges are more related to mind than body. People go from a state of ‘I can’t do that’ to a state of exhilaration: ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ This allows people to act more confidently in times of increasing uncertainty. The blend of classroom learning and being out in the fresh air is the magic formula. Participants are so grateful for the blend—to get out of a classroom and not be stuck inside a room with no windows and sitting on their butts. I’ll swear by this—you will never forget what you do outside the classroom.”
“WinterCAMP is a faceted experience,” explains participant Davis. “Your experience depends on what facet you are looking at—what your exposure was and view and vision of life, career, children, job, spouse. The ‘diamond’ moved through the days and shone different light on different people and situations. ‘What the camp is’ is not set up to be identifiable to the masses. It is only identifiable after you leave.”
For Anschel and team, the outdoor venue is a no-brainer. More important to them is that the experience pushes change. And then, from that place of personal and professional power, to grow green businesses.
“WinterCAMP is what the green movement is all about: people,” Anschel emphasizes. “Green building isn’t about solar panels or composting toilets; those just happen to be the gizmo of the present. Green building is about creating a world in which we take care of one another with an eye to future generations. When we bring people together to see their place in the world a little differently, and to consider the impact of their business on their community, that is the core of the green movement. I want to create that subtle shift at the center of those individuals whose actions will be amplified across the layers of a set of seemingly unconnected industries so that they all move in this new direction, and in doing so recognize that just like the first law of ecology, everything is connected.”