Building better teams

Steamboat company tailors corporate training for clients

Tom Ross

— Coca-Cola assigns some of its best and brightest to the Wal-Mart account for obvious reasons.

On Thursday afternoon, those top sales executives were stumbling blindfolded through the snow on Rabbit Ears Pass. It was all part of an effort to build a stronger team, and ultimately sell more Coke and Dasani water.

“This is a very results-

oriented team,” Wayne Farr said. “We’re very tactical. Once we have a plan, everyone’s going.”

Farr was one of 30 Coke employees taking part in a series of team-building exercises supervised by 90 Degrees North, a Steamboat Springs business that describes itself as a “corporate leadership and team development consortium.”

Coke employees working on the Wal-Mart account were booked into the Sheraton Steamboat Resort & Conference Center for meetings. For many, the visit to Steamboat was an “incentive trip” a reward for meeting or exceeding expectations.

The skills tests the Coke sales force tackled on Rabbit Ears Pass were dubbed the “Steamboat Mountain Challenge.” On the surface, they appeared to reside somewhere between the games played at a children’s birthday party and the immunity challenges that took place during the “Survivor” television show. Only in this case, no one was granted the immunity totem, and no one was kicked off the pass.

Just the same, there were some serious goals woven into the games. They were intended to amplify many of the lessons the sales executives have already learned about communicating clearly with their colleagues. Lessons like adapting to different leadership styles and how to move beyond individual tensions between members of a team. And most importantly, how to function effectively as a team.

Chad James, president of 90 Degrees North, said the exercises designed for the Coke group can work on multiple levels.

“People bond together when they have shared out-of-work experiences,” James said. “They become more of a cohesive high-performance team.”

But the Steamboat Mountain Challenge was also designed, at the request of Coke executives, to bring out the competitive nature in their sales team.

Dierdra Raines, an accounting manager based at Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, said her colleagues live in a very competitive world, aggressively seeking every advantage they can against their rivals and striving for optimum placement of Coca-Cola products inside Wal-mart stores. “We want you never to be more than an arm’s length away from refreshment,” Raines said.

James believes part of the future success of his company will be predicated on the fact that rather than imposing a set of values on its clients, 90 Degrees North always begins by asking top executives what kinds of qualities they hope to build in their teams.

James has 10 years of experience as a corporate trainer, and began his career with the Boy Scouts of America. Most recently, he and his partner started a software company that developed a package that helped to train telephone fulfillment operators. The company sold strings of proprietary code and James decided he was ready for a change.

“I wanted to do something more satisfying than developing software,” he said. “My wife, Holly, and I decided that if we’re going to work 80, 90 or 100 hours a week, we’d like to do something where maybe somebody changes their life in some dramatic way as a result of what we offered.”

James deliberately chose Steamboat because he wanted to be located in a resort area for business reasons. He recognized that if he located a corporate team-building business near a travel destination, he could offer his services to companies that might desire to plan annual meetings and small conventions in the Rocky Mountains.

In Steamboat, 90 Degrees North has formed contractual alliances with both the Sheraton and the Steamboat Grand, as well as outdoor adventure companies Blue Sky West and Steamboat Snowmobile Tours.

It was Steamboat Snowmobile Tours that was hosting Thursday’s session for Coke execs on Rabbit Ears.

In one event, the teams had to solve a challenging puzzle. They were shown a beaker full of aqua windshield washer fluid standing on an inverted plastic 5-gallon bucket.

The bucket sat in the center of a circle in the snow, about 7 feet in diameter. Using only five nylon cords and a circular elastic bungee cord, the team members were given just 20 minutes to solve the puzzle. They had to use the cords to devise a way to pick up the bucket and beaker together, then transfer it 30 feet to another circle.

They were not allowed to enter the circle. And they were allowed to talk only during the first 5 minutes of the challenge.

The ultimate goal was to transfer the bucket and beaker without spilling the fluid. Success would result in bonus points.

Although the Coca-Cola/Wal-mart black team quickly deduced it could pick up the bucket by attaching the five cords to the rim of the elastic bunging and stretching it over the bucket, transferring the beaker without spilling proved nearly impossible.

Still, the team members demonstrated they were accustomed to making swift decisions and acting on them by scoring one of the best times of the day just over 6 minutes.

“I think we had the smack daddy time!” Cheryl Mayhall exalted.

Trainer Tom Scilacci said he was impressed with how the black team solved the puzzle of the bucket and beaker without any conflict and very little wasted talk.

“Other teams might have used their entire minutes of verbal communication without ever beginning to move the bucket,” he observed. “That was a high-functioning group.”

In other groups, a more assertive leader with the wrong strategy, might overwhelm a less assertive person who actually had the right approach to solving the problem.

Scilacci, who has a master’s degree in counseling, said the trainer at 90 Degrees North have to be prepared for individuals who grow frustrated and call another person out. It’s important for team members to learn how to move beyond personal friction, without tensions boiling over, he said.

Down another path in the forest, trainer Wolf Bennett was handling the blindfold test. The five team members were required to hold hands while they swept a snowy meadow for 1-liter bottles of coke. Their task was to gather the bottles while blindfolded and deliver them to the “home office,” a snow sculpture resembling the Rabbit Ears rock formation.

The team worked its way through the field three times before collecting all nine bottles and a bonus marker. Still, they finished in 13 minutes, well under the proscribed 20 minutes.

Team member Leah Belfiore observed that her group was able to regroup and adjust its strategy after each pass through the snow field. At the same time, it was able to employ speed.

“That’s what highly effective teams do,” Bennett said. He observed that the team members also learned very quickly to rely upon one another, while blindfolded.

“Trust is very easy to destroy. Yet, we can establish trust very quickly,” he said.

Bennett urged the team members not to dismiss the lesson, simply because the exercise was fun. “Having fun is the best way to learn,” Bennett said. “This has some real power if you let it have power.”

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