Scaling the Heights

by Nicole Shukin-Simpson


If you're wondering how to meet  challenges in the workplace, go climb a rock.   Some, like John Amatt believe that overcoming obstacles in the wilderness fosters the personal growth and team spirit necessary for corporations to survive global uncertainty...

Chomolungma, "Mother Goddess of the Earth". Mount Everest. Straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, she stands impassively as one expedition after another struggle up her unpredictable slopes. She is the Himalayan queen, for some the spiritual centre of Asia. But more than just a mute monolith, Everest is metaphorical for all that lives at high altitudes within the human psyche.

"She looks serene enough," radioed a climber of the 1982 Canadian Everest Expedition to John Amatt, expedition manager, secretly anxious at his first glimpse of the deceptively calm Khumbu Icefall. Shifting imperceptibly - the wrinkled glacier is the most deadly known to climbers. Blocks of ice the size of an office tower can dislodge at any moment. Crevasses yawn open without warning. It is the embodiment of relentless change.

Back in base camp John Amatt sat in the main tent on a large box of supplies, radio in hand. In an aqua-blue parka engineered to withstand the elements, he watched the fickle moods of the mountain they had been on for over a month. He relayed to the world the progress of the Canadian team via satellite. Rather than aim for the summit of Everest, Amatt chose to become the official spokesman, the person who maintains lines of communication both within the team and with the outside world.

Today, 12 years later his role is much the same. His eye on an expanse of social and economic change as threatening is the Khumbu Icefall, Amatt teaches that survival in the second millennium will depend upon a team's ability to make fundamental breaks with security. Conceived in the lap of Everest, Amatt's company   inspires corporate teams to meet global uncertainty with what Amatt calls the "Adventure Attitude".

"The lessons of Everest", he has told hundreds of audiences the world over, "are lessons for us all: accepting the challenge, preparing, and working as a team." Amatt is one of many modern day gurus. Each holds a different compass, take different tracks. For Amatt, the metaphor that guides him is that of the mountain. Not only does it speak volumes for him personally, it has touched a chord in others, making sense for them of seemingly insurmountable change.

"Seemingly insurmountable" would have described Ann Malory's view of the rock face that confronted her on a scorching afternoon in June. Malory, secretary to the Vice-President of Campbell Soup Company Ltd., Toronto, was on an TEAMPOWER! Program - experiential learning in the outdoors.

"Even though I had worked with the TEAMPOWER! coordinators in designing the Campbell Soup programme", adds Malory, "the night before I was very nervous. I knew we were going to climb up a mountain and rappel back down, but I didn't know how." It was on the programme that Malory confessed to the rest of her group a fear that was to become symbolic of her role in the team dynamic: "I have always been afraid of heights.

Dangling like a spider in a seeming tangle of ropes, harness, and pulley, the slab of rock in front of Malory's face seemed to be breathing, but it was in fact her own breath that filled the still air. Her toes met the wall, flexed, and pushed her away again, down the length of rope. Despite the pull of gravity, her vertical descent was as buoyant and surreal as moon walking. "Go on! That's it Ann!", the group above encouraged her. Half of them peered over the sharp ledge. The other half were far below her, faces tilted upward as they guided her ropes and marked her gingerly progress.

Somehow, her gaze met by solid rock and blue sky on every side, facing a dread of heights, her personal and professional challenges came into focus. "It's funny", Malory muses, "but I'm not afraid of heights anymore".

When the group of fifty arrived in Squaw Creek, California, their admiration of the dry mountains that met them was slightly blunted with the knowledge that they would soon be climbing them. "Most of us came with a lot of butterflies in our collective stomach", Malory remembers. She had unwittingly initiated Campbell Soup’s adventure when she bought two copies of the same book (One Step Beyond: Rediscovering the Adventure Attitude, by Alan Hobson, based on the ideas of Amatt) for her company bosses. That was the be­ginning of Campbell Soup’s ongoing relationship with the Everest-based group.

On that first encounter In Squaw Creek, Sharon Wood was one of the Teampower! coordinators. The first Canadian woman to reach the summit of Everest, Wood works with Amatt, speaking to hundreds of corporations around the world. “Sharon Wood is an incredible per­son”, declares Malory, initiated into the basics of rock climbing by one of the best women mountaineers today. Wood introduced the team to more than just the rudimentary techniques enabling them to rock climb, however. Like Malory, many group members grew contempla­tive as the symbolic undertones of the day took effect. For Malory, it was when “a native mail that Wood had contacted for the programme suggested that perhaps my fear of heights was fear of falling”.

Two days in Squaw Creek were enough for Campbell Soup to plan a future Teampower! programme. “I couldn’t believe the change in the group,” Malory reflects. “We have accountants — real number crunching individuals — whose personalities seemed transformed. There’s something about being outside that is very fleeing,” she explains. “Enclosed in the four walls of an office, creativity doesn’t always come so easily. But budgets are tight, and approaching problems from different creative angles is the one thing that can put us a step ahead of our competitors.” Adventure, Campbell Soup has discovered, isn’t limited to the outdoors.

Ray Brett, the manager of a luxurious country club, found himself hanging like a pendant off a bare neck of rock in slightly different circumstances. The club sent its senior members to Nakoda Lodge in the Canadian Rockies after hearing one of Amatt’s keynote presentations, hoping that a Teampower! programme would trigger a new direction for the group. Their programme was “sort of like an Operation Rescue”, In Brett’s words. Simulating aim injury, one team member had to be lowered in a stretcher down 12 metres of sheer rock. “For some reason”, Brett says, “I volunteered to go down in the stretcher.”

For Brett, it was difficult to allow the group to calculate his descent, to operate without him. “I had to let the others do the job,” he says, proud and relieved after the experience. “Just as back in the workplace I need to trust that each member is taking care of things —I know that I can’t be everywhere at once — so on the mountain I had to give up control over the dangerous task of orchestrating a rescue. This demanded phenomenal trust, since our team had virtually no previous mountaineering experience.”

Negotiating the route down, the team was, by this time, on the third and last day of the programme, attuned to their group dynamics, to whom assumes each responsibility, and why. Marni Virtue and Christo Grayling were the Teampower! leaders for this and many other programmes, working closely with Amatt in educating people about change. At this stage in the pro­gramme, they try not to intervene, encouraging the team to become self-directed. If they have succeeded in creating a “safe space’ in which the team can take risks, then the rescue is a marvel in the resources a group can tap when they have a job to accomplish.

Teampower! leaders do not sling unsuspecting business people over cliffs and crags or push them to the dizzy heights of some ideal group environment. “Groups only go where they’re ready to go, explains Grayling. An Australian lilt accentuates his friendly but firm voice. “I create spaces, not wells. Virtue nods her head. “We’re really moving toward gentle facilitation,” she agrees. “The way I see it we are helping to make organizations a more humane environment, because in a humane en­vironment, as study after study have proven, people will be more effective, and they will be more efficient.’

No sooner is a group of senior administrators met by Virtue or Grayling than the “trustfalls” begin. Falling backwards off a picnic table into the arms of the group can he as terrifying as jumping out of an airplane flying 30,000 feet above ground. The debriefing session that follows every exercise encourages individuals to communicate their work related feelings. Falling back­wards onto the understanding of the group when one ventures to speak openly demands entirely new levels of trust. “Communication can he very emotional,” admits Virtue.

Brett and his teammates decided to set some ground rules for building communication skills. “Our most important ground rule,” he relates, “was that no idea is stupid. Every idea is valid.” Emboldened, people who have worked together for years learn for the first time to express the frustrations that a team can harbour. “I feel that you are always interrupting me,” said a woman to a man who sat three people to her right. “During the years that we’ve worked together, I feel as though I’ve never managed to get a complete sentence out of my mouth — someone is always breaking in to finish it.” The man, drawn into the vulnerability created by mutual trust, was astounded and contrite, “I have never stopped for a moment to reflect on the way I tend to dominate the ideas comprising our team,” he muses. “This makes me a less effective team player, eh?”

A debriefing session may ring with stored-up tensions, and end in a state of unresolve. It may soften into a site of genuine listen­ing and learning. There are no had outcomes. Virtue remembers one senior individual who entered the programme thinking he had the least to learn of anybody. “He came out feeling that he had in fact learned the most.”

 The core of the Teampower! programme rests in the simple desire to help people talk. Sounds easy. Yet barriers to real communication sometimes build up over years in which there are no models for effective teams, and no team­building skills. “Even in a compact organization like our own, “confesses Virtue, “the barriers to communica­tion can be numerous,” Amatt and Wood have a speaking schedule that demands they be in Sumatra today, Johannesburg tomorrow. Virtue and Grayling could he in a remote wilderness location when a meeting is called. Making time and space for true communication, giving every member of the organization a voice, a sense of meaningful involvement, and due recognition is the challenge confounding most corporations today.

A metaphor can stimulate conversation like nothing else. Being in the outdoors means being assaulted by an abundance of natural relationships between wilderness experience and corporate life. One such “lively metaphor”, as Virtue puts it, represented the problems that a particular team was experiencing, and left an indelible impression upon the group. They were learning how to tie their ropes for a day of rock-climbing. One of the members scurried back and forth fixing various knots and checking others. Suddenly he stopped dead as a metaphor dawned in its full import upon him. “I’m tying everyone’s knots back in the office, aren’t I ?” Instead of entrusting responsi­bility or explaining a method to others, this individual tended to do everything. “A light bulb really went on for the group,” relates Virtue.

A metaphor can wield formidable power. “Every once in a while you work with someone in a senior level who is really struck by what they discover about themselves,” continues Virtue. ‘It’s really exciting ... it could mean major changes in the shift in the direction of that organization.”

In the right setting, problems and solutions suggest themselves to a group as if by magic. “What’s important here,” declares Grayling, “is that by no means are we teachers in the traditional sense of the term. Most of the work we do is highly experiential, a learning experience that we facilitate or guide, rather than teach.”

For example, a giant in a corporate entity can find it startlingly refreshing to hammer nails into the raft, letting someone else supervise the procedure for a change. Being mobile, flexible, and responsive to the needs of the team means that you may have to give where you used to take, or take where you used to give. “We need to be very frank about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of team members,” advises Amatt. “On your climb to the top, you will have to adapt to changing conditions.” The team, according to One Step Beyond Worldwide, signifies the best way for individuals to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses as they strive toward a common goal.

“To be honest,” says Leville, of Ford, “unless you apply the insights gained from a programme as soon as you return to the workplace, it flies away from you. Leville and his team also enlisted in three different programmes after hearing Amatt speak. “I think they are excellent experiences,” he says, ones that makes you think intro­spectively, hut it can be hard to apply them on a daily basis.”

Virtue and Grayling are aware of this. Many corporations have approached them for a series of “follow-up” sessions. Making specific action plans and guiding their implementation are increasingly becoming components of Teampower! programmes. That may mean three or four hours in a banquet hall as well as three to five days in the wilderness, but the benefits of an ongoing relationship between themselves and their cli­ents lies in what Virtue emphasizes is the “true commitment” driving them. “Some teams,” Grayling remarks, “already work very well together. But they, like us, believe that better is always possible.”

Teampower! programmes are beginning to translate across cultures. “It is precisely because analogies rather than specific examples from working life are used that this ‘Adventure’ philosophy has such impact,” says Kingsley Smith, Managing Director of the advertising agency, McCann Erickson, in Hong Kong. Most Pacific Rim companies can relate to the metaphor of the mountain and to the “Adventure Attitude” that thrives, rather than falters, on uncertain times. For many it is their only option. Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia are experiencing three and even four times the growth occurring in North America. ‘The only constant in our corporate and personal environments today,” declares Amatt, “is constant change.

When the Canadian expedition wound its way up the South Col of Everest, Nepalese sherpas formed an integral part of their team. The two approaches to the mountain could not have been more different. The sherpas treated Chomolungma as an omnipresent feature in their daily landscapes, met her both with reverence and with the casual ease gained from living on her flanks. The Western group arrived in Nepal with the conscious desire to embark on an adventure that would test their minds and bodies on a mountain that represents the most breath taking challenge on the face of the earth.

These different perspectives merged into a hybrid team that could meet the many faces of change. The Canadians learned from the sherpas that Chomolungma, “Mother Goddess of the World”, was often called “Sagarmatha — Churning Stick In the Ocean of Existence”. A mountain, like change, can he a merciless fierce. Or, like Everest, persist as a living symbol in the minds of all who find meaning in her metaphors.






























































































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