Team building with a difference

Few business leaders will have considered circus training for their staff, or installed a “think-u-bator”, in which employees can ponder and have moments of greatness. Yet there are companies out there that are doing exactly these things.

Nick Shuttleworth, director of sales at drinks giant Carlsberg, attended a programme that used horse whispering, the technique of communicating with horses through body movement and silent commands, to teach leadership skills.

‘To begin with we were very sceptical and none of us were into horses, but it was actually very interesting,’ he says. ‘You really have to be assertive in your movement and stance to build trust between you and this rather large beast, without using verbal commands. It hits home how important body language is for putting a message across.’

The point is not to come away thinking that you can talk to the animals, but to take the underlying message on board. Shuttleworth continues: ‘Having your peers there watching you in this small arena adds another dimension to the experience. That side was about having the confidence to stand up and do something very new and very different.’

Think outside the box

Stephen Archer, a director at Spring Partnerships, organises courses just like this: ‘They’re really about showing people that things they never thought would be possible in fact are. Horse whispering is only one of the approaches that we take; we also have courses based around teaching circus skills. There is always a degree of wariness at the start, but as people get into it they begin to have fun.’

He continues: ‘The social aspect is important because people need to feel comfortable to engage. Once the fun is over, they realise that it has helped them think in a different way and they have got to know people better.’

However, do not jump into your white-water rafting gear before you have analysed why you are there in the first place. Clive Wilson, managing director at business training provider Primeast, says: ‘Staff are usually quite eager to get to the fun part and obviously that is vital for anchoring the message you’re trying to put across, but it’s a means to an end. The most important thing is to ask what you want to get out of a team activity – so focus on the outcome, rather than the method.’

In other words, it is no use jumping onto the nearest rope bridge and hoping to have built a strong effective team by the time you reach the other side. ‘We have taken our staff out walking to the top of a hill at 4am before and asked them to think about the coming year and how they will develop their talents,’ continues Wilson. ‘Watching the sunrise was a powerful metaphor and it’s something people will remember. Building your team shouldn’t be just about one-off events though, it can be grounded in day-to-day [activities] too. We have an area in the corner of our office where we can go just to bounce ideas around and brainstorm. We call it the “think-u-bator”.’

As cynical as you may be about tightropes and trapezes improving your leadership skills, if it captures the attention of your staff and puts a message across, it could be worth donning your clown suit.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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