Thursday, November 30, 2006

Of mud and motivation

Developing your teams is essential in any business, organisation, group or club. Even a band! But this team awayday … this one was for the ‘Sales and Marketing Team’ and it was one of those ‘corporate’ events that involve mud. Lots of mud.

Sales folks from around the country had joined us in the office and we were all staying at a hotel near to our intended destination for the following day’s exercises. But, of course, we went to the pub first – so we were a little late.

A dinner had been scheduled at The Compasses in Pattiswick – a remote village in Essex that is, interestingly, one of four pubs with the same name within a 12 mile radius. Known as ‘The Essex Enigma’. However, that didn’t figure in our evening. Though late, we all made it to the restaurant and had a very pleasant meal. The crew included the Heather the MD, Robin a director, our sales team and me – marketing manager. Harry and Nina only joined the company very recently (I mean days ago), and Gwen and Heidi were also ‘newbies’. It was a new team, a fresh team. This was going to be a unique initiation.

I sat opposite Harry and Keeley. The conversation was such that I almost collapsed with laughter at one point – partly at what Harry was saying, partly at the expression on Heather’s face. Harry told us about how some of the women he dated asked some very stupid questions sometimes… Harry is very dark skinned (family originally from Ghana) and he was describing things quite graphically … “They even arsk what colour me ‘Arry Monk is…’ (poor attempt at Essex accent here). Don’t ask what the Cockney Rhyming slang stands for. I refuse to explain if you can’t work it out for yourself.

The meal was good, though the tables were sort of divided and the conversation could not stretch the whole length (and maybe that was a good thing). The important thing was that everyone was relaxed in each others' company, and though I was in bed by 11.15 (and not drunk, just well and truly relaxed - as a small newt), it was a good evening.

But then … the following day … we arrived at Layer Marney Tower. A magnificent red brick Tudor building boasting the highest Tudor Tower still standing in the UK. Impressive. As I turned into the drive, I saw a field to my right with little yellow tent like shelters in it. Pausing, I threw my hands in the air and gave a silent mental scream. I could see Emma in the car behind me (she’d followed me from the hotel where we stayed) laughing. My trepidation about this kind of thing is due to my own lack of fitness and my lack of confidence when dealing with things ‘unfamiliar’. Yeah, not so much a “change coward”, more an “am I going to make a complete and utter tit of myself?” type coward.

We entered the building to be greeted by Heather and Robin who were there to brief us for the day and introduce us to our hosts, who were running the ‘outdoor’ aspect of our team day. Kurt (tall, dark, South African) introduced himself and his colleagues and told us that we would be doing a short exercise this morning, then after lunch a further ‘game’. All dressed in black, military style, their corporate logo neatly embroidered on caps and shirts. Soldiers stop being soldiers, but they never stop playing soldiers, do they?

We were divided into two teams and I was with Harry, Robin, Heidi and Emma. The other team was Robin, Gwen, Heather, Andrew and Nina. We were each issued with laser rifles and combat coveralls and webbing and hats with sensors … we looked a collective 'sight'. During the briefing with the weapons we were – as a whole – unruly. The instructor commented on this more than once. GUns fired when they shouldn't have been, buttons pressed that we were told not to press, giggling and joking and not listening.

With each team based at opposite ends of the field, we had to get from one base camp to the other and shoot the other team down on the way. The objective being to occupy the opposing camp with all your team members (or as many as were still living). I got killed pretty quick because I’d misunderstood something (should have listened!). Oh well, I just strolled on down (whilst others were running, diving, ducking, slipping in horse and sheep shit as well as mud). Mud, lots of mud. Robin looked happy as Larry playing Action Man, Heather was squeaking with indignation as she tripped over a large tree trunk and her hat fell into some nice smelly horse dung, Nina went wild shooting me repeatedly (though I think I may have already been dead by then). We then repeated the exercise back the other way. I noticed two people running round and round one of the vans parked near the field. It was almost like a stage farce - certainly entertaining to watch from a distance. And when you are dead.

Yes, team dynamic characteristics were demonstrated and strategy implemented to varying degrees of success. But the game generated winners and losers. Our team was not the strongest mix of 'personalities' perhaps, but, to be fair, the other team had Andrew (who is in the TA) so they probably had the march on our team from the start through dint of his experience.

Our team lost both rounds. Never mind. Lots of mud – lots of laughs – lots of running around. Back in the main house, we all sat down and everyone was panting. All this exertion! Of course, being dead, I wasn’t too tired at all. Dead tired? No, I’ll pass on the opportunity for that particular pun.

During a break, Emma and I went exploring. We found the tower stairs – up past Victorian type ‘nursery’ wallpaper (dreadful dolls of the world, but probably as listed as the crooked beams in the training room), up wooden, worm-eaten stairs. We entered forbidden rooms, dusty and unloved but oozing history, and climbed further. We reached the roof. A magnificent vista and the most amazing twisted brick chimneys. We went out on the roof with the camera later. Too good to miss. The Tower's marketing brochure shows lovely rooms, beautiful panelling, and the amazing buildings in the grounds like the Chapel. That's all there too - but what we saw was the true heart of an enormous stately home – too expensive to maintain, too dangerous to open to the public, too precious to change. I would have loved to spend more time in there, exploring, learning about the character of this ancient structure. Oh well, back to training.

Next came the sales planning exercise – how to make as much money as we can from the available marketing budget. That went quite well I thought (which pleased me as I ran the session). Though we were down one colleague - Daine was unable to attend due to injury - a place labelled ‘Diane’ was neatly laid for him at the table come lunchtime. And we kept his dinner too (Andrew ate it). Normally after a big lunch, you go into a nice warm room and let yourself drift - just a little. No chance!

After lunch it was game on for the main ‘mission’. The two teams were dropped off at separate locations about 2.5km from the house and had to navigate their way back to a field where we were going to be set a new task. So, as nominated navigator I took control of map and compass. We didn’t do badly on that part of the exercise, but when it came to the ‘mine field’ (oh no! Scary football markers and plastic tape!) we had a little trouble. But we got through by fair means and foul. I actually stood – deserted by my companions – in the middle of the mine field for about 10 minutes whilst the others came across first. They left me 'safely' there so I chilled out while I had the chance. The weather was pleasant, the birds were singing, all I had to do was stand still. Eyes closed (we wore blindfolds), whilst the others used walkie talkies to get each member across without treading on a plastic marker or hitting the tape. Eventually I was talked across - via a very prickly bush! "Forward! Forward!" came the shouts over the radio. "Ouch, Ouch!" came my reply. We completed this exercise in communication reasonably well. It was very similar to one that we run as a training company in nice comfy offices with a flip chart and some Lego - and no mud whatsoever.

Then we hit the main field and our mission, should we decide to accept it (what, were we given the option? No), was to capture a big blue rucksack from an enemy camp and get it back to ‘base’. Lots of guff about computers, satellites and timescales. Oh well. By now my lugging of the laser gun through fields of mud and through brambles and hedges and mine fields was beginning to wear a little thin. I have to say that if I’d then been presented with a challenge like building a bridge across a river, or getting over some obstacle where I had to use my brain, my willing participation would have been far more enthusiastic. The strategic planning aspect wasn't really focused on. I think the fresh air had cleared my head so that tactical thinking was absent (I was still listening to the birds and looking for wildlife) - and some of the lads were probably running on laser-gun adrenalin rather than cold rational thought too. I now had to shoot my colleagues again. I don’t like shooting people. I don’t mind target shooting (I’m not bad as it happens, but Emma as a past triathlete was most expert amongst us I believe, and Heather has expertise in rat and rabbit shooting), but shooting my colleagues? Yeah, great team building! A little competition goes along way, but succeeding through the failure of others has never been a motivator for me. Oh well!

Emma and Robin went off to recce the "enemy camp" (oh, to be honest, just a few more of those yellow tents with a bit of webbing over them), and then – then we hung around in the bushes. At least it was less embarrassing than walking down the country lanes and passing drivers looking at us and laughing. Hey, maybe we should have tried a carjack and then we’d have got back to base much quicker.

Though Heidi and I were cold and bored, Harry did a great job of rallying us to a small level of enthusiasm. We would complete the task to assist our colleagues but for me – no payoff (whilst I think Heidi was just knackered). OK, so then our team grab their backpack which weighs 30kg – and we have to shoot at a few people (point, pull trigger, wonder if that was one of ours or theirs?), and then get this effing great pack back to a truck in the house car park. Harry shouldered it first and tried to run through the mud but was soon flagging. No reflection on his fitness – it was a heavy pack and the going was not easy. So from there on we took it in turns, each grabbing a strap and hauling it back as fast as we could through very, sticky, horrible mud. As well as carrying these great laser rifles and the back pack, we had about three or four pounds of mud on each foot. And some in other places too, no doubt.

As we got nearer to the car park, we knew it was a race against time. It was getting dark, the sun had gone down and as we got closer Emma took up the rucksack and ran. Amazing! She was off like a rocket and Harry was running alongside her, helping to support the weight of the pack from behind (or using the excuse to put his hand on her backside, I couldn’t tell which from that distance). Emma was determination personified. I walked casually along the path back towards the house and the car but Robin was shouting ‘Come on team! Let’s run in! Show them what we are made of!’ or words to that effect. Oh, alright Robin, jog jog jog… eww, this mud is slippy. Wonder what’s for tea?

We got back to see the other team already there, disrobing and smiling and laughing – they had beaten us again. Oh well. Others are far more competitive than me and were more upset at coming second. But we did the computer thing and had a neat little message saying ‘MISSION COMPLETE’. We had a group hug to celebrate completion, even if we didn’t beat the other team.

Afterwards we had a debrief back in the warm house with photos of the day displayed on a screen (Robin on his backside in the mud, Harry looking like he was taking a whizz against a tree, and a nice one of the group hug - ahhhh). What had we learned about leadership, motivation, delegation, discipline and communication? Well, nothing I didn’t know already about the colleagues I knew well, and a little something about the colleagues who were new to me – but only those on my team. I hadn’t learned a lot about the new members on the other team. Didn’t matter though. Motivators though, that was an interesting one. I was honest and said ‘Yes, I enjoyed myself, I spent a day in a field. But I wasn't motivated to win.'

Kurt took issue with me – telling us how pushing people to their limits could develop qualities and characteristics blah blah... I could hear and understand his words, but they were not for me. In his world, maybe he is right. But in my world I can learn more about my colleagues, their preferred working styles, strengths and weaknesses in many ways other than pointing a gun at them. Oh – have I said that before?

All in all I enjoyed the day. It was something different. Something I can say I have done. What did I learn? I learned how heavy boots get with mud. I learned how nice – without exception – my colleagues are (but I knew that anyway). I learned that unless I am given the right motivator, my performance is affected. Hey, maybe I knew that one anyway too.

But, let’s face it, I got a chapter out of it!
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