Staffing Management

Special Report on Leadership Development: Corporate Leaders Train in Fire Drills and Funny Skills

By Garry Kranz

May. 10, 2011

Corporate leaders are accustomed to putting out organizational brush fires. Now, they can become firefighters for a day and extinguish the real thing, too.

To sharpen their leadership skills, managers from about two dozen companies in New York and New Jersey joined with some of their employees to play firefighter one afternoon last May. The four-person teams traded in their white collars for gas masks and “turnout gear”—traditional firefighter garb. Under the supervision of New York City firefighters, the teams rushed into burning buildings, rescued passengers from simulated subway accidents or performed other high-pressure emergency drills.

The unusual training took place at the New York City Fire Academy. Learning how to properly hook up a fire hose, gauge the correct water pressure and extinguish flames—all while being timed—took leadership from abstract concepts to the practical realm, says S. Scott Parel, one of the participants who is a private equity lawyer and partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York.

“I honestly didn’t expect that it would foster team building beyond mere camaraderie, but it did a lot more than that,” says Parel, whose crew received the FDNY’s teamwork award for its performance. “Our team was put to the test as to who was supposed to do what.”

The team combined people from Parel’s practice group and the firm’s bankruptcy practice. Although the four lawyers were acquainted as colleagues, the intense experience “proved especially challenging since we had not worked together on a project before,” Parel says.

Dousing actual fires may seem extreme, but the program exemplifies the trend toward making leadership training more creative and engaging. The FDNY launched its Firefighter for a Day Team Challenge last year to share “best practices” on decision-making and problem-solving, says Greg Pfeifer, a development associate with the FDNY who oversees the program. The training has “the feel of executive education,” with companies paying $2,500 to enroll each four-person team. The FDNY suggests organizations form teams that have one senior official and several nonmanagerial employees.

“Firefighting is very complex and interdependent, and that has obvious applications to the business world,” Pfeifer says. “Since our training puts people into crisis situations, hopefully they will be better prepared to handle any crisis that arises in the workplace.” The Fire Department plans to reprise the challenge with a new crop of companies at its second annual leadership training program on May 13. Among the expected participants are some employees in the New York City office of Syska Hennessy Group Inc., an engineering, design and consulting firm whose projects usually involve large numbers of professionals from different disciplines.

The sprawling nature of projects sometimes makes it difficult to communicate the customer’s needs to all parties, says James Callahan, a Syska electrical engineer. “We have to do a better job of talking to one another and coordinating tasks among the different parties on project teams. We expect that working with the firefighters will help us make decisions more quickly, and learn how to delegate.”

Whether such kinesthetic training is more effective than classroom instruction remains subject to debate. Yet more companies clearly are embracing programs that enable leaders to learn by doing, especially in group settings.

To meet that demand, some of the top business schools are livening up their executive education programs. Companies now want executive education to embed “experiential” learning with traditional coursework, says Stephen Burnett, the associate dean of executive education at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston, Illinois.

Burnett says companies realize “there are limits to what people learn in the classroom or even on the Web. For skills such as communication, coaching and enabling team performance, people have to be given an opportunity to immediately apply them.” Spending on leadership programs began dropping in 2008 but appears to be stabilizing, according to research firm Bersin & Associates in Oakland, California. In 2010, organizations devoted 22 percent of their training budgets to leadership, down just slightly from 2009.

Leadership may not seem like a laughing matter, but some companies are seeking comic effect in their training. Many turn to Chicago-based Second City Communications, the corporate consulting division of renowned comedy troupe Second City, whose alumni include Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray and Mike Myers.

Second City Communications began using satire and theatrical comedy for corporate training about 10 years ago, and its business has been ticking steadily upward, according to Tom Yorton, CEO. The consulting division provides comedy-infused workshops for nearly 400 corporate clients, about half of which are Fortune 500 companies. The reason for the growth is simple, Yorton says. “There is a cost of being boring” when learners don’t retain what they hear.

Improvisational comedy serves as a metaphor for how leaders must adapt to the rapid pace of change in business. One minute, a corporate manager might be yukking it up over a joke during a Second City workshop. The next minute, that executive might be roped on stage to perform with the cast and become part of the joke. “When people learn by doing, it tends to have greater impact and staying power,” Yorton says. “Likewise, when we present something in a comedic way, it cuts through the clutter and helps people pay attention.”

Most half-day workshops cost about $5,000, while full-day sessions run about $7,500, Yorton says. Second City also produces custom programs starting at about $10,000. One of Second City’s clients is Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance Group of Cos. Humorous videos provide a fresh way to teach the leaders at Farmers how to be more transparent and how to create an environment that encourages feedback, Yorton says. “A lot of our work focuses on communication skills, being nimble and adaptive.”

Timothy West, an associate professor in the accountancy department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, asked Second City to provide improvisational techniques for leadership to his class of certified public accountants, whose profession gets stereotyped as “boring, predictable and inflexible.” The workshops force accountants into new roles of communication and on-the-spot collaboration.

At the end of the workshop, accountants create skits in the form of an infomercial, which West says helps them “deliver concepts in ways they would have never considered just a few hours earlier.”

Chord progression
Music, which can also involve improvisation, is being incorporated into some leadership training programs. Minneapolis-based Jazz Impact, for example, has delivered jazz-infused leadership workshops for such blue-chip clients as Credit Suisse Group, IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., the Mayo Clinic and Vodafone Group.

Classical music has been used to illustrate the leader-as-conductor model, but jazz provides different lessons. Michael Gold, the head of Jazz Impact and a former real estate executive, says jazz enables leaders to understand the ensemble nature of work. In a typical workshop, the group starts with a few bars of music, which do not have a scripted ending. Each performer then takes a turn in the spotlight, improvising a solo, while the other band members provide accompaniment. With the solo complete, the musician blends into the background to support the next member’s Louis Armstrong moment.

Although the musicians shine during their solos, it is the interplay and mutual support that create a sense of harmony and completion, Gold says. “There’s a tremendous parallel between a jazz ensemble and the demands placed on businesses, particularly leadership.” One of Gold’s venues is the Kellogg School at Northwestern. Jazz Impact performs in leadership courses taught by Michelle Buck, a clinical professor of management and organization, as part of Kellogg’s Advanced Executive Program for people on track to become senior managers. Tuition for the four-week program is $41,000.

In the weeks leading up to Buck’s final class, participants pursue coursework on various facets of management, including strategy, accounting and marketing. The final class, however, is intended as a surprise. Students are often taken aback when they enter the classroom and see a jazz ensemble tuning up, Buck says.

After listening to some jazz, students can question the performers. But perhaps most important, students also are asked to grab simple percussion instruments and contribute to the musical tableau. The class is designed to push leaders beyond their comfort zone. The pace of business is faster, and the pressure to innovate is increasing, Buck says. Leaders don’t have a lot of ramp-up time, “yet they’re being told: ‘Here’s the template: Go create a new product in a new market.’ ”

Buck also spices up some of her classes with the Argentine tango. The two dancers illustrate the interdependence between leaders and the people they lead, Buck says. “The cliche that ‘It takes two to tango’ is true for a reason: A leader can’t lead alone. The follower has to follow in a way that helps the leader lead.”

Experiential-based leadership development programs have long been popular at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Wharton’s Leadership Ventures, in which 20 to 30 people participate in two learning expeditions lasting up to 14 days, says Jeff Klein, director of Wharton’s Graduate Leadership Program.

One program takes participants to Normandy’s Omaha Beach, where Allied troops invaded France on D-Day, during World War II. The students stand on the beach as Wharton instructors conjure up images of the turmoil of the deadly battle, and provide lessons on leading under difficult conditions.

Another excursion proves to be a bit more grueling, with executives trekking across the Mount Everest region of Nepal. The students learn survival skills such as overland navigation, proper hydration and nutrition, Klein says. “When the team succeeds in understanding the environment, performing as a team and acquiring new skills, it also gains confidence and the ability to apply the same concepts in organizations. And they have a vivid and memorable experience to draw upon in the future.”

Not all experiential learning at business schools is quite so demanding. One of the newer offerings at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville, which is titled Leading Teams for Growth and Change, combines classroom work with competitive rowing on the nearby Rivanna Reservoir. For a fee of $6,900, enrollees receive practical classroom instruction on leadership, followed by a day of competitive rowing.

Darden partners with Dan Lyons, a former Olympian who rowed on seven U.S. national teams and now runs Team Concepts Inc., an experiential training firm near Philadelphia. David Newkirk, CEO for executive education at Darden, believes rowing helps teach leaders trust and teamwork. Each eight-person team is taught to sweep and scull by listening intently and following the directions of the coxswain. Because the teammates face away from one another, they learn to trust each other and to collaborate. “The physical experience of rowing makes leadership lessons come alive in a powerful way,” Newkirk says. “Plus, it shows how useful a great coach is in providing the coaching and feedback” needed to pull together.

Workforce Management, May 2011, pgs. 28-30, 32Subscribe Now!

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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