Monday, September 29, 2008

Team Building Goes To The Extreme

This is an article that will appear in the November issue of MPI Magazine.

Team Building Goes to the Extreme
By Gary Tufel

Forget about the standard team-building activities you’ve participated in or heard about. They can be effective, to be sure, but there’s an entire, albeit small, genre of extreme team building. Although some of these activities may not be for the faint of heart, they can and do create powerful bonds within groups. And they feature an emphasis on social consciousness.
Take what Jeff Evans offers, for instance. Evans, who is founder of Colorado-based MountainVision Inc. (, is an extreme team-building creator and guide as well as a speaker at various events.
According to Evans’ agent Dan Sims, CMP, president of The Agency Speakers, “One of Jeff¹s best trips is taking executives to the Inca Trail where they descend upon Machu Picchu. Each night the group works on different tenets of leadership and teambuilding (including writing their own epitaphs) and on working together under obvious adverse conditions." Evans conducts the programs for such clients as ESPN executives, schools and associations.
"I actually went on a trip primarily to learn more about Jeff Evans so that I could articulate his strengths to meeting planners. Jeff has it all as a speaker/trainer. He is charismatic, articulate, an author and a certified Physician Assistant, and one of the hottest speakers in the country," said Sims, who went on a Mt. Kilimanjaro trip.
You may have heard of Evans, who 13 years ago was the primary guide for blind climber/athlete Erik Weihenmayer on mountains, rock faces and adventure races all over the world. Evans worked with Weihenmayer to create a climbing vision, establish an acceptable definition of success and refine effective methods of communication, all innovative and challenging. He guided Weihenmayer to the summit of Mt. Everest in 2001. Some notoriety came from that, and he began branching out from that, addressing corporate and executive groups around the world. But what does he do, exactly, to build team spirit, and how does it work? And why do his clients subject themselves to such extreme experiences?
“I wanted to come up with new concepts,” says Evans, a lifelong mountaineer and guide. Evans was happy with the response to his speaking engagements, but today those engagements are often just step one on a continuum that stretches from speeches through 11- or 12-day treks to such exotic and remote areas as Machu Picchu, Mount Kilimanjaro and Bhutan.
“From my experiences as a guide I found my niche was teamwork and leadership. I realized I wanted to take the next step and do something powerful.” He wanted to not only describe extreme experiences, he wanted people to experience them, and in ways that would make them examine not only their professional lives but also their personal selves. Evans decided to morph his love of mountaineering into helping leaders overcome physical and mental obstacles and strengthen their leadership skills through what he calls “ultimate team-building opportunities.”
Evans has partnered with Bruce Jackson, head of the leadership development program at Utah Valley University, on three team-building trips in the past few years. They developed a large manual, “Principles of Personal Excellence,” for use on the trips.
Last June, Evans and Jackson led a group of 17 participants to Machu Picchu in Peru. The trips he conducts aren’t physically dangerous, Evans says, but they’re physically demanding. “Participants don’t do actual climbing; they’re too tired. In Machu Picchu we take an obscure trail which is a bit easier on people’s bodies. It’s just trekking and hiking, but we get up to 14,000 feet,” says Evans. “No one is put into any scary situations, but there is a certain level of conditioning expected because we keep moving for about five or six hours at a time.”
“The cornerstone of why we do this is that we could do these discussions in a conference room, and it would still be meaningful. But by being in an exotic place, and watching colleagues and strangers pushing themselves and sharing intense details and leadership styles, creates an inviting, neutral atmosphere that encourages introspection and self examination,” he says.
Every evening, the manual is used to spur discussions that include elements of emotional and intellectual stimulation. The goal: to have participants, who are sometimes from different organizations and sometimes from the same one, to come up with a personal ethos to guide their personal and professional lives. Jackson presents the precepts and Evans gives anecdotal examples, Evans says, based on his experiences with communication, leadership and vision. Usually the discussions last about two hours each and they’re opened up for dialog. “There are intense conversations and often tears,” Evans says. The last day of the trip is spent back at a hotel.
Evans offers an entire package that includes keynote speech and team-building activity, the latter of which usually attracts top-level executives who later communicate what they’ve learned to their employees. And he said word of mouth about the program has been so good that he hasn’t had to market it. “My keynote addresses make the point that you can’t be a better person until you’re better with your family and other connections,” Evans says.
“Extreme team-building trips are the tip of the iceberg in effecting real change in an organization,” says Evans. “We try to get top executives to experience real change and then to impact their cultures. Once they’ve felt it, it’s easier for them to communicate it to their organizations.” Evans also uses a software program to communicate daily information about the team-building activities to those who want to experience it second hand.
There’s also a social responsibility aspect to the experiences. In the middle part of each trip a service project is done, in the case of Machu Picchu at a village Evans has adopted. One project involved the building of an adobe chapel at a local school, where participants worked side by side with local villagers, in keeping with the trips’ themes of generosity and purpose. “It’s important to give back and we do this as a way to say thank you,” Evans says.
According to Entrepreneur Ron Lindorf, Evans and Jackson led a disparate group of strangers into a tightly knit group of friends via their nightly leadership discussions and training exercises. Lindorf says he can think of no better way after a hard day of physical demands to further stretch oneself than the way Evans and Jackson guided him and his group to. It created a trip that expanded and enhanced the whole person, and provided some practical life takeaways that only emerged in this kind of natural setting, he says.