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In the media

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San Francisco Examiner

Tuesday, January 16, 2001







IMAGINE you're asked to come to the office for a Saturday morning meeting. Instead of heading to the conference room, you and your co-workers are taken by bus to a boat. The boat takes you to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, and upon disembarking you are greeted with the words, "The boat is leaving, and it's not coming back."

Terrorist hijacking? A CEO gone mad? No, Simply the start of a team-building event unlike any other. Based on the "Survivor" television series, this event requires you and your colleagues to rise to challenges such as spear chucking, crossing a "deadly lava flow" and performing a ritual chant of your own making.

For those accustomed to the relative serenity of team building at ropes courses, this event might seem daunting.

But that's the point. Many companies push team-building exercises to a new level, both to stimulate employee bonding and to retain employees by offering them a benefit that will be remembered long after the words "dental plan" have faded.

Silicon Valley firms, pharmaceutical companies, law firms and investment banks "are recognizing there are choices (for team-building events), and they want value," said John Wilkinson, CEO of Total Adventures, a Benicia-based company that organizes the "Survivor" challenge and other team-building events.

It's not easy having fun

Whatever their challenges, these events have to be fun. Which becomes a challenge in itself for the planners. Marlo Deleon, corporate programs manager at Santa Clara-based Latitude Communications, has her hands full making sure each event is better than the last. Latitude Communications, a high-tech company selling products for voice and data conferencing, has challenged its employees with circus classes, rodeo events and most recently, firefighting.

"To ride a trapeze was an awesome yet fearful, experience. The adrenaline in everyone was going strong. Once you did it, it's like, 'You know what I did with my company today? You're not going to believe it,'" said Deleon, describing Latitude's team building event at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, where employees dangled from a trapeze bar suspended 22 feet off the ground.

Employees expressed similar sentiments last Thursday when Latitude held a team builder at the cavernous Hanger No.1 at Moffett Field in Mountain View. As rain leaked inside from the roof, 198 feet above, Latitude people gamely took in a firefighter's training course.

Size doesn't matter

At one point, Sholeh Khatibi, a small women in embroidered jeans who is a Latitude account manager, stood poised with hammer in hand, ready to clobber a 160-pound steel block wedged between two 5-foot horizontal runners. The participant stands over the runners and wails away as if chopping a hole in a roof. Khatibi's opponent, young and burly product manager Brett Prince, whacked away at the block with Bunyan-like strength. Khatibi's team fell behind, but matters were soon evened out when Prince's teammate slipped during another exercise which required participants to drag a 175-pound dummy to "safety."

During this child's play, some risk-takers opted to fight a real fire in an innocuous-looking trailer outside the hanger.


Burn, baby, burn

Four Latitude employees joked lightheartedly as they strapped on heavy firefighting equipment and trudged to the trailer.

Once inside, the four high-tech employees found themselves on their knees in a narrow, smoky hallway with flames licking at their helmets.

Fireman Tom Zurflueh, in the trailer's control room, gleefully pushed buttons to create updrafts and backdrafts. One indicator showed the temperature inside to the trailer to be 115 degrees.

"The only way you can do this is as a team," said Zurflueh, continuously moving his eyes from the controls under his fingers to the team on the other side of the window in front of him, "because the hoses are too heavy for one person." Fireman Tony Arce accompanied the novices, but the team members put out the fire on their own. "It was awesome," said sales manager Katie Sacco. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"How often do you get that kind of experience on your job, in a workday?" chimed in a colleague.

It is just this kind of experience, experts say, which strengthens bonds and leads to greater productivity in the workplace. As long as it is done right.

"If these trainers are smart, what they're doing is either randomly assigning people to competitive groups or assigning them explicitly based on people who in their normal work would actually be grouped differently," said Jennifer Chatman, professor at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

It's also important to let those in non-leadership positions lead.

"We don't let a manager be assigned team captain. We want the managers to follow orders instead of giving orders," said Total Rebound's Wilkinson.

"More often than not, people recognize and learn skills about fellow people that they didn't know they had. Bob the accountant is creative or someone else turns out to be a phenomenal leader or a great motivator. They'll say, 'I didn't realize all the skills some of these people had,'" said Wilkinson.

Team building often simply brings colleagues face to face.

"We're from different regions, different departments. We get to learn what they do and also do something fun together," said Latitude's Khatibi.

No one at Latitude is forced to participate in team-building events.

"We're not militant about it. It's not like you have to do it," said Ted Tracy, a vice president at Latitude, "but about 99 percent" of the 200-some employees choose to do it.


For more information, to book Falcon Quest or any of our other unbelievable team building programs call:


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