Pam Davis stood wide-eyed and trembling on a tiny treetop platform, preparing to leap into the air, grab a rope just beyond reach and descend 50 feet to the ground.
Minutes before, the 37-year-old management consultant had contained her paralyzing fear of heights long enough to clamp on a helmet, clip a sturdy rope to a harness wrapped around her body and climb 50 feet up a nearby tree -- pausing frequently to embrace the trunk, breathe deeply and shout "huh, huh" in an effort to calm her wildly-wobbling legs.
Aided by shouts of encouragement from eight supporters on the ground, she had clambered onto a treetop platform and traversed a thin, 40-foot wire to a second platform in an adjacent tree. There Gary Jordan, a 30-year-old advertising agency executive, stood ready to comfort and encourage her to make the breathtaking mid-air leap that would end her heart-stopping challenge.
"Say something you guys," she cried to her colleagues below. "Oh God, I feel terror. Absolute, stark terror."
"C'mon Pam you can do it," called up 30-year-old investment banker Wendy Wachtel.
"We're rooting for you," yelled filmmaker Tommie Smith, 28.
"You'll make it," Jordan whispered in her ear. "Go girl go."
"Okay, I'm going to jump," cried Davis, as she leaped into the air and grabbed the thick rope. The small crowd below began to cheer and within seconds she was lowered gently into their waiting arms.
"I could never have done it without everybody's encouragement," she gasped, still shaking as helpful hands unhooked the rope from her body. "I'm usually the risk taker who's held back by others, but all of a sudden it was my fear of heights that was keeping everyone else back. I got through this because I'm basically a group person, and I felt a physical rush of support from everyone."
The scene may sound like a rough day at boot camp, but it was an exercise in organizational team-building developed by Growing Edge, Inc., a 2-year-old company that combines outdoor problem-solving activities with conventional management training. The resulting "adventure seminars" -- held at three sites in rural Virginia -- are designed to help supervisors and work teams recognize and deal with performance-inhibiting patterns such as mistrust, unresolved conflicts and faulty communication.
"These kinds of problems become very visual and accessible when you're working on a task like trying to get everyone over a stream without getting wet," says Growing Edge president Bill Underwood. "Gradually the exercises help build stronger team and personal leadership patterns that are immediately transferable to the job."
Modeled after Outward Bound's 20-year-old "personal challenge" programs -- which grew out of British wartime survival schools -- Growing Edge is one of an increasing number of outdoor education organizations adapting the wilderness training concept to the corporate setting. Outward Bound now offers "managers/executives" courses featuring sailing, mountaineering and canoeing at several of its schools across the country. Corporate participants have included Xerox, Reader's Digest and Martin Marietta.
Boston University's 4-year-old Executive Challenge program runs work-group training programs at an 850-acre camp in New Hampshire for about 20 organizations annually including Polaroid, General Electric and the Norton Co. Venture Forth has worked with several Fortune 500 companies and a management-labor negotiating team at its 145-acre site in the Poconos, and Philadelphia's Institute for Outdoor Awareness (IOA) runs training programs for teachers, therapists and other professional groups at sites anywhere from upstate New York to Mt. Rainer.
Like most of these organizations, Growing Edge meets first with company managers to discuss training goals.
"Then we design specific outdoor initiatives geared to achieving them," says Underwood, who calls the "ropes course" that Davis completed "a metaphor for a coporate challenge that requires interpersonal support. The group has a certain amount of time to get each person up the tree, over the wire and down the rope. To succeed, everyone must do it."
Each outdoor problem "is physically manageable," he says, "and designed as a tool to help participants get to the heart of personal and group issues that impede their performance. If they're having trouble coordinating between departments, we might set up an initiative that divides them into groups and requires them to share resources and skills to perform a difficult feat, like getting 10 people over a 13-foot wall in 12 minutes. Or if they want to work on conflict resolution we'd set up an initiative that requires them to do some negotiating within the group before they could even begin the task."
The outdoors beats the classroom as "an easier and more effective way to demonstrate contemporary management concepts," says Philip Bartow, a former management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and now president of IOA. "I use the woods the same way a psychiatrist uses a couch -- it's the place to bring out ideas and insights. I'm not as interested in getting people up a cliff as I am in helping develop new strengths and values and translating them to the organization."
Top-rope climbing -- where one person climbs while another supports from above -- for example, "is a clear demonstration of the supportive relationship of the superior," says Bartow.
"The person on top can advise and support, but the person below must make his or her own decisions. The lower person learns the importance of assertive upward communication. Often the person who is lower in an organization doesn't know how to speak out to a superior. But on the cliff they must tell the top person if they're moving their foot right or left or if they're stuck.
"And the top person can see that they need to be a facilitator, not an old-style military-model manager. This leads perfectly into modern management concepts like team work, quality circles and Japanese management styles."
The dramatic contrast between the office and the outdoors makes these training adventures "an extremely powerful way to learn," concurs Executive Challenge director Anton Lahnston, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Boston University. "The environment allows individuals to become freed up from the normal roles and patterns. People feel more comfortable getting involved and talking.
"We once had a group of engineers from one company who worked in 14 different locations around the world designing packages for similar products. We set up a problem -- getting 10 people across a river in an old canoe and some inner tubes -- that turned out to be a great facilitating mechanism to get to the bigger issues they delt with, duplication of effort and lack of communication.
"Feedback is immediate -- you succeed or you get wet -- and in the process the group finds out a lot about themselves in terms of things like leadership issues, communication, time management."
Companies best suited to benefit from Executive Challange, says Lahnston, "are organizations that really believe in worker participation at all levels of the work force." High-tech companies, research and development firms and organizations involved in producing a diverse range of goods and services, he says, seem to derive particular insight.
"It takes a certain kind of company to pick up on this. We're still facing some negative feelings from people who think it's just spending corporate money on a program with the flavor of summer camp. But it's very serious organizational development work. Once they try it, they begin to see how it works."
Another corporate concern is safety. Reputable companies are extremely safety-conscious and have insurance. Some ask participants to sign waivers acknowledging that they will be involved in activities that have an element of risk.
"People involved in our program are safer than when walking across the street," Lahnston claims. "We've had only one injury, to an ankle, and that was the person's own fault."
Among the corporate advocates is Polaroid, which has sent about 165 staffers to Executive Challenge as part of its management training program. "It's an eye-opening experience," says Steve Stulck, who heads Polaroid's management development department. "I hear lots of positive things from individuals and their bosses about the effect it had, which I think of as a kind of recalibration.
"Often people have a bunch of assumptions about things they couldn't do in all areas of their life -- work and home. This experience challenges that, and people find they can do things they've never dreamed they could. Afterwards, when they face a problem, they have a different outlook on it . . . a 'can-do' attitude."
This attitude is particularly valuable in a high-tech company, Stulck says, because "developing a new idea often requires a kind of groping in the dark. Many people who've gone through the program were stunned at the ability of a group to deal with an ambiguous task and with the kind of intimacy and cooperation that can develop.
"As with any kind of training, evaluation is difficult, but we hope it translates into their ability to do that in the workplace."
"Unlike a lot of training programs, it's not boring," says Bob Sprague of Better Way, Inc., an Ohio agency that works with delinquent children and received training from Growing Edge. "You really get a feel for your strengths and weaknesses."
On-the-job improvements resulting from the experience range from "subtle changes of attitude" to "shorter, more efficient meetings," says Ellen Weinstock, co-manager of Richmond's Community Food Market, who attended a Growing Edge adventure seminar with the market's 11-member board of directors. "We were experiencing lots of factionalization because half of us are elected and half of us are staff.
"The experience let us hash out a lot of our problems and come up with some guidelines for how we want to operate.
"There were a couple of people I couldn't deal with before . . . and we feel differently about each other now. For the first time I felt that we were all pulling together."