Outwit, outplay, outlast


11-6Teamwork is a perennial buzzword in the corporate world. Regularly listed as a key requirement on job specifications, the term seems to somehow lose its importance when it comes to the executive management level of a business.

In times where the economy is suffering the repercussions of a financial crisis, what happens if your company’s CEO, CFO and various heads of departments are not able to work as a team to combat challenges?

Consider their backgrounds: managers have often climbed the ladder thanks to being ambitious, having a strong will, having done it ‘their way’ and who are now experts in their own right, and who may be less flexible working within the constraints of a team.

While personality traits are almost impossible to change once entrenched, team-building skills can certainly be nurtured among this group.

The stakes are high for upper management who face the demands of the corporate rat race. Gregory Kalabekov, director and lead facilitator of GRINESS Centre for Training and Development, says: “Wrong decisions due to miscommunication or a lack of trust could cost the company millions of dollars, and wasting valuable time trying to prevent miscommunication is counterproductive.”

Adds Ebnu Etheris, founder of Teamwork Bound: “Emails and conflicting challenges between departments result in misunderstandings that may not wholly represent the individuals they are working with.

“Besides enhancing interactions which can help break down the walls of pre-conceived perceptions and judgments about one another, team-building sessions designed with business goals in mind will also get senior executives on the same page.”

Given that every leader is part of a larger team, should HR be organising separate team-building activities especially geared towards them? What are the best ways to engage them so they would not simply pass the activity off for ‘last-minute work commitments’ or think their time is best spent elsewhere?

The team-building myth

There is a huge gap between what people understand team-building to be and what it should be, according to Robert Rigg, founder of Bamboo, who believes companies in Singapore perceive team-building activities as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise and fail to understand what they truly want to achieve.

In such a case, it is a safe bet to assume the activity will not deliver.

Knowing the audience is as important as preparing for an annual board meeting. For example, if the event is about ‘fun’ it is vital to pick an exercise which resonates with the whole group; if it is about ‘business’, then all participants must understand the exercise they are about to undertake is part of their on-going development, and the level of engagement required from them.

“Of all the events I have run that have ‘missed the mark’, the most consistent theme would be the breakdown in the communication and interpretation of the brief given to me by the client, and the brief given by the client to their senior management,” Rigg says.

To get the most out of an exercise, it is critical participants be prepared for it. On the whole, he finds senior executives are generally happy being taken out of their comfort zones – but only if they are ready for what is coming.

While the next step may be a challenge to achieve, it is key to maximising their experience: take them off site and ensure they are away from their BlackBerrys and email.

According to Kalabekov, the definition of team-building and team-bonding has various interpretations. To some, both terms mean the same whereas others define team-building as an official company event and team-bonding as colleagues getting to know each other in an informal setting.


12He explains team-building activities work on the principles of experiential learning, such as workshops consisting of hands-on activities, ranging from obstacle courses, to playing drums, to cooking (a recent trend).

The end of such an activity is normally followed by a debrief session, where participants are challenged to think about the lessons learnt, the effect it has had on them and how it is applicable to their daily work life.

Team-bonding, on the other hand, is achieved by interaction on a social level. Picture having dinner or drinks after work with your colleagues. This is suitable if there are spare funds and hardly any need for return on investment.

“If companies really want to engage their senior executives, they have to create programmes tailored to the development needs of their senior executives, and not simply take a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem. What might work for junior staff is simply not going to cut it for senior management,” Rigg says. To integrate or differentiate? This is also why Etheris advises HR to consider factors such as learning objectives, organisational size and operational needs when considering whether to focus on level-by-level team-building. “Not all organisations can afford shutting the workplace down for one day and get the entire staff together for the team-building session,” he says.

“Likewise, when corporate management-level discussion is the objective of the activity, gathering senior team members could be more effective than involving the entire staff.” In the latter scenario, team-building activities designed with the business’ goals in mind will get all team members on the same page. Apart from creating opportunities for all departmental heads to pull in one direction, it also breaks down silo thinking. Managers then walk away from a programme with a determined mindset to follow through on their goals, he says. Nevertheless, there are still benefits to hold mass participation activities that involve the entire staff. As organisations grow, the tendency for senior managers to not know their staff well enough becomes apparent and team-building activities will allow increased interaction between both of them.

Kalabekov says in some ways, senior executives are regarded as ‘demi-gods’ in the office. Having senior management performing the same team-building activity can translate to them becoming fellow colleagues who are all working towards the same objectives. Additionally, senior management, individually or collectively, can become a role model for the rest of the company, setting the bar for teamwork.

“Observing senior executives performing team-building tasks alongside other staff brings home the message that they are a team and should function as one,” he says. “Just by declaring ‘teamwork’ as the core company value it will not make staff more co-operative, rather ‘managing by example’ becomes the new core value through team-building activities.”


13Senior engagement in integrated activities

Take it from Deepali Chaturvedi, team leader of Reed Singapore, who takes pride in herself on the achievement that her company has a low attrition rate, with only two employees leaving in the past two years. Having a close-knit, yet professional team, is something she has achieved through biannual team-building activities. To engage staff across the board, she created a team to organise these events with committees to take care of different aspects of the activity, so everyone has a voice. “We try to keep that balance and keep a consensus, because we have a good mix of boys and girls, and people are also less fit than others.”

Recalling the company’s trip to Malaysia last year for go-karting, she sees team-building activities as a celebration of hard work and a reward for her team. “We want them to let loose, have fun and try something new,” she says.

“We often come together and talk about the experiences we have had later on. That is a shared memory that we can all look back on and laugh about.”

Abacus International, on the other hand, sees team-building as a more all-rounded activity that can be incorporated into annual corporate activities. The company holds an annual Abacus Seminar at the start of the year for its Singapore-based employees to celebrate the successes, recognise employees and learn the business goals.

“We also take this opportunity to conduct team activities such as games and quizzes that are synchronised with key messages from our CEO,” Sim adds. Among other annually held activities are the Abacus Active Day, where employees undertake physical exercises to encourage work-life harmony, and the Abacus Family Day where employees can get to know more about their colleagues’ families.

“Ultimately, the aim of the company is to engage all our employees in a variety of ways so that they are well taken care of,” Sim says.

However, Kalabekov says not all senior executives are able to positively impact a team-building activity.

?           The common types of roles senior executives tend to play are:

?           The ‘guy next door’ – dressing appropriately for activities, participating and laughing the loudest to show their ‘human side’.

?           The ‘observer’ – walking around during activities with supportive comments instead of participating.

?           The ‘very important person’ – invoking fear in staff members assigned to their team, causing them to become resistant to speak their mind and do anything that might call attention to themselves.

?           The ‘no-show’ – causing the event to either be postponed or does not attend it altogether because of a busy schedule, an overseas trip, or a last-minute appointment.

Being the ‘guy next door’ or the ‘observer’ can serve the purpose of team-building, he says. However, if there is a ‘VIP’ or ‘no-show’, this will have the opposite effect. What types of activities, then, are most suitable for senior management?

14 (1)Activities for senior management

Where senior executives are involved, there is a need to strike a balance between the physical intensity and the cognitive difficulties of the activities. Etheris says problem-solving activities are most effective with senior leaders.

“Designing the curriculum with moderate physical intensity is the way to go. The mix of activities can be done both indoor and outdoors. There is a need to provide time for debriefs where learners can reflect critically on what happened and its future implications for the team,” he says.

The use of profiling tools among senior management can equip it with subtle and tacit information that is useful to the individual.

When shared as a team, this information becomes more effective, allowing senior team members to share personal traits, behavioural preferences at work and their leadership styles to build closer relationships.

“I completed a training programme recently for a group of civil servants. Towards the end of the day, one team member walked over and hugged another member. It puzzled me as the team had explained it had a nasty conflict prior to the session at the workplace,” Etheris says.

Kalabekov advises that additionally, it is crucial to ensure the activity is both challenging and relatable to the participants.

“Research tells us those events that are accompanied by familiarity results in a long-lasting learning moment. Simply by reflecting everyday office situations as a challenge in the team-building activity will trigger an emotional response, which will stick in their minds.”

To achieve a lasting impact, HR must build a supportive culture within the company.

“Team-bonding just once a quarter is not going to work. Everything has to be done on a day-to-day basis,” Chaturvedi stresses.

“I believe a lot in putting the team together so they have a sense of a shared goal that everyone wants to accomplish together.”

Team-building blunders

What are the most common mistakes organisations make when planning team-building for senior executives?

Overlooking risk-assessment

Most team-building activities are experiential in nature, says Ebnu Etheris, founder of Teamwork Bound. Taking participants out of the classroom and into an environment requiring them to be physically and cognitively engaged are all laced with potential hazards that can easily injure participants. Insurance aside, injuring a senior executive is the last thing you would want to happen on a corporate retreat.

“Sweating the small stuff”

Organisers tend to get caught up in all the minor details such as the decorations, music, even the colour and fold of the napkins. “These are all important details but they are not the main focus. If the programme is well-planned, hardly anyone will remember the colour of the napkins,” says Gregory Kalabekov, director and lead facilitator of GRINESS Centre for Training and Development.

Over emphasising on budget

While it is convenient and cost-effective to buy an off-the-shelf product, does this really achieve the internal change you want? While it may appear more expensive to invest in a tailor-made solution, Robert Rigg, Bamboo’s founder, says it could solve 95% of the issues the company has. Quality costs – fact.