In New Wave Executive Seminars, Pratfalls and Quacking Like a Duck Are Good Ways to Reach the Top
Building a tepee, flapping your arms like a duck and reading the classics: If you want to succeed in business without really trying, these activities may be just the shortcut you need. Gone are the days when an MBA was enough to make you a budding J.P. Morgan. Xerox, AT&T and plenty of other Fortune 500 firms—responding to the challenge of foreign competition—are sending their honchos back to school for training courses that range from the quasi-psychedelic through the merely bizarre to the practical. Though most firms emphasize technological training, more and more of them are trying out new and unconventional paths that have one common goal: getting the button-down types at the top to loosen up their style and think differently.
The result is that corporate education has become big business. U.S. corporations spend an estimated $40 billion or more on employee education. At least 85 companies exist solely to train executives; IBM sent employees to 37 different training organizations last year. Business schools that used to snub management training as too lightweight now sponsor attitudinal seminars. Daily prices range from $100 to $800 per person. The idea of bringing liberal education to the boardroom is not new: Western Electric offered human relations courses from 1927 to 1939 and the Aspen Institute Executive Seminars have taught Plato, Dostoyevski and Darwin since the 1950s. But neither the scope nor the number has ever approached today's offerings.
"Companies that are most successful have somehow created an environment where things can happen," says Larry Senn, 50, director of the Senn-Delaney Leadership Programs in Los Angeles. For $30,000 to $100,000 per company, Senn, whose office is decorated with plaques reading "Be Here Now" and "Vision," provides workshops aimed at teaching creativity, often in ways that seem half Zen and half Marx Brothers. Senn's students, from such companies as Singer and Montgomery Ward, absorb his theories through exercises. They develop trust by dropping backward into each other's arms and learn teamwork by putting together a jigsaw puzzle without speaking. To unleash their creative energies, they ape Groucho's waddle or imitate animals—quacking like ducks, hissing like snakes, bleating like sheep—while fellow students try to figure out what they are. "These exercises," explains Senn's wife, Bernadette, "require them to take a different approach to problem solving."
"There are a lot of execs who say, 'I won't do some crap like that,' " says Senn, who speaks of "our mission as a company." And yet, he adds, "they all do it once they know why. We look at the world holistically. These exercises give people a real-life experience of how they operate in business and the same opportunity to reflect on it that they'd have if they went and sat on a mountain or sat by the ocean and watched a wave." He does not add that those opportunities cost a lot less.
Scout Lee brings executives a step closer to outdoor reflection. She shows them how to make work fun by teaching them to live like Indians. Building sweat lodges, chanting and passing endurance tests, she believes, bring inner harmony. Xerox and Merrill Lynch have paid $1,000 per employee for Lee's week-long seminars at her Stillwater, Okla. ranch. "Scout is an Inspires a free spirit," says John Hath-way, a vice-president at the Rolm Corporation in Illinois. "You learn what fear is all about and how you overcome it."
Other education options are less concerned with the spirit than with appearances. Massachusetts' Ikuko Atsumi, 44, has charged $2,400 a day to teach executives from Ford and Digital Equipment how to bow correctly, how to drink sake and how to understand the fine points of Sumo wrestling when on business in Japan. At a one-day seminar that costs $2,500 per group, New York City's Sondra Snowdon, 36, has tutored Asia-bound managers on making toasts and giving gifts.
Nell Eurich, author of 1985's Carnegie Foundation study Corporate Classrooms, sees a link between education and productivity. "It may be that before an executive went to a special course, he was apt to make a quick decision based on the bottom line," she says. "If he comes back and asks better questions, that's all-important." One thing is sure. As long as big business keeps paying the bill for expanding its employees' horizons, the executive course catalogs will keep expanding theirs.
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