Blind faith Featured

9:46am EDT July 22, 2002

Whose who passed through downtown Cleveland one afternoon last August may still be wondering what 100 management and sales executives from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield were doing in the middle of Public Square with a box of ropes, props and blindfolds.

But for those attending Anthem’s annual sales conference, the afternoon of problem-solving exercises was much more than simple fun and games. It was a way to illustrate the power and innovation which can be developed through teamwork.

Since 1974, the Cleveland Heights-based Institute for Creative Living has staged these programs for more than 400 organizations and corporations, including NASA, KeyCorp, Leadership Cleveland and Ohio Aerospace Institute.

Adding the teambuilding exercises to Anthem’s annual sales conference earned high marks from participants, says Jeanne Hauer, Anthem director of regional marketing. And it left those who did not take part with the sense that they had missed out on a valuable experience.

Some may wonder about the real-world benefits of these types of exercises, but Hauer is an advocate of their ability to unlock a strong team mentality that carries on long after employees return to the office.

“I have participated in the team-building exercises where you sit around and have a boat with five guys and only three can survive,” says Hauer. “I don’t think they have the lasting value that actual physical, experiential teambuilding has. I think it breaks down some of the barriers more effectively than just talking about team.”

The August program in Public Square was the nonprofit organization’s first major off-site teambuilding session. The sessions usually take place at the Institute’s training and conference facility in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley Recreational Area.

Director Marcia Mauter, who has headed the organization since 1981, says the content of the programs depends on what a company hopes to gain from the experience.

“Sometimes a group will say, ‘We’re really having difficulty building consensus, do you have anything that will help us with that?’ or, ‘We’re having a difficult time with communication blocks,’” explains Mauter. “Our groups may say, ‘We really need help in how we give feedback to each other,’ or, ‘We don’t understand it enough to know how to do it effectively.’”

The Institute’s staff helps remove these obstacles through unique curricula and outdoor challenges in which co-workers must pull together to figure out how to accomplish various physical tasks. Level one exercises begin with solving problems at the ground level. The second step often involves obstacles of seven to 10 feet in height. The third level offers aerial challenges more than 30 feet off the ground.

“The initiatives, all of them, tap your intellectual capabilities, your social abilities to pull things together and your physical abilities to a smaller degree,” says Mauter. “It reveals the diversity of thoughts, the diversity of experience and what everybody has to offer and draw upon. That’s what people are here to discover.”

Participants can choose to focus on a range of topics, including teambuilding and leadership development, facilitator training and diversity training. Mauter says some executives conduct programs for their workers each year as a way to continuously strengthen relationships with and between employees.

“Building on your leadership and team development skills is like a race without a finish,” says Mauter. “(These programs) are an opportunity to help individuals and groups collectively understand what is it they do or don’t do that helps or hinders what kind of outcomes they want. Within that simple statement are lifetimes of struggle.”

How to reach: Institute for Creative Living, (216) 932-3785

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.