Down by the river

Nantahala Outdoor Center is one place business sends individuals to train them to work as teams.
By Arthur O. Murray

I firmly believed that I didn’t need anyone but me / I sincerely thought I was so complete / Look how wrong you can be.

Rod Stewart, who wrote those lyrics, recorded them on the title track of Every Picture Tells a Story 35 years ago. That was before many of John Grinnell’s clients were born and a year before Nantahala Outdoor Center opened in Bryson City. But that’s the idea he’s trying to get across in the team-building sessions he runs there.

Rod the Mod, of course, was talking about a young man — presumably himself — who discovered he needed a woman to be complete. Grinnell’s charges are young executives — male and female, in groups of about 24 — from across the Carolinas. The president and owner of Grinnell Leadership in Chapel Hill took a group from Raleigh-based First Citizens BancShares to Nantahala last year and plans to take another this fall. In addition to bankers, he has sent builders, engineers, military contractors and others down the river. “It’s a great experience for them because the higher you go on the corporate ladder, the more you have to rely on others.”

Employers hire him to turn individuals into teams, often by personality testing and activities sprinkled throughout a year. “You get these powerful and headstrong young executives, and they’re not used to relying on others.” One way to change that is by making them work together three days at Nantahala — on the ropes and with or without a paddle.

He relies on Cindy Franz, director of the group-adventure program, to organize the outdoors activities. When a trainer such as Grinnell isn’t with a group, Franz, who started work at the center when it built its ropes course 11 years ago, will supervise the team building herself. Usually about 200 to 250 people a year participate, including school, church and family groups as well as those from businesses. There is no set program. Sometimes the eight-mile rafting course comes first; other times, participants hit the ropes first. Some groups will use one but not the other. All this is interspersed with exercises designed to build trust and cooperation. The cost depends on the number of people and activities.

The ropes and rafting courses are what she calls “challenge by choice” — participants do only what they’re comfortable with. “With the river, you’re looking at a raft of four to six people working together to get the raft going where they want it to go. They take turns as guides. If people are scared, we can get a person in the back with them as kind of a co-pilot thing.” The most important thing is the effort involved. “In business, you’re risking contracts or money. On the river, the challenge is trying to stay in the boat.”

The experience can be even more valuable when Grinnell is coordinating things. He likes to shake things up. “I strategically put people into the raft [whose] personalities are not complementary and get them to work it out.”

But while the rafting is about team-work, the adult ropes course is all about trust. “If you are 20, 40, 50 feet off the ground, you’re very aware of that person on the ground and what you need from them,” Franz says. “It’s often harder to be on the ground.”

Grinnell agrees. “They have to rely on one another to succeed. The ropes are just too complicated to do on your own. It’s a personal challenge, learning to have courage and going beyond your limitations.”

It’s a challenge Grinnell confronted in 1977 while working for Fayetteville City Schools as a mental-health counselor. “I did a rafting trip down the Nantahala and experienced the team-building effect of the whitewater.” He worked for Farr Associates, a leadership and organization- al development company in Greensboro, before starting his business in 1994. He keeps coming back to Nantahala, he says, because Franz and other staff work to keep the courses safe for all kinds of groups.

Sometimes the team building transcends a single company. Joe Wilson, delivery-project executive for the Research Triangle Park campus of Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, recently brought a group that included 24 employees of his company and one of its largest customers, Zurich, Switzerland-based ABB, a high-tech engineering company. “We hoped to get people to work together outside the job environment,” says Wilson, who had been rafting on the Nantahala. Last year, the companies had sent a group to Montreal for a team-building session patterned after The Amazing Race, the TV show about international scavenger hunts. “In both of these things, we got a good mix of people from different companies who needed to know each other to work effectively,” he says.

The best results, Franz says, come from getting folks comfortable with one another away from their jobs. “If you go some place and play hard and then step back and look at it, you’ll learn things that will help you. When people play hard, it’s very similar to when they work hard.” She tells participants that running the river is like dealing with life’s challenges. “Sometimes you go with the flow, and sometimes there are rapids there. If your team can put it all together, you can negotiate the river. If not, you’ll end up on the rocks.”

Which brings up the title of another Rod Stewart album: Never a Dull Moment.