As Kim Rowlan, a member of the team that had named itself Riders on the Storm, led her horse around the plastic blue barrel and dipped her coffee mug into the pot of water on top of it, something happened. It was only a small burst of energy on the horse's part, but it threw Rowlen well forward on her saddle, and very nearly onto the ground.
Such are the perils of the Rosenbluth Team Rodeo.
It's a Sunday afternoon in late October, and it's cold. All 31 members of the leadership team from Rosenbluth International's IntelliCenter in Fargo, North Dakota, some of them new to their positions, have gathered to spend the weekend improving their team skills. The setting is The Rivery, a corporate retreat that the company built and opened in 1991, not far from the southern border of North Dakota. Styled as a nouveau ranch house with 16 guest rooms and a first-rate chef, the retreat sits on a patch along the eastern bank of the Missouri River that could fairly be described as the middle of nowhere.
And that's part of the point. Colleen McGuffin, the Fargo general manager who oversaw the weekend's crowded schedule, wanted no distractions. Before coming, all of the participants filled out colored sheets listing goals, influences, strengths, and other personal details. Saturday was spent with a variety of mediated events and discussions designed to spark participants to recognize — and appreciate — their colleagues' learning styles and their own. Much of this consisted of simply talking: McGuffin would introduce a scenario or show a movie clip (like the famous diner scene from Five Easy Pieces in which Jack Nicholson tries to place an order for toast that isn't on the menu) and coax her associates to respond.
That night, she led everyone out into the sub-freezing weather to stand and shiver for five minutes. Back in the warmth of The Rivery, she divided them into pre-sorted teams. "We picked some people who weren't working well together, and some people who've never worked together," she explains. Each team was then given a sub-Arctic survival situation kit put together by Human Synergistics International. The idea: Your plane has crashed, now figure out a strategy to survive. One group, in particular, had problems. "There were lots of opinions, and two leaders with opposite views," McGuffin says.
Later, analyzing that group's poor performance — they would have died — McGuffin noticed that one member's scores were markedly better than the group's as a whole, a sure sign of lousy communication. When she pointed that out, a previously quiet team member named Flora Sulerud suddenly spoke up. "You know," she said, "that's it. I've been trained in Arctic survival. But I didn't say anything. I didn't want everyone to think I'm a know-it-all." Lesson: If you don't have the expertise, figure out who does; if you do have the expertise, say so. Communicate or die.
Sunday afternoon was warmer, but still windy and chilly, as the group tromped down the hill to a small stable for the team rodeo. This event, McGuffin freely admits, is a lot longer on recreation than education, but that's the Rosenbluth way. "You have to have fun and show that teamwork can be fun, and you can enjoy it," she says. "It's not just making hard decisions." The six teams each made up their own silly names (Smokin' Guns, Bullspitters) and decided who on each team would compete in the various events: riding a horse around the blue barrel while balancing an egg on a spoon, or leading the horse in a figure 8.
As the events wore on, the Bullspitters and the Mixed Nuts emerged as the likely champions. But just as important was Kim Rowlan's decision to get back on her horse. Nearly being thrown had obviously shaken her a bit. "Conquering my fears," Rowlan announced, smiling and running a hand through her tousled blonde hair. This was the last horse event, and involved riding to the end of the small field, dismounting, crawling through a tube, and signaling completion by standing with fists raised skyward.
This time Rowlan rode the horse flawlessly, reached the end of the field quickly, and in a matter of seconds shimmied through the tube. She didn't thrust her arms skyward as she scrambled to her feet, but no one said anything about that. They were all too busy applauding and whooping to notice.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.