Entrepreneur Wayne J. Griffin thought he would have little to learn by attending a leadership training program in the summer of 2002 with a bunch of corporate presidents and COOs. "They're great, but at the end of the day, they don't have their own butts on the line the way I do," says the owner of an electrical contracting firm in Holliston, Massachusetts.
But during an exercise at Leadership at the Peak, a course offered by the Center for Creative Leadership, in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Griffin and some cohorts were blindfolded and led by others on a half-mile hike through the woods. Once they reached a clearing, the exercise in dependency and trust continued as the group play-acted the removal of a piece of "radio-active waste" using a ball, a bucket and bungee cords. "I had to give trust to get trust, and even then, the outcome was unknown," recalls Griffin.
The experience transformed him. "I realized that my biggest strengths could be some of the company's biggest weaknesses if I didn't properly channel them, because I'm a take-charge guy," says Griffin, 48, founder of Wayne J. Griffin Electric Inc. Now he's quicker to "ask permission" of his employees before making a decision and more likely to delegate important matters to them. "If I can't see that their actions can be positive," he says, "no one will ever develop to succeed me."
Immersion training for company chiefs is rapidly gaining currency. Varieties range from the Outward Bound flavor of Leadership at the Peak to instruction in conventional classroom settings. Leading business schools, executive-education start-ups, single-industry trade associations and other entities are developing and operating their own vehicles with a common aim: Give entrepreneurs a dose of battlefield training in leadership, and deliver it in the exclusive fellowship of company-heading peers who are the most likely to appreciate and enhance the experience.
"Once someone has owned a company for a while, this is kind of the next step they need to take themselves-and their companies-to the next level," says Howard Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor and former chair of one of the best-known immersion vehicles for entrepreneurs and CEOs, Harvard University's Owner/President Management (OPM) program. "Many entrepreneurs have other degrees, of course, but beyond the specific or technical skills that got them started, they haven't learned about really running and leading the company."
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Entrepreneurs often make the best students "because they're more acutely aware of the repercussions" of what they learn, compared with corporate officers, says Leonard Fuld, president of Fuld & Co. Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company that teaches business owners and corporate executives about competitive-intelligence gathering.
Also, entrepreneurs can use such training to make the transition from focusing solely on marketing and expanding the bottom line to embracing "the need for controls and profitability," says William Sihler, a business professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and an expert on small-company turnarounds. "Maybe they can run the business up to $10 million or $20 million [in revenues], but if it gets larger, many haven't developed the skills and responsibility to decentralize-and they can get into serious problems and quite possibly fail."