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Team-Building With a Purpose Savvy entrepreneurs design team bonding programs that keep their employees motivated.

By Nancy Mann Jackson

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Announce that you're planning a team-building exercise for your staff, and watch the eyes roll. Team-building events have a reputation among many employees as time-wasters that simply keep them away from the office as more work piles up, but savvy entrepreneurs design programs that will help them reach specific goals for their team.

For instance, when Ken Keller, owner of a Renaissance Executive Forums franchise in Valencia, Calif., needed to develop rapport and trust among a group of top executives, he took them to a vineyard and told them to create their own wine. At Viansa Winery in Sonoma, Calif., the group was divided into teams and each team was given a few wine parietals. They had to work together to create their own signature wine, design a label and develop a marketing pitch, all to be presented to judges at the end of the competition. Not only was the activity "a blast," Keller says, it also "helped people really get focused on the task at hand and work together toward a common goal."

Keller builds teams for a living, working with individual business owners to form peer groups that serve as each other's board of advisors. He says unique experiences like the Viansa wine-blending program are useful for building effective working relationships because people are doing something unfamiliar, leading them to depend on each other to figure it out.

"One thing that really helped with Viansa was that this was not a scary experience and no one was the boss," Keller says. And it had to help that everyone went home with their own bottle of self-blended wine.

Creatively designed programs like the wine-blending competition help shatter the stereotypes of company retreats that accomplish nothing.

"Team-building gets a bad rap because [some organizations] offer programs and really don't know what they're doing," says Mike Cardus, president of Create-Learning Teambuilding in Buffalo, N.Y. "For instance, a YMCA camp might say they offer corporate teambuilding. Their staff may have a bachelor's degree in recreation so they can plan a fun activity, but that doesn't necessarily apply back to work life."

Cardus says the most successful team-building activities will be explicitly linked back to participants' jobs, and they'll understand how skills developed can translate into workplace habits. To make that happen, each teambuilding experience must be strategically designed with specific goals in mind.

Improving Morale
While each organization's goals for a team-building program vary, in the current economy, many companies primarily "want to enhance employees' engagement in the company," says Nat Measley, master of fun at Newark, Del.-based The Fun Department, a consulting firm that helps companies develop cultures of having fun with a purpose.

"An engaged employee will stop and pick up a piece of trash in the hallway, a disengaged employee will walk by the piece of trash and leave it, and an actively disengaged employee will throw the trash on the floor," Measley says.

Along with bolstering employees' commitment to the company, "a lot of companies are seeing the layoffs and the uncertainty, and they just want to get people out of the office and reenergize them," says Lloyd Davis, president of Viansa Winery. "They want to get [employees] to stop thinking about the bad things happening and start thinking about the good things that could happen in the company."

Christopher Burgos was hoping to boost employee morale when he hired The Fun Department to stage team-building exercises for his firm, Diamond State Financial Group in Newark, Del. The Fun Department took a group of Diamond State's salespeople out of the office for an all-day competition with various stops such as bowling and go-karting.

"One of the goals was to take the staff away from the office and stress for the day," Measley says. "Chris used the event proactively to counteract any serious morale issues. Specifically, taking the group out of that office setting was the key to targeting those goals Chris wanted accomplished. Sometimes it can be that simple."

Burgos' company also participated in the annual Fun Department Corporate Games, an afternoon of field and team events where various companies compete against each other. Employee morale improved just by getting out and playing together, according to Burgos. And it also "helped increase productivity, since they needed to qualify to attend," he says.

Fostering Communication
Lender Consulting Services in Rochester, N.Y., has small offices across several states, so many employees never work together. CEO Mark LiPuma wanted to open lines of communication among staff across the company, so he hired Cardus of Create-Learning Team Building (I looked up the company name, they separate the words)to facilitate a two-hour team-building activity.

"At first there was some reluctance and a sense that this is just a waste of time," LiPuma says. "But as the day approached, there was genuine excitement and anticipation. The morning of the event was very satisfying for us as owners because everyone was milling around and getting excited about what was to come."

Starting with a get-to-know-you icebreaker, the 37 participants played several games that required balance, trust and teamwork. In one game, each group was given balloons and tape and instructed to build a tower of balloons, competing for the highest tower. "We had a certain amount of time to blow up balloons and hold them together with our tape," says Mary Kremer, an employee at Lender Consulting. "It was nice to experience working as a group, sharing engineering ideas and putting them to use."

Aside from playing games, the experience "generated lots of ideas as to how to apply the lessons learned during the fun routines to our daily work," LiPuma says. "There was a renewed sense of camaraderie and a better understanding of how each of us reacts to certain situations. There was a real sense of teamwork in several of the exercises, especially when we paired people that were not familiar with each other before the gathering."

Reinforcing Company Values
At LunchByte Systems, a provider of software and services for school cafeterias, the goal of a recent team-building program was to "showcase the importance of customer service and communications," says Colin Sheridan, president of the company.

Create-Learning Team Building conducted the activity as part of a two-day company wide staff development meeting, with the company's values of customer service and open communication were emphasized throughout. In one game, Project Rollerball, employees were divided into six functional team units to design and execute a solution to a business challenge. "The aim of the project is to deliver customer satisfaction and an excellent product in a profitable and sustainable way by being able to communicate and operate with flexibility across different functions and areas," Sheridan says.

In debriefing the exercise, discussions of customer service and communication came up again and again. "It was a good reminder of some simple but easily forgotten principles," Sheridan says. "I am sure there were some eye rolls but once we got started with the activities people had fun. During the debriefs, it was obvious that the objectives and lessons were understood by everyone. It was a good change of pace versus meetings and presentations and it got the points across."

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