If blue-chip lawyers and high street banks use them, alternative training courses can't be all that daft, can they? Emma de Vita invites you to decide for yourself.

by Emma de Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

If the mantra for management training in the 1990s was 'who dares wins', then that for the 21st-century should be 'who cares wins'. For the past 10 years, managers have been subjected to an array of competitive, physically demanding courses in the name of leadership and team-building.

Paintballing, tank-driving and even walking over hot coals were the means by which bemused executives were put through their paces.

These activities remain popular, but companies, in their perennial pursuit of the new and different, are exploring a new generation of innovative courses in the hope of firing up their managers' collective imagination.

Forget survival of the fittest. For the benefit of their executives, firms are turning to less confrontational, more emotionally engaging experiences that achieve results through persuasion and personal development. Communication, reflection and empowerment are key.

This move away from the macho is reflected in the progressive training activities now on offer. You may have heard of horse-whispering, but what about sheepdog-handling, bread-making and surfing, to name but a few. These methods may sound odd, but their proponents claim that they offer managers experiences that give them a fresh insight into themselves, their colleagues and their business.

We spoke to some of them to find out more ...


Provider: Mainline Border Collie Centre

Motto: 'Think like a canine'

Courses: Team-building, leadership

The approach: Expert border collie handler Barbara Sykes offers corporate executives the chance to spend a day learning how to 'think like a canine'. She explains: 'You'd be surprised at the similarities between the workplace and the canine group acting as a pack - the hierarchies, the team bonding.' Sykes's aim is that by the end of the day, participants will - like her dogs - be able to read the body language of their colleagues, identify individual weaknesses and harness strengths through co-operation to enable effective team-working. 'The objective is not to show anyone up, but to develop self-learning. We let people find themselves and their team players. The dogs are teachers,' she says.

The experience: Your day at the Mainline Border Collie Centre on a Yorkshire farm starts in the all-weather fenced circle ring, 26 feet in diameter. Inside are three sheep. The rest of your team and the border collies remain outside 'the simulator', while you learn how your body movements affect the sheep and the dogs. 'If you think you're unsure about what you're doing, the dog picks up on it. If you go into the boardroom and feel unsure, your body sends that message out. Your mind and body must work together,' insists Sykes. Once you have the animals under control, phase two involves releasing the sheep into the field and introducing new dogs. Once those have been mastered too, the team of humans then become 'the pack', and are given the task of moving the flock of sheep progressively through three fields and then into a barn.

Clients: Eversheds, Greens Health & Fitness, Mentor (Royal Bank of Scotland), Yellow Pages, Taylors of Harrogate

Contact: tel 01274 564163


Provider: Positive Comedy Training

Motto: 'Fun with purpose'

Courses: People skills, self-presentation, teamwork, problem-solving,

mastery of humour, leadership, change management, crisis handling

The approach: 'Comedy provides a powerful model for developing a range of qualities crucial for business and management: confidence, presenting oneself, communication, co-operation and teamwork, leadership and wielding authority and creativity,' says founder Gerry Maguire Thompson. He uses improvisation to help his clients break down their creativity barriers and express themselves. 'I've discovered improvisation is a very powerful thing if you know how to use it. It can show you how to deal with the unexpected and it shows people their possibilities.' Some may baulk at the idea of sharing a room with six colleagues intent on freeing their inner David Brent, but Thompson gives guidance on the appropriate use of humour in the office.

The experience: Comedy delegates start with a physical warm-up to raise energy levels. 'People have bad habits of blocking their creative capacity,' says Thompson. 'I've devised exercises to help them let go. It gets people past their barrier.' Simple theatre exercises encourage people to express themselves, working towards humour in an indirect way. Game participants can surprise themselves by improvising their own comedy sketch on stage. 'There isn't any pressure to be funny,' Thompson reassures meeker delegates. 'The exercises are gently progressive. I never put people on the spot. They gradually find themselves doing things they didn't think possible, and learn that if they challenge themselves, they will make progress. It builds up confidence.'

Clients: Scottish Power Learning, The Environment Agency, Southern Water, DAF Trucks

Contact: tel 01273 206000


Provider: Mars-Minerva

Motto: 'Battlefield to boardroom'

Courses: Leadership, planning and decision-making, conflict management,


The approach: Mars-Minerva's mission is 'to deliver management development programmes employing battlefield studies as the medium'. True, business has long used the military as a source of inspiration, but what distinguishes these courses, says director Ian Blackwell, is the enriching and moving experience trainees receive from visiting the scenes of battles past. 'Taking people along to the graveyard at Omaha Beach and talking about that really gets into people's minds. We're trying to get them to think outside the box,' he explains. 'You can't stand at Monte Cassino with a veteran of 1944 reliving his experience without feeling a great deal of empathy.' Managers are invited to deal with the scenarios that officers faced. They have to make life-or-death decisions. 'We're providing them with a fast-paced management workshop where issues are more black-and-white than the corporate world, but that helps people to focus and cut out the flak around them.'

The experience: 'We expose you in a safe environment to what is a very unsafe risk-taking scenario,' explains Blackwell. There's no tank-driving or pelting each other with paint bombs - the approach is far more cerebral. Mars-Minerva's Battle of the Somme tour, for example, involves a three-day visit of strategic battle sights combined with presentations from military historians, who recount the events of the day. This is interspersed with discussions led by business consultants, who help you apply military wisdom to your own situation. Let's not forget - running a business is a lot like waging a war.

Clients: Individuals from Barclays, Bradford & Bingley, British Telecom, BP, Shell

Contact: tel 01395 446485


Provider: Bread Matters

Motto: 'Together we rise'

Courses: Team development, change management

The approach: 'Every successful business team faces increasing demands on its time, skills and stamina. Instead of taking them up mountains or relying on away-days,' says the course literature, 'the Together We Rise process strengthens them to meet these demands by using bread-making and business-focused action learning.' Organic baker Andrew Whitley uses his bread-making courses in a Cumbrian setting to teach executives patience, self-belief, collaborative respect and watchfulness. The focus is on the positive and creative - there's no room for competitive or extreme baking in his approach. Business results are achieved through camaraderie and enjoyment. Says Whitley: 'The process of baking is incredibly good fun and tension-relieving.'

The experience: A questionnaire is sent out to participants (up to 12 in a group), who draw up a consensual list of objectives. The two-day course starts in the bakery. 'We get straight into the first loaf of bread. It's both practical and symbolic, and it breaks the ice,' explains Whitley. After an hour of vigorous kneading, the delegates attend a session in the conference room with two professional coaches, who define their objectives and run a series of exercises to explore these. Bread-making resumes before and after lunch. Then there are two more management sessions in which issues are distilled and action points voted on. But the crunch comes at the end of the day when the bakers taste their wares, which apparently often reflect the baker's interpersonal skills. Would you want the creator of a burnt, misshapen loaf on your team?

Clients: Dermalogica, International Celtic Consortium, high street banks

Contact:, tel 01768 881899


Provider: Telos Partners

Motto: 'Walk on water'

Courses: Leadership development

The approach: Telos Partners uses surfing to redress the 'spiritual element' that is so often lacking in management training. By bringing out participants' passions, visions and values, the company aims to develop business people in a 'whole' way. Explains operations director Steve Wilson: 'There's something about being in the sea that connects you on an emotional level. It removes the day-to-day pressures and links you into something a bit bigger.' The ocean is viewed as a point of inspiration to expose people to new thinking. 'There's a parallel between the turbulence in the outside world and its uncontrollable local impact and the business world.' Being able to surf those waves of financial unpredictability can only be a good thing for all senior managers out there with a business board to ride.

The experience: About 10 people, in pairs, take part in a three-day course to experience five activities, including surfing and walking on high wires. Before they depart for Appledore, Devon, delegates complete a questionnaire on their leadership style that includes an element of peer review. They also identify which issues need to be explored. One person in each pair is given a brief for surfing and the pair have to choose their own objectives - be it putting on a display, devising a competition or seeing who can stay longest on their feet. They then all discuss the exercise and the lessons they can apply in the office. 'People expose their emotional vulnerability and are more prepared to talk afterwards,' says Wilson. 'Surfing forces them to address things that might be difficult. It's about getting those golden moments.'

Clients: US-headquartered global IT business, FTSE 100 companies, ABN Amro

Contact:, tel 01753 855228.

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