Do team-building exercises help IT employees work together more productively?

ITworld.com –

Hanging out on a limb isn't Karen Wilson's idea of a good time, but at Galileo International in Rosemont, Ill., IT managers are not only asked to hang out on a limb but also scale trees, ford imaginary streams, and find the way out of forests. You might wonder what that has to do with managing an IT department. Plenty. Those along with other strategies are becoming more commonplace for fast-paced IT departments focused on building close-knit teams. From community service efforts to traditional hands-on managing styles, companies are taking a fresh look at the importance of fostering leaders.

Working together effectively or not can make or break a project, costing companies tremendous amounts of money. And a bad relationship with a manager or coworker can send an IT staffer packing for a position with another company. "One of the biggest reasons an employee leaves the company is usually very localized -- maybe it's a manager or coworker that they don't get along with, " says Deborah Coughlin, senior vice president of human resources at Computer Associates in Islandia, N.Y.

To improve teamwork and teach leadership skills, Galileo International, an online travel company, uses outdoor education. For three days IT managers face challenges at Outward Bound, an outdoor leadership school in Leadville, Colo., with the understanding that the experiences will make them better leaders and team players on the job. "The best time to break through old management habits is to be out on a limb, suspended by a one-inch cable, 30 feet in the air," says Mark Laurin, Galileo's director of global human resources training.

Laurin enrolled 12 of his managers in a program with Outward Bound last July and plans to continue the project with other managers each year. The idea is to take managers out of their frame of reference and put them in a wilderness environment where they are challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally, says Laurin. Coupling the wilderness experience with peer feedback, employees have a chance to examine how they react in stressful situations and, in turn, they come away with how their behavior directly effects others.

For Wilson, manager of applications development at Galileo, trying to cross an imaginary river with her team brought to light one of her management styles. In the exercise, the group used planks to reach stepping stones to ford the river. The group needed to come up with a plan on how to use the planks. Wilson grew impatient and suggested they just get out there and do it, only to realize halfway out that the planks weren't long enough to reach the stones. "I realized that I am task oriented, and 'I' like to get to the end as quick as possible without first looking at all the possible risks," Wilson says. An important lesson she says she took away was "how to internally adjust 'personality characteristics' for the benefit of a team."

At Avnet in Phoenix, Ariz., a worldwide distributor of computer components, CIO Steve Bandrowczak takes a different tack on developing leadership skills closer to home. He and his IT staff engage in team-building exercises such as bowling, desert jeep tours, and community service projects. Every three months, Bandrowczak hosts a Breakfast with Steve, as another way of promoting a team approach, sharing the technical direction of the company, and insuring his visibility to each employee. Recently, his IT staff painted a home in the community as a weekend project. "You spend more hours in the office than you do at home, 'so' you have to have fun, 'and' you have to enjoy your work environment," Bandrowczak says.

Yet in other IT settings, the frenetic pace requires other leadership approaches. Marc Armstrong, a technical recruiter with PenCom Systems, a recruiting and consultancy firm, believes that in startups' fast-paced IT departments, the work hard, play hard mentality drives a lot of the team building. People working 60- to 70-hour workweeks at startups have little time for extra training programs. To offset the grueling work hours, companies plan off-site company meetings in exotic locations such as the Bahamas or Mexico and provide regular Friday afternoon happy hours on the office patio to promote camaraderie. "Companies like close-knit teams and want to have a good working dynamic," Armstrong says.

And there's always room for the traditional approach to build team unity. In spite of the glitz of some approaches, Steve Brolin, vice president at Fujitsu prefers to do things the old-fashioned way, using a hands-on approach. "I walk around and say 'good morning' to everyone and let them know I'm accessible," Brolin says. He also holds regular project meetings with the 140 IT engineers at Fujitsu's Pearl River development center. That allows him to not only assess where the project stands but also whether the team is functioning well. Brolin says that as a good listener, he can pick up the telltale signs of a dysfunctional group dynamic. If a problem exists, he will discuss it privately with the parties involved. That approach works well for Brolin: he boasts of losing only four employees in his four years at Fujitsu.

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