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Small Proving Before Big Proving

As an open-door leader, you have to dole out opportunities in absorbable doses, otherwise you may inadvertently set someone up for failure. Often, the best way to prepare a person for a big opportunity is to give him or her a number of smaller, lead-up opportunities. In other words, little doors come before big doors.

Early in my career, I worked for an Atlanta-based team-building company called Executive Adventure (EA). I learned about the company—which provides spirited team-development services, often involving experiential activities—through an in-flight magazine article just after completing my graduate studies in organizational development. It was the kind of company any guy in his late 20s would want to join! EA's services involved putting groups of corporate execs through fun team-building obstacles in scenic outdoor locations—some of the obstacles, commonly called “ropes courses,” were suspended 40 feet
in the air. Particularly attractive was the fact that I wouldn't have to wear a business suit, just rugged outerwear.

I was hired into the company in a sales position. Although it wasn't the position I was hoping for, I figured it was a good way to get my foot in the door until an opportunity emerged for me to move into a facilitator position.

Bob Carr, the founder of the company and a pioneer in corporate team building, was very aware of my desire to move into the role of team-building facilitator. He knew my educational background and my career aspirations. But because I was a newcomer to the profession, he couldn't risk having me facilitate sessions for EA's highprofi clients, which included Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Prudential Insurance, the Home Depot, and many other renowned companies. After all, how could a young buck like me offer guidance on how to be a strong team to people who had been working on teams for many more years than I had? At the same time, I would never be able to provide such guidance if I never got the chance to work with the corporate groups. I was stuck in the proverbial need-experience-to-get-experience catch-22.

Each year, EA also did a number of projects for nonprofit organizations. While nonprofi deserved, and got, the same quality programs as our for-profi clients, working for nonprofi came with less pressure—executives working in nonprofi were less uptight than their corporate counterparts, who often exhibit aggressive and sometimes cutthroat competition. Nonprofi thrive to the extent that they build
cooperative alliances with funders, policy makers, and other stakeholders. Most nonprofi are also focused on delivering programs and services (or creating opportunities) for people who are less fortunate, so they tend to be socially conscious. As a result, execs in nonprofi are generally more forgiving than their for-profi counterparts.

Knowing that the risk of upsetting a nonprofit client with a rookie facilitator was lower, Bob gave me my first shot at facilitating a group while working with a nonprofit. Like the other facilitators, I received a briefing about the goals of the event from the client. Like the other facilitators, I knew which activities we were going to do and what learning points we aimed to draw out during the facilitated discussions after each team-building activity. Unlike the other facilitators, however, I had no actual experience. Knowing this, Bob always kept within earshot of me as I worked with my assigned group.

More than 20 years later, I can still see Bob's face and his satisfied “the kid's got promise” grin. He saw potential in my unrefined skills as a facilitator. Not long after the project, he gave me another nonprofit assignment and then another and another. Eventually, I got the chance to work with for-profit corporate groups too.

All of my early work with EA became a proving ground where I could sharpen my skills and grow my confidence. So much of this had to do with the things Bob did for me as an open-door leader. He was very hands-on and would set aside time to work with me after each workshop. He
would ask me to critique myself and then provide his own candid feedback. He suggested more impactful ways to word my questions. He shared stories about mistakes he had made along the way and what those mistakes taught him. Finally, he frequently pointed out the progress I was making but often couldn't see myself. All these things helped me become more confident, and they also helped Bob become more confident in me, culminating in him asking me to take over EA's largest client contract, the Ford Motor Company. The program involved conducting 27 team-building programs for Ford's New Employee Orientation program at their world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. I was responsible for leading a team of seven other EA facilitators and was Ford's key point of contact.

My proving ground with Ford turned out to be a true field of play. I was responsible for designing a scenario-based business-simulation activity that involved having teams of new Ford engineers build cars out of PVC pipe and then race them against each other. The work was challenging, mentally stimulating, and required the full use of my imagination. The client held me to high standards, demanded solid work, and could be “Ford Tough.” The entire experience made me a better and more capable professional.

Remember, I started out at EA as a sales guy. But with the support of Bob, a hands-on, open-door leader, I received proving opportunities to grow, develop, and progress. My work with Ford remains one of the highlights of the early part of my career, which culminated with my being named
vice president at Executive Adventure. Eventually, I was facilitating more EA programs than Bob. Working with Bob convinced me of the value of opening doors for the people you lead.

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