Plenty of companies try to motivate the troops, but few go as far as Seagate Technology (STX ). In February the $9.8 billion maker of computer storage hardware flew 200 staffers to New Zealand for its sixth annual Eco Seagate -- an intense week of team-building topped off by an all-day race in which Seagaters had to kayak, hike, bike, swim, and rappel down a cliff. The tab? $9,000 per person. Correspondent Sarah Max went along for the bonding.
SUNDAY "DON'T BE TOO COOL TO PARTICIPATE." It's cocktail hour, and nervous getting-to-know-you chatter floats around the Queenstown chalet, where we've arrived by gondola. Staffers from a dozen countries are talking and gazing out at a stupendous mountain view of The Remarkables. The employees been chosen from 1,200 who tried to get into Eco Seagate. (The company employs a total of 45,000.) There are no age limits: The oldest racer this year is 62.
In the first of many embarrassing exercises, four "tribes," each made up of 10 athletically, regionally, and operationally diverse teams, are asked to imitate the sound of the New Zealand birds for which their group has been named: Ruru, Kia, Tui, or Weka. "You're going to think some of this is pretty dumb," CEO Bill Watkins tells the crowd. "Just get involved. Don't be too cool to participate."
This event, or social experiment, is Watkins' pet project. He dreamed up Eco Seagate as a way to break down barriers, boost confidence, and, yes, make staffers better team players. "Some of you will learn about teamwork because you have a great team," he says. "Some of you will learn because your team is a disaster."
Watkins, whose company is the world's biggest maker of hard drives, knows about disastrous teams. When Seagate acquired his employer, Conner Peripherals, in 1996, hostility reigned as staffers jockeyed to guard their turf. "Corporate culture is the story of the company, " says Watkins. "Back then, Seagate had lots of great stories -- about people getting fired. We needed to create a different culture -- one that was open, honest, and encouraged people to work together."
So how do you reprogram employees? You ask them to do something they've never done before, says Watkins, who took up adventure racing in the late 1990s and saw it as the perfect way to teach team-building. "You put them in an environment where they have to ask for help."
MONDAY BOOT CAMP IT AIN'T. "Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day," croons Malcolm McLeod of Australia's Motivation Worldwide. "Now get out there and stretch." Dressed in referee garb, Malcolm and his gang of "stripies" have helped Eco Seagate run smoothly since the first one in 2000. Over the years the outing has evolved from just a race to a tightly organized event with a streamlined message. Each morning, Watkins or one of his top executives gives a presentation on a key attribute of a strong team, such as trust, healthy conflict, commitment, accountability. That lesson carries over to the afternoon, when tribes go off to learn orienteering, rappelling, mountain biking, or kayaking.
Today we're up at 5:45 for the "optional" pre-dawn stretch. But this isn't exactly boot camp. For Eco Seagate the company has taken over Rydges Lakeland Resort in Queenstown, a mountain village on the South Island. All participants have their own comfy rooms. The stretch takes place in a park across the street. Seagate CFO Charles Pope, 50, and his Shark Attack team are among the throng bending and groaning in the dark. "I don't like to schmooze for the sake of schmoozing," says Pope, who was initially opposed to the event because, for one thing, it costs a lot of money -- about $1.8 million this year. That's a lot of hard drives. But it represents a fraction of the company's $40 million training-and-development budget.
In 2002, Pope caved in to Watkins' pleas to participate and came home a believer. Now, he says, Eco Seagate is one of the last things he'd cut from the budget. A lot of other companies might agree. While it's tough to find numbers for team-building events, partly because they're hard to define (a treasure hunt at a museum? a day at Disney World?), the business is growing fast, says Peter Grazier of TeamBuilding Inc. in Chadds Ford, Pa.
In the afternoon, the tribes head out for physical training. I'm "embedded" with the Rurus, who today will learn the most essential but least exciting skill of adventure racing -- navigation -- in the rolling hills overlooking Lake Wakatipu. The Five Elements team has done some team-building already: "We've been e-mailing almost every day since we got matched up," says Karri Barry, 37, a cash manager in Scotts Valley, Calif., where Seagate is headquartered. When the team gets maps and compasses today, they know that Choon Keong "C.K." Neo, 33, a quality manager in Singapore, will be the navigator, thanks to a stretch in his nation's military.
TUESDAY TESTING THE LIMITS. Watkins is pacing the stage of the hotel conference room, giving his morning pep talk. The speech: unscripted and emotional. The look: shaggy hair, cargo shorts, and trail-running shoes. Today he's wearing a backpack with the head of a large toy kiwi bird sticking out the top.
Yesterday each team was given one of these stuffed animals, its "sixth team member," and warned that one person must be in physical contact with it at all times. Many teams have strapped on the birds, dressed them, and even named them. Anyone caught without a bird will lose 15 green Eco tokens, which teams earn throughout the week and will use on race day to buy better maps, skip a checkpoint, or take a bridge over a frigid, fast-moving river.
At the rappel site, Pope's teammate Tish Sanchez earns an extra token for volunteering to rappel off a bridge, her fear of heights be damned. The climbing instructors stay close. Still, Sanchez has to step out over the ledge and hang her life on a harness. "You can do it, Tish," says Pope encouragingly, standing on the bridge and looking down at his white-faced teammate. It's slow going at first, but halfway down, the usually reserved info tech manager starts yelling out: "Whoo-hoo!"
WEDNESDAY "SEAGATE IS POWERFUL. SEAGATE IS POWERFUL." Wearing war paint, headbands, and makeshift grass skirts, each tribe is performing its own uniquely choreographed haka -- a Maori chant typically performed by native New Zealanders -- in a competition worth 50 tokens to the winning tribe, as judged by a panel of Maoris. The chant -- "Moanaketi roopu kaha. Moanaketi roopu kaha" -- is said to mean: "Seagate is powerful. Seagate is powerful." But it could just convey: "What a bunch of nutcases."
"For me the race is anticlimactic," says COO David Wickersham, 49. "You learn so much about yourself in the first four days and, personally, I'm surprised by how people let their guard down." Tonight there's no question that people have shed their inhibitions. They've also shed some of their clothing: The men are shirtless, the women sport bathing suits and tank tops with skirts improvised from fabric of their team's color. There's a lot of chummy touching, though no canoodling that I can see.
But does all this expensive inhibition-ditching do anything for shareholders? Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, says that while you can't measure the effect, companies with a "positive culture" probably outperform their peers. Of course, he adds, the underlying ethic has to live on after something like Eco Seagate. "If I send you off to an event and you go home and are treated like dog doo, it doesn't work."
THURSDAY "THE HARDEST YET" "How much water will there be on the course?"
"Will we have wet suits?"
"Did you say this could take us 10 hours?"
The night before the big test, Nathan Faavae, an adventure-racing superstar, is being bombarded with questions. He spent months studying maps and bushwhacking around Queenstown to design the course. "This will be the hardest Eco Seagate yet," says Faavae, who's a first-timer but tested the course with several veterans. He hands out bags filled with a map, jerseys, life jackets, and a radio.
FRIDAY TIME TO WALK THE WALK -- AND SWIM THE SWIM. Here's the plan: The 40 teams are dropped on an island in the middle of Lake Wakatipu between 6 and 7 a.m. A conch sounds, and the teams race to their kayaks and paddle 1.5 miles to shore. Then, navigating with a compass, they trek over 4.3 miles of hilly terrain, mountain-bike 10.5 miles of rocks and ruts, then rappel 160 feet into a canyon for a hypothermic swim and hike.
Here's the reality: a ragged day of pain and suffering. After a slow start on the kayak, Five Elements runs past 20 teams on the hike, jumps on bikes, and pedals like mad to second place. "This pace is feeling a little leisurely," jokes Stuart Brown, 44, a program manager from Shakopee, Minn. Everyone laughs and speeds up. But an hour later they start to climb the big hill.
"Help me!" Engineer Kebiao Yuan, 41, is straddling his bike, so cramped he can't move. His teammates lift his leg over the bike, rub his knotted muscles, and squeeze a pack of sickeningly sweet energy gel into his mouth. Soon he's back on his machine, and Five Elements enters the final stretch of the bike leg. At the next transition point they ditch the bikes, run to the rim of a canyon, and rappel down. Then it's a 1.6-mile trek out, partly wading, partly swimming in 50F water. Too cold to feel anything at all, Five Elements crosses the finish line 5 hours and 51 minutes after the start -- 27 minutes after the first-place team, Fuel, and four hours before the stragglers.
At the finish line they find portable showers, dry clothes, and tables laden with grilled meats and salads. Miraculously, all 40 teams make it, carrying their silly kiwi birds.
I hang out near the beer, certain that exhausted Seagaters will have some critical things to say about Watkins' cockamamie event. Instead they gush about how they loved it. Then I recall CFO Pope's note of hard-headed realism. "I consider this an investment," he told me before the race, remarking that he'd soon e-mail all staffers in his organization and ask what they'd do differently as a result of Eco Seagate. "After all," he adds, "it isn't a vacation."
By Sarah Max