In The Trenches At VF Boot Camp

A skeptical reporter attends the apparel maker's Leadership Institute and comes out a believer

There were six of us,squinting down the length of a conference table at a single laptop. It was past 9 p.m., and what we could make out on the screen wasn't encouraging. We'd all met just 13 hours earlier--when I was thrown together with five fast-climbing executives at apparel maker VF Corp. (VFC ) for an exercise in management boot camp. Over the four days of the Leadership Institute, as VF calls it, we would face more important challenges, but what had us all flummoxed at the moment was a computer game at which we were failing spectacularly.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool HR skeptic. So after a day of lectures on communication--and tossing around Nerf footballs to "loosen up"--I wasn't so sure why we were puzzling out "Launching a High-Risk Business," a simulation cooked up by two Harvard Business School academics. Another of our band, Rob Purvey, echoed my doubts. An executive at skateboard shoe brand Vans, Purvey had once been an entrepreneur himself and had raised $30 million of the real green stuff for one venture. We tried strategy after strategy. They all failed. But about a half-hour before our 10 p.m. deadline, something clicked. We partnered with the inventor, poured cash into marketing, and begged every virtual venture capitalist and bank for seed money. The offers started to trickle in, and soon our company was worth $5 million. We actually whooped with joy.

Score one for team bonding. Up to that point, sitting in that windowless, fluorescent-lit conference room, I'd wondered whether VF could possibly get enough from this program to justify taking 19 of its best people away from their day jobs for a week. As a reporter, I'm used to being an observer, operating solo. But when our fortunes turned that night, I was as elated as anyone else. That video game had broken down the normal reserve any group of distant colleagues would have, especially one with a journalist in its midst.

HR HEADACHES

The task of team-building has grown more complex lately for VF Chief Executive Mackey J. McDonald. The company, long known as the maker of traditional jeans brands Wrangler and Lee, has recently taken on a number of more fashion-forward brands, including Reef surfer wear, Vans, and The North Face outdoor gear. Hence the HR headache: getting the most out of a workforce of 52,500 employees spread over 40 different countries. But McDonald is doing something right: Good sales and profit growth at the $6.5 billion company have helped its stock return 47.6% over the past year. And the attrition rate for its top performers, both homegrown and acquired, is less than 5%.

Indeed, one of the goals of the Leadership Institutes, such as the one I attended in October, is to get top managers from all different parts of the company working together. Its "final exam" is a 45-minute, case-study presentation to McDonald, President Eric C. Wiseman, and other top brass. Four teams compete. A quarter of the graduates are promoted within 24 months. So it's no surprise that with so much ambition around, the atmosphere was at times intense and competitive. My team got an inkling of the challenge over beers after our late-breaking triumph at the computer game when we learned that the winning team had built a simulated company worth $100 million, twenty times the size of ours.

The next day, undaunted and even invigorated by our small victory, my teammates and I found ourselves on a luxury bus zipping off to an afternoon of research at a couple of local golf courses. In our laps was a case study, which would pose the session's capstone challenge: to kick-start the sportswear division of a company, beginning with the launch of a new golf apparel line.

We all had the same challenge, and the same research opportunities, but the four groups came up with completely different solutions. My team pitched a line of apparel for kids and parents to golf in together. The idea was to transform golf from something that split Dad from the family to one that brought them all together. Our field research on Wednesday was followed by a marathon Thursday working on our presentation. I was too busy to dwell on my growing hatred for our glum conference room, where we had all spent too much time over the boot camp's four days.

On the final morning, my team presented first. But not long into the third team's highly polished presentation, my heart began to sink. It seemed as if they had found another 24 hours to practice their parts. They had the most standard idea of all the teams, going after young men with a more fashionable look. The other two teams had zeroed in on women and environmentally-conscious urbanites. But the eventual victors had used the skills of each of their five presenters better than the rest of us. A marketing guy led the pitch, a dealmaker from the corporate M&A group presented the financial argument, and a jeanswear veteran pitched the product. "The combination of talent was really great," Doug Palladini, a member of the winning squad and Vans' vice-president for marketing, told me afterwards.

I knew the best team had won, but after the votes had been tallied, when McDonald asked me what I'd gotten out of the experience, I couldn't stop myself from shoehorning in a pitch for how good our idea was, even if our presentation wasn't tops. This was a competition after all, and I was surprisingly sad my team lost.

By Nanette Byrnes

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