A Look Into the Outward Bound Professional Program

When Victoria Forbes-Roberts, the Vice President of Pricing and Revenue Management at Delta Air Lines, was asked to develop a nine-month-long leadership training program for high-performing employees in her division, she knew right away that North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) would be involved. Forbes-Roberts was inspired by a former high school teacher who went on to become an Outward Bound instructor and brought the organization’s experiential methodology back to her classroom. The Outward Bound approach—placing people in challenging situations and facilitating the outcomes—had a lasting impact on Forbes-Roberts.

“A big part of leadership development is being exposed to a certain amount of vulnerability,” she says. “The Outward Bound experience always pops up on the top of the list as the most meaningful part of (our) entire program.” The one-day Outward Bound course takes place at the beginning of the Delta’s LEAD program and includes a handful of group initiatives in the morning and a high ropes course—a series of challenges harnessed participants must navigate as a team.  For some participants, the high ropes course is thrilling; for others, it’s unsettling, but it is also an experience, she believes, that demonstrates the value of building lasting and meaningful relationships.

Forbes-Roberts feels that including the Outward Bound experience early in the training has been a key factor in developing positive relationships among the participants. “We specifically chose this program and the timing to really bond the group together. It’s not just a one-and-done program. It’s been an accelerator for the curriculum and the entire training.”

And for Delta’s bottom-line: the program has played an essential role in retaining and promoting talent within their division by helping participants cement stronger teams in the workplace.

Inspiring people to push beyond their comfort zone and tap into hidden strengths has been part of the mission of North Carolina Outward Bound School for five decades. And while the school is best known for delivering life changing wilderness programs, NCOBS is also on the cutting edge of facilitating professional and corporate development programs serving a wide range of organizations, from large  multinational corporations to local non-profits with just a handful of employees.

Bill Murray, the Director of Outward Bound Professional (OBP), says that NCOBS’ first corporate training programs date back to 1967 when the Jewel Box Stores sent its management team on a 26-day wilderness course.

“People can’t be out of the office as long as they used to,” says Cyndee Patterson of The Lee Institute. Patterson coordinates the Charlotte Regional Chapter of the American Leadership Forum (ALF), a 12-month long program for two-dozen community leaders from the Charlotte area that has included a three-day Outward Bound component since the program began nearly two decades ago. “We used to think it was a big deal to leave your watch behind,” laughs Patterson. “Try asking someone to leave their cell phone for three days.”

Murray admits that taking people out of the office for more than a day or two is increasingly rare. Even so, he says that NCOBS’ corporate clients have increasingly sophisticated expectations of the Outward Bound experience. “There’s more pressure on organizations to get the most they can out of their individual employees and their teams,” he says.

These expectations have compelled Murray and his staff to design and deliver programs that provide meaningful results in less time. The key is to make the lessons as tangible and transferable as possible, regardless of the course length. Working over a period of time with a single organization, such as Delta and The Lee Institute’s American Leadership Forum, has also been helpful. “We gain a much deeper understanding of the organization, their culture, and their objectives, so we can help them understand more deeply the work we do and what they can gain from it,” says Murray.

Murray’s job is to convince corporate decision-makers to choose Outward Bound for its training programs, but getting buy-in from participants can also be a hurdle. After all, leaving behind creature comforts and venturing into the woods isn’t something many employees are always eager to do.

Forbes-Roberts explains that Delta hosts an open house for alumni to speak to new recruits about the program and answer questions about time commitments and other common concerns. “Quite honestly, the alumni of the program have been the biggest sellers of the program,” she says. “We have advocates that can talk about what they got out of the program, what it meant to them, and how they’ve applied it.”

The goal of the American Leadership Forum (ALF) program is clear cut: to strengthen leadership abilities of established civic leaders to better serve the public good. Participants are heads of business, government, education, faith, and community-based organizations. Patterson’s ALF chapter is part of a nationwide organization that requires each regional program to incorporate an outdoor component in their trainings.

“Everyone who comes to the program is already a proven leader. The Outward Bound course is designed to allow them to be better collaborative and adaptive leaders,” explains Patterson. “When you work in a community you can’t say to people: “We’re going to do this and march this way”. What Outward Bound does so well is to help leaders understand how to make people a part of the process.”

While the Outward Bound Professional courses are short, they include elements of a traditional wilderness-based Outward Bound course, including challenging hikes, rock climbing, and an overnight solo experience in the woods. Those components are rooted in the original Outward Bound concept established in Britain to develop character among young British merchant sailors during World War II who were perishing in German U-boat attacks at much greater rates than more seasoned sailors, proving that being exposed to challenging situations breeds grit and perseverance. The program continued after the war and was aimed at developing “physical fitness, enterprise, tenacity, and compassion” in young people.

In the 1960’s, a number of Outward Bound schools were established in the United States—including North Carolina in 1967—to prepare people not for war, but for life. And while the classic 28-day Outward Bound wilderness course most closely resembles the original model, NCOBS has expanded its reach to include customized programs for schools, educators veterans, and professional organizations.

Outward Bound Professional Program Director, Bob Stout, has worked for the school for nearly three decades. Before becoming an Outward Bound instructor, Stout worked as a human resource manager for a manufacturing firm.

“As an HR manager I always felt there were missed opportunities to develop talent,” explains Stout. “Our model of putting people in challenging situations is a metaphor for taking a group into the unknown. How do leaders instill confidence and motivate people to follow them into a place they’ve never gone?”

Stout believes that a tangible outcome of all Outward Bound courses—whether a one-day or 28-day program—is the lesson that effective leadership does not involve one person finding a solution to every obstacle, but rather, discovering that the best possible responses emerge from group collaboration. “I think organizations today are dealing with more complex problems, which means that tapping into the wisdom of an entire team is more vital than ever.”

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