Jul 9, 2008

People - Team Building in Paradise

Each year, Seagate Technology spends $2 million for 200 employees to spend a week hiking, kayaking, and adventure racing in the mountains of New Zealand. Is it worth it?

Some 200 Seagate Technology employees have spent the past several months preparing for this week. They've been riding bikes through the streets of Malaysia and Thailand, hiking the hills of Northern Ireland and Hong Kong, running in Silicon Valley and Colorado. They've flown a dozen hours or more from around the globe, taken a gondola ride up the face of a cliff, and gathered in a restaurant overlooking Lake Wakatipu. One has lost 40 pounds on the road to Queenstown, New Zealand. Others have curbed their drinking and smoking.
When their leader, Bill Watkins, took the stage a moment ago on this cool Sunday evening, the place was buzzing with rumors. Many of these Seagaters -Type-A engineers, hyper-educated Ph.D.s, brilliant MBAs - are accustomed to being the smartest, most confident people in any room they walk into. But tonight they're jittery. It was bad enough knowing that in a few short days they'll compete in a 40-kilometer adventure race through the heart of Middle-earth. Now the CEO just told them that they're all gonna die. And he wasn't smiling when he said it.
It's what Watkins, 53, says at the start of every Eco Seagate, the annual $2 million mother of all team-building events held at the bottom of the world. That's a lot to spend on what looks like a boondoggle. What does running around the southern Alps have to do with engineering? Nothing, actually, and that's the point. The glaciers of New Zealand's South Island form an environment completely unfamiliar to the average tech worker. It's expansive, glorious, and awe-inspiring, but it's also uncertain and intimidating, making everyone feel off balance. Of course Watkins isn't trying to kill his charges. But he is making them uncomfortable as a way to open their minds. He thinks Eco week, which Seagate has been holding since 2000, helps build a more collaborative, team-oriented company. He also thinks it teaches his people something about priorities.
Yes, everyone in this room will die - at some point. But before then they'll face important choices about where to work, what to believe in. Choices, really, about change and ultimately happiness. "Are you doing what you want to do in your life? Or are you just blowing through?" Watkins continues. "I'm challenging your life right now. What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? Would you take a trip around the world? Run a company? If you're not doing what you want, that's where I want you to go. This week is about you doing what you want to do for every week of the rest of your life."
It's a curious way for a CEO to start a pep rally. Surely people in this room have regrets, daydreams, and ambivalence about their day jobs. We all do. But by the yardstick of a typical CEO, Watkins is one curious dude. If he weren't, there'd be no Eco Seagate. Which would mean that come Friday, there'd be no 17-kilometer trek through the bog, no 18-kilometer bike ride over treacherous mountain terrain, no punishing five-kilometer slog on kayaks into stiff headwinds, no dangling from cables over gorges, no otherworldly vistas, no face-plants into cold gray rivers, no electrocutions on live-wire fences or twisted knees or swollen ankles or pulled hamstrings. There'd probably be no hugging. And almost certainly there would be no crying.
TRUST - Monday, 5:55 A.M.
Aside from the executives, who return every February, most participants are here because they nominated themselves. Of 55,000 Seagate employees worldwide, more than 2,000 volunteered this year. Some were picked on their first try. Others have been hoping for nearly a decade. A few months ago we were split into 40 teams of four men and a woman. Some employees were paired with exemplary colleagues, for the sake of an attitude adjustment. "People should not think of Eco Seagate as a reward," one event organizer says. "This is about behavior modification."
All teams are more or less equal physically. Each has a weakness that may not be apparent. My team, The Good, the Bad, and the Five of Us (GB5), consists of Joseph Wong, a 35-year-old salesman from Hong Kong who is both charming and seriously lacking in self-confidence; Wee Chuan Loh, a 33-year-old Malaysian engineer whose emotions bunch up around his eyes; Regan MacPherson, our female team member, a 44-year-old aggressively positive attorney from Scotts Valley, Calif.; Andy Davis, a 44-year-old VP in Longmont, Colo., who's fond of high-fives and snap decisions; and me, a 38-year-old perpetually tardy San Franciscan generally inclined to go it alone. Our weakness: We're worthless when reading a map - but we don't know that yet. We are also members of the Ruru tribe.
Last night the 40 teams were arranged into four tribes named for New Zealand birds: Kia, Ruru, Tui, and Weka. Come race day, each member of the winning tribe will receive a large jade trophy and serious bragging rights. Within minutes of receiving our tribe designation, we had religion and began chanting. "Ruru!" Fists on tables. "Ruru!" Hands in the air. "Ruru!"
Being CEO of a global tech company circa 2008 comes with certain strategic and tactical challenges: unifying a workforce across languages and cultural divides, staying ahead of the technological curve, increasing yields, boosting a flagging stock price. But Watkins says that any CEO feels one pressure above all others: the pressure to grow. "I started out doing startups. I went through four IPOs," he says during one of a series of interviews over several months. "I loved that everyone did everything. There are no titles. You work together, treat each other like human beings, and there's great camaraderie. As companies grow, you create silos and you become titles. So I'd quit and go back to a startup. I finally got convinced to stay and try to manage people."
Watkins came to Seagate through the acquisition of Conner Peripherals in 1996. He rose to president in 2000, playing a key role in both the $20 billion deal to privatize the company that year and the IPO two years later. By 2004 he would be named chief executive. But the early days were tough. "They called it Slavegate. People got fired all the time," he says. "The CEO had a grenade on his desk."
Despite that grenade, Watkins's boss knew that Seagate's culture was warped, and he wanted a new one. So Watkins set out to create a new vibe, to make the company to feel small again. He read up on behavioral psychology and found this insight: The key to modifying behavior is creating an environment where we can't rely on experience. In unfamiliar situations, people - especially when tired - are more apt to ask for help and work as a team. If he could show his people the value of teamwork outside the office, Watkins reasoned, they'd translate the experience back at Seagate.

He sketched out a regimen based in part on his latest passion, team adventure racing, and his experience in the military. "I learned a lesson a long time ago in the Army. Nobody really wants to die for their god. No one wants to die for their country. Absolutely no one wants to die for money. But people put their lives on the line for the respect of their platoon mates," he says. "Why do people run up the beach at Normandy? Misinformation. And because you will not let down your teammate."
CONFLICT - Tuesday, 7 P.M.
At this point our bodies are aching. Afternoons have been devoted to physical training. One tribe goes mountain biking while others go kayaking, orienteering, or rappelling. Meanwhile, our heads are fuzzy from jet lag, 17-hour days, and the residue of last night's bottomless glasses of local pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.
Before arriving, we all read "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," which recounts the unraveling of a fictitious company that failed for the following reasons: absence of trust; fear of conflict; lack of commitment; avoidance of accountability; and inattention to results. Those dysfunctions make up the Eco Seagate framework. Each day centers on one of those scourges. Yesterday neuroscientist Robert Cooper explained the Darwinian rationale for trust while offering tips for staying in top mental and physical shape. (Sip cold water to speed your metabolism.) Last night Peter Hillary, a mountain climber and son of Sir Edmund Hillary, spoke to the importance of teammates in harrowing circumstances.
Today was conflict day. Conflict sounds negative, but it's integral to a healthy organization. True dialogue comes from trusting colleagues enough to solicit and offer unvarnished opinions. Apparently Seagate has an epidemic of pre-meetings, in which employees prepare for scheduled meetings by rehearsing. This, we're told, is a symptom of a lack of trust. Pre-meetings?
COMMITMENT - Wednesday, 5:30 P.M.
I'm standing in front of a pristine mountain lake wearing nothing but black Spandex bike shorts and a headband. But that's jumping ahead of myself. Today has been heavy with lessons.
Watkins isn't on a team this year. His knees, injured back in high school while playing football, are acting up. He's nevertheless a constant presence, hobbling between tribes in a leg brace, chatting in shorts and a T-shirt, looking like the Deadhead that he is. The rest of the execs are distributed among the tribes and instructed to hang back to observe employees and allow lower ranks to gain confidence. In a closed-door meeting this morning, tribe leaders, the race director, organizers, and trainers sized up the troops thus far. They identified people with language barriers, shrinking violets, early favorites - Team 39 is "the fittest team I have ever seen," says one guide - and those who have blossomed unexpectedly. "I think you have a potential leader in Wanda," says the rafting instructor.
Then there are the problem cases. The EVPs mostly hang back as instructed - so much so that I still can't identify the top-ranking employee in my tribe. But executives at any company rise through the ranks partly because of an aggression that's tough to bury. "We had Charles Pope with us yesterday," says the orienteering guide, referring to Seagate's CFO, whose 2007 team had to be helicoptered out of the mountains after veering seven miles off course. "He's really overbearing. I'm concerned that the rest of the team is not getting a very good experience."
The morning program started with Malcolm, the tireless Aussie emcee, screaming into his microphone. He's relentlessly chipper, but today he has an admonition for the bullies, including Pope. "Those of you who need to shut up, shut up!" he barks, turning to the CFO. "Don't look at anyone, Charles."
Watkins takes the mike and tells a story about running the New York City marathon. At mile 20, he was desperate for motivation to continue. He saw a woman with an artificial leg just ahead. He set a goal to beat her. For six miles he demonized her for having a "bionic leg," but he eventually passed her, finishing in four hours. "I could have been world champ and wouldn't have been any happier than beating that one-legged woman," he says with a laugh. "I was so excited." The moral: Happiness comes not from winning, but from assessing what you're capable of and doing it.
With that, we enter a room where a tae kwon do master implores us to live our lives at a higher level. Most people operate at a seven on an intensity scale of one to ten. Success comes from living at eight or nine. We learn basic kicks, punches, and tricks about how to focus our energy. He advises us on our diets and love lives, exuding positivity all the while. He yells at us, "You're awesome!" We yell back, "You're awesome!" Amped up, we line up to break boards with nothing but our bare hands and our mightiest karate "Ha!" We leave for training yelling at each other, "You're awesome!"
Soon it's twilight, and I've got my headband on. It's time for the Haka contest. Each tribe has had to learn the traditional dance of New Zealand's Maori people. The men are shirtless in tight black shorts. The women don makeshift dresses. Watkins sits at an elevated table with the other judges, a Maori leader and
Eileen Collins, the first female commander of the Space Shuttle. Ruru goes first. Two days ago it seemed we'd never learn the lines or memorize the choreography in time. But after five hours or so of rehearsal, we're feeling pretty good, and united. "Ho-pay!" our alpha male starts with a guttural yell. "He!" we respond, pounding our thighs. "He-aru!" he yells back. "Ha!" Arms to the sides.
We go on like this for 19 lines and stick the ending. We falter in places. Clearly not everyone remembers every Maori word. But we lean on one another, and the final product is impressive. Tongues wagging, we slap our asses as we run by the other teams in a traditional Maori taunt. We set the bar so high that the Tuis jump into the lake at the end of their routine. In the end, it's unanimous; Ruru wins. Maori women drape jade pendants around our necks. We retire to the tent for dinner, dancing, and pinot.
ACCOUNTABILITY - Thursday, 12:30 P.M.
To ensure proper rest for tomorrow's race, we trained in the morning today. For Ruru, it was orienteering day, and GB5 fared better than expected. We finished the course first by a wide margin, thanks to our relative fitness and a helpful guide who showed us how to read a map.
Watkins has received some flak over the years for this event. Shareholders aren't usually fond of spending $2 million on something as fuzzy a retreat. That's especially true given Seagate's stock performance. The top and bottom lines continue to grow. Revenue reached $11.36 billion in 2007, up from $9.2 billion the year prior. Net income jumped from $840 million to $913 million. But shares of STX (
STX) are almost exactly where they stood five years ago.
The CEO is obviously frustrated that Wall Street doesn't understand Seagate's upside at a time when data storage is essential to both the enterprise (think about SEC requirements to maintain copious records, for starters) and consumers (digital photos, MP3 players, game consoles, etc.). But Watkins refuses to use stock price as a barometer. Nor is he concerned about whether shareholders like Eco Seagate. No, he can't precisely measure the returns, but more employees every year call him Bill. And there are other, more obvious signs that Eco is working. Each year participants are asked to sign a flag, which Watkins mounts in his office. I jotted down a few of the universally fawning comments before we all went home. "This is the greatest experience I have had in my life," reads one. Another: "Dear Bill, You took away the fear." And several on this theme: "Bill, I'm a changed man now."

Will those people rethink the way they work? It's the great unknown. Some may forever alter their approach to life. Others may leave the warm and fuzzies in Queenstown. A few might just leave. Charlie Sander joined Seagate at the same time as Watkins. He was 49 when he ran in his fourth and final Eco. "This particular Eco was about aspiring to goals," Sander remembers. Sir Edmund Hillary spoke about his first Everest climb, and that inspired Sander. "I had a dream to run my own company. By the end of the week, on the plane back, I decided this is the time."
Sander left to co-found Confio Software in Boulder. Today Seagate is one of Confio's biggest customers. "Those who experienced Eco were different in some way," he says." There was the personal inspiration, but also the perspective on teamwork. It's a really powerful message. It prepared me for the next phase of my life." Watkins and Sander both consider this an Eco success story.
RESULTS - Friday, 4:45 A.M.
After an exhausting week, it would be tempting to say that we've internalized the CEO's insight about the relationship between winning and happiness. But come race day, even at this absurdly early hour, GB5 wants above all else to win.
Nine hours ago David Kelly, one of the world's elite adventure racers, with calves the size of cantaloupes, outlined a few details about the course he designed, and handed out thermal tights while warning us that a storm was on its way from Antarctica.
After a long bus ride this morning, we're lined up at the base of a glacier. Watkins drifts among the teams, offering moral support and encouragement. "I know you guys are trying to win," he says to me. "But do me a favor. Don't hurt yourself." A conch sounds, and we begin a rapid ascent. Team 39 sets the pace, but after an hour of climbing appears confused. Keep climbing, or follow a path down the back of the mountain? The map's scale is too opaque to show paths, and we're too inexperienced to read elevations. They descend. We keep climbing for a half-hour before realizing that no one has followed. By the time we retrace our steps, we're at the back of a single-file cattle train. Loh, our Malaysian engineer, begins lagging, leaning heavily on a walking stick and refusing help. Davis declares our chances of winning gone. MacPherson is pissed. "Are you going to let this ruin your whole week?" Davis asks her. We sign in at checkpoint three, having dropped from fourth to 33rd place.
We pass seven teams before reaching the kayaks, but heavy winds make rowing a slog. Wong emerges as a star paddler, but for naught. We surrender our gains and exit the kayaks back in 33rd place. Four hours in, and we're desperate for motivation. We need to find our own one-legged runner.
We scale an eight-foot fence, cross a meadow, and see a dozen teams wandering aimlessly in a pasture. I'm stuck up to midcalf in bog mud. A voice from a megaphone implores us to go back the way we came. It's the race director, on a clifftop. There will be no helicoptering out any teams this year. In the confusion, we manage to gain ground, reaching checkpoint nine in 27th place after five hours and nine minutes. The winning time was expected to be about six hours. That seems absurd now; we're not yet halfway done.
And then we find ourselves standing over the coolest thing ever. It's called a Tyrolean: a 100-meter cable staked at either side of a 200-foot deep gorge. We see the people before us clip themselves to the cable and drop out of sight over a sheer cliff. MacPherson wants to skip it and take a time penalty. Davis persuades her to go through with it. We each cross the canyon unscathed and exhilarated, and pause to cheer on the teams behind us.
After a race down another hill, we fuel up with water and PowerBars and head off on our mountain bikes. Wong has never ridden a mountain bike. He did fine in training, but today is not his day. He lags on flat roads and slows dramatically at each river crossing and on hills. We race ahead and wait for him, race ahead and wait. Eventually, we decide we need to tow him with a bungee cord. There's a rule in adventure racing: Whenever someone offers to carry your pack, you must accept. We decide the rule also applies to towing. Wong refuses, then swallows his pride. He loses his grip on the cord now and again and falls off his bike. Then he stops pedaling entirely to focus on staying upright. "I was so depressed when I cannot control the bike properly," he would tell me a few days after returning to Hong Kong. "At the end, I give up. I don't want whole team waiting for me."
We exit the biking portion in 27th place, and all that separates us from the finish is a river crossing, one last fence, and a sprint toward the showers, buffet, booze, and massage tables. Watkins told us on day one that come race day we could be cold, wet, and miserable - or just cold and wet. The southerly storm never amounted to more than a little rain, and yet we're nonetheless all freezing, drenched, and covered in mud. But no one's miserable. After nearly ten hours, we throw our bikes onto our shoulders and wade through a final thigh-deep river.
As we near a barbed-wire fence, several teams are waiting to cross a locked gate. Sensing a chance to leapfrog, I toss my bike over a portion where no one's standing. I put my left hand on the post and my left foot on the bottom wire. With my right hand, which is holding a metal walking stick, I grab the top wire - and quite suddenly realize it's electrified. I'm thrown back into a fit of epithets. Head down, I return to wait in line for the nonelectrified portion. We ditch our bikes, grab hands, and cross the finish line united, tearful. Our time: nine hours and 53 minutes, an hour behind the leaders, in 21st place, an hour ahead of the laggards. Tui makes up for the pathetic Haka stunt with a race day victory. They're awesome.
AFTERMATH - Saturday, 3:30 P.M.
Watkins and I leave Queenstown along with a dozen or so Seagaters. On landing in Auckland, we jog to our connection in another terminal. Watkins knows the route; we all follow his lead. Upon reaching the terminal, the CEO, who's carrying a stuffed laptop bag and sweating at the brow, appears winded. His limp is more pronounced today, but he still manages a smile when I come up beside him. Well? I ask. "Good Eco," he says, nodding knowingly. "A good week."
As it turns out, this was the hardest Eco course ever. Some of the organizers think it was too hard. But I didn't hear anyone complain. Out on the great expanse of southern New Zealand, time moves slowly, except when you're doing something you never thought you were capable of. Will finishing this grueling trek embolden Seagaters in a substantial way? Watkins admits that he doesn't know. He's never won his own race. He has come in dead last. This year, he didn't even compete. Still, he radiates like a man who has accomplished his mission. "The only thing you know for sure," he says before we board our flight home, "is that if you do nothing, then nothing will happen, and nothing will change."

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