Unilever Teambuilding Event: Lasting Impact?

Manhattan’s chaotic energy was a faint memory, replaced by the flapping of sails and a cool river breeze. A group of 14 managers from the logistics department of Unilever — a $40 billion company that features brands including Lipton, Hellmann’s, Slim-Fast, Dove, and Vaseline — was learning how to sail an 1890s-style schooner and reinforcing team camaraderie in the process. 

Successful Meetings, October 2010 (Read part one here.)

I boarded the Adirondack, an elegantly detailed, 80-foot wooden schooner with a group from Unilever and watched teambuilding in action last June. Everyone onboard was enthusiastic about the experience and that spirit didn’t wane when I followed up with them a couple of weeks later while writing the piece last year. 

But how long a shelf life does one teambuilding exercise have?

I interviewed some experts in the field of group dynamics and even visited Unilever’s headquarters in Trumbull, CT, seven months later to see how the organization followed up on the event and learned some interesting things about the power of teambuilding. 

Relationships Matter
Competitiveness is more about organizing relationships than amassing force, says Tom Heck, president and founder of the International Association of Teamwork Facilitators (IATF), which uses coaching principles to train and support people who seek to build high-performing teams. 

“To thrive, America has to be the crossroads nation where global talent congregates and collaborates,” explains Heck. “What all of us who work with teams and teach teamwork know is that relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. Relationships make teams and organizations competitive. We are now in the inspiration economy and our economic success is determined by our ability to be personally inspired and 
inspire others.”

Although “The Great Recession” may be behind us, the new reality is smaller staffs that have to accomplish more. Teamwork and teambuilding have never been so important. Wendy Herrick, director of logistics, North America, for Unilever, says that teambuilding is important in any economy. “It is a motivator that inspires teams to deliver over and above,” she says. 

What’s Your Color?
The morning of the sailing expedition, Unilever managers participated in a program at Castle on the Hudson, a meetings property in Tarrytown, NY. The program, led by Jane Ross, a consultant with Insights Learning & Development, was based on the premise that each person in an organization is unique and that in these differences are great strengths. The Insights concept is about understanding these differences, understanding more about yourself, and how to adapt and connect with others. It is based on the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.  

By answering a series of 25 questions that pertain to how we process information and respond, how we make decisions, and how we interpret and seek solutions from the world around us, colors are assigned to each participant.

Yellow, for example, is for natural networkers, those who are dynamic, persuasive, and enthusiastic. Red is for those who are time-focused, efficient, direct, competitive, and outwardly determined. Green is the color for those who are patient, caring, excellent listeners, encouraging, and seen to be highly trustworthy. Blue represents those who are deliberate, information-oriented, precise, and deeply questioning.

It’s interesting to note that although there are four dominant colors, people move among these colors throughout the day. So teams learn to look for more than one type of response from others.  

Insights is more about self-discovery and learning how to adapt, rather than outright change. “My first house rule is you are all perfect. You are who you are. This is not about trying to change who you are but give information about your needs, style, and expectations in communication,” explains Ross. “It’s about taking responsibility for understanding how to manage yourself best; and to be conscious of how to best adapt and connect to the needs of  your colleagues. When you do this, communication becomes much more efficient and effective. Misperception is removed. Clarity and trust are built.”
Herrick thinks highly of Insights and of Ross in particular. “It has made me so much more self-aware and has led me to determine what color everyone on my team is, which has helped me get the best from them,” says Herrick. “It has really enhanced my relationships with my team.” 

Before the session, Ross did a needs assessment with Herrick to make sure she best tailored her presentation to meet Unilever’s needs. After the morning session with Ross, the group was taken by bus to a surprise location. They had no idea they would end up at Pier 62 at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s West Side, where they were instructed to board the schooner. 

The group of 14 had several tasks to complete throughout the afternoon. One of the most important was raising the 2,000-square-foot sail onto the 70-foot mast. 

Then it was time for the “knot off.” The rules for this part of the competition were strict. Team members could not touch each other’s lines but could verbally coach each other. The winning team was the first to have all the knots tied correctly. “This whole exercise was really about getting each group to work together. It wasn’t just about tying ropes,” explains Herrick.

Randall Ledet, group manager of transportation for Unilever, agreed that the knot-tying activity was the most telling. “We all had to rely on each other during this activity, as we do day-to-day as we’re a supply chain and we have to count on each other,” he explains. “The stronger knot-tyers had to help those on our team who were having difficulty, as we needed to elevate the whole team. This exercise helped reinforce teamwork and formulated a bond as we all counted on each other.” 

The afternoon was a great success as the team dynamic created carried over to day-to-day interactions, reports Herrick.

“Everyone had to work together as you cannot sail a schooner like that by yourself. Some of the lessons the group learned transferred back to the office,” says Herrick. “Relationships were definitely built that day, and relationships are the foundation for being the most effective team you can be.” 

The Follow-Through
Overall, the sailing expedition was a successful teambuilding activity as the group had to work together—communicating, trusting, supporting one another, thinking creatively, planning, and following through in order to succeed. 

Ross and Herrick remained in contact for months after the program to make sure the learned tactics continued to be implemented by the group.

Herrick, who has been with Unilever for 23 years, seven in the United States and the rest overseas, makes sure her team works together toward what’s best for the company by coordinating a teambuilding activity twice a year. 

In general, the sailing expedition enabled the group to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of their performance strengths and limitations. 

“I learned a few things about my fellow workers that day that I didn’t know,” says Karl Smith, a Unilever warehouse manager. “Most important was how they respond to stress. The more you get to know about your co-workers, the better. It has helped me do my job better.” 

Herrick and Sandy Marchionni, her assistant and event coordinator, are in the midst of planning the group’s next teambuilding activity, to be held next month. A definite is phase two of Ross’s color workshop.

“It’s all about understanding their ‘rocks,’ what’s important to them,” says Herrick. She used a parable to describe what she meant by rocks. In it she explained that a professor filled a large jar with rocks. He asked if the jar was full. His students said it was. Then he picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The professor then picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled everything else. “Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things—your family, your partner, your health, anything that is so important to you that if it were lost, you would be nearly destroyed. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, and your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles, and the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Take care of the rocks first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

As a manager, Herrick says it is important she understand what her team’s rocks are. Teambuilding activities help with this. “Take Sandy (Marchionni), I know that her husband, two kids, and dog are her rocks,” explains Herrick.
The Unilever employees who participated in the Insights workshop and sailing expedition all agree that the end result was a feeling of friendship and cooperation with other members of the group. In today’s challenging economic environment, that spirit is more important than ever.