Corporate team building putting focus on good deeds – Building bikes for kids, prosthetic hands for landmine survivors.
Written by Darrell Smith for the Sacramento Beedvsmith@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 28, 2008
Story appeared in BUSINESS section, Page D1 of the Sacramento Bee
Xyratex employees assemble a bicycle during a team-building exercise this month at the Le Rivage hotel in Sacramento. Randall Benton / email@example.com
Chris Sharman did a couple of unexpected things at a team-building workshop with 44 of his co-workers from the data storage firm Xyratex. First, he built a prosthetic hand and placed it in a wooden gift box that he and his teammates decorated.
Then, after he saw a brief slide show about the land mine victims all around the world waiting to receive the device, he brushed away a tear.
Eschewing the rope climbs and trust falls that have long been the traditional exercises at such retreats, Xyratex, based in the United Kingdom, and other companies choose to cement team bonds by giving employees a project with a higher purpose.
“We figured out what it was for fairly early,” said Sharman, a Xyratex vice president, who had safely stowed the prosthesis he helped build under his chair. But that didn’t lessen the impact, he said. “It pales into insignificance, your problems.”
“Philanthropic team building” it’s called, and Xyratex sought out a Chico-based firm that has designed and facilitated team-building experiences like this one for the better part of two decades. Known as Odyssey, it helps employees and managers work better together while helping the larger community in a “mix of inspiration and practical philanthropy.”
The Xyratex employees who came to Sacramento’s Le Rivage hotel from around the world March 4, worked together to build not only prosthetic hands but also bikes that they donated on the spot to nine smiling children from Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento. “We’ve tapped into the humanity of business,” said Lain Hensley, co-founder and chief operating officer of Odyssey. ” … You don’t have to quit your job and join the Peace Corps.”
Utilizing firms like teambonding, with its twin homes in Boston and San Diego, to Oakland’s Team Building Unlimited to Repario of Lake Tahoe, Nev., more companies in California are fusing corporate team building with good works.
“It’s not just the trick du jour anymore,” said Danika Davis, chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Northern California Human Resources Association. ” … Anytime you add meaning, it’s going to have an impact and drive the message home.”
The emphasis on good works may even be part of a larger trend in corporate giving. Harold McGraw III, president and chief executive officer of The McGraw-Hill Cos. and chairman of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, discussed the evolution in the committee’s 2007 review.
McGraw said the New York-based forum of corporate leaders now spearheads “holistic philanthropy” which, in part, “taps into the tremendous desire of employees to participate through their volunteerism.”
Odyssey’s programs are a natural fit for Xyratex, which has focused on charitable giving to children who live near their sites in Malaysia, Europe and the United States throughout its 13-year history.
Todd Gresham, a Xyratex executive vice president, has seen the program’s effects on his people.
“The IT industry has a unique culture. Many came from venture-backed organizations, and this type of (exercise) tears down walls of intellectual prowess or macho success,” Gresham said. “You see people who are very powerful in the industry broken down to their rawest levels of emotion.”
It works on a number of levels, said Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of the Indianapolis-based Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, a leading center on giving.
Many companies use this approach to increase morale, give employees a greater and clearer sense of purpose and develop a stronger understanding of the company’s mission, Burlingame said.
“Firms are focusing in on how they can use community involvement programs to increase pride within their companies and increase morale,” he said. “To be working for a company where you have that opportunity to build team pride in a business, that can provide another factor in the sense of engagement with the employer.”
Xyratex employees, including about 450 in West Sacramento, produce data storage technology that has been embedded in systems for machinery as diverse as the space shuttle and GE Healthcare’s mammography equipment, Gresham said.
“The person you’re building that for could be your wife or your daughter,” Gresham said. “It brings home that (the customer) is not just buying sheet metal and software.”
Company executives emphasize delivering quality products that meet customer needs, so it was no surprise that Xyratex employees were anxiously awaiting signs of approval when the door swung open for the nine children who had no idea what they’d be receiving.
“Do they look like new bikes?” Odyssey facilitator Todd Demorest asked. “Who’s No. 5? They built you a brand new bike!”
No. 5 was 10-year-old Alondra Tovar.
“I was really in shock,” Tovar said later, standing next to her bicycle. “It was amazing that they gave us (each) a bike.”
That’s the payoff for Odyssey’s Hensley.
“For the 99 percent who are skeptics, there’s the 1 percent who say, ‘I want to enjoy my work,’ ” Hensley said. “We want them to say, ‘When I created this hand, I could probably do that more often, and I can probably change the life of someone two cubicles away.’ They forget. That child, that hand, embodies that purpose.”
Xyratex employees Ed Prager, left, and Penny Gillhan put together one of the nine bikes destined as gifts for children from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento. Randall Benton / firstname.lastname@example.org
Alondra Tovar, 10, gets her new helmet adjusted, which goes along with the bicycle she received from Xyratex. Randall Benton / email@example.com