The Rock is the Teacher

The Rock is the Teacher

Thursday, July 16, 2015

By Tony Contakos

A large part of Brimstone’s heritage comes from Outward Bound, where I, along with several members of the firm, ran Action Learning leadership programs. One of my areas of expertise is rock climbing, and I spent many years coaching people on how to safely get from the bottom of a rock to the top. It didn’t matter if people had any prior climbing experience. No matter their age or ability, strengths or fears, if a person was willing to tie in and give it a try, it was a sure thing that she or he would learn something. The thing was, while we were teaching climbing skills and facilitating the process, the most powerful element was the experience itself. The rock was the teacher. We just helped connect the dots.

I often ask leaders to take a moment and think about something they’ve learned that has transformed them. Most people, when given this assignment, talk about an experience that hit them in the gut first, and then became a lesson that they were able to transfer up to their brain. This is what Action Learning is about.

I could lecture for hours about climbing. But there’s no substitute for being up on a pitch and feeling the rock through your feet, seeing your next move, focusing, breathing, and ultimately putting your trust in your equipment and your team as you leave the safety of one foothold for the promise of a higher one. This is where the learning happens. As rock climbing instructors, our job was to facilitate this experience safely, expertly, and through a process that helped people transfer the gut feelings they experienced into lessons they could take with them.

There was a rhythm to how we ran our classes:
Do. Stop action. Assess. Do it again.

At Brimstone, we follow a similar rhythm in our work with clients. In the same way that I’ve climbed a lot of rocks, Brimstone has facilitated a lot of change efforts. As the saying goes, we’ve seen this movie before, and we know the structure, process, and discipline that will help people quickly start doing the work of change.

When we work with leaders, we help them define and align on the goals they are moving toward. Then, without over-planning or getting lost in detailed analysis, we get them into action—where the learning really happens. After a period of doing, we hit the pause button and help leaders assess their efforts. For example, if we spent two days working with a senior leadership team to develop a strategy, we ask each of them to take the strategy back to their teams to see how it can be improved. When the senior leaders come back together, we explore what each person learned—both during the process of creating the strategy with each other, and when they refined it with their teams. By examining these experiences, leaders have the opportunity to connect with each other more deeply. And when they start “climbing the rock” again with new perspectives they’ve gained from each other, they find themselves working together in different and better ways.

We are firm believers that a key to driving change is finding the confidence and structure (through clear goals, roles, processes, and interpersonal relationships) that help teams shift from cognitive mode into action mode. Once they start doing, they get the feedback that helps them clearly see what’s required to make a change process succeed in the organization. In the same way that the rock is the teacher, diving into the real work of change will quickly reveal what will be required of individuals and teams to reach their goals.