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Teaching Corporate Guys to Play

Aaron McHugh

I ran an experiment a few years ago. I invited two clients to fly to Colorado to join me for an “off-site” meeting. One of them was wound tight and would reply to emails at 2 am. He reminded me of the tin man in Wizard of Oz. Great guy, just a little stiff. His boss was easier to relate to, but he still drank the corporate kool-aid.

I knew if we went to visit them at their location, they would be running the stopwatch on our meetings. They ran all of their meetings with a meeting profile matrix. They applied a meeting type to an allotted maximum meeting length, e.g., quarterly reporting was allowed a fifty-minute maximum. It was incredibly impressive, but also stifled the meeting if it was exploratory.

They accepted and flew to Colorado for a structured thirty-six hours of discussions. In the morning I handed out menus and asked them to select their choice for a box lunch. I asked them to wear comfortable shoes and be ready to get out of the office.

I’d never tried this with clients. I always deferred to the safe, “Let’s order in and have a working lunch” or “Let’s continue our discussion over lunch” and walk to a restaurant nearby. We piled into my car, grabbed our turkey and swiss sandwiches, and I drove them to the trailhead.

They agreed to our micro-adventure with relief that no one back at corporate was here to witness them play.

In corporate life, some might think a hike as screwing off or dismiss this adventure as unproductive. I have found it is entirely the opposite.

Play gives us each an opportunity to let our shoulders down and chill out. Hiking shifts the dynamics of conversation to a more personal and relatable interaction mode. Board room conversations tend to be very structured, and people can keep their guard up.

When you get outside together, go for a hike or walk around a lake, people shift into a slower gear. When playing together, I’ve witnessed colleagues transition into real individuals who are more approachable, at ease and more transparent.

Skip the fancy dinner, get out of the conference room environment and get outside. Take a walk, go for a boat ride, visit a museum and find ways to incorporate play into your business life with clients.

My clients had never had an experience like this in their work life. I hope they remember how valuable it was to play together.

My friend Beau Haralson and I on a walking meeting in Boulder. He’s a believer in play integrated into our work life.

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