COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- On a hot, sunny Wednesday morning, a group of some 170 first-year MBA students are bent over in a field of grass, holding their ankles, shuffling backward and quacking like ducks.
The exercise is meant to dissolve the inhibitions that make them afraid to look silly in front of others. Right now, trust me, they look silly. I say this reluctantly, however, because I'm among them.
These University of Maryland graduate business students are here to build teamwork and communication skills, to learn how to lead and to follow, and to step outside of what their Outward Bound guides call their personal "comfort zone."
My editor thought it would be a nifty idea if I tagged along, a bit of participatory journalism, George Plimpton kind of stuff. He didn't tell me anything about comfort zones, quacking like a duck, falling blindly off a ladder into the arms of strangers or sustaining life-threatening finger sprains. No. This would be fun, he said.
OK. So I show up at 8:45 along with the 170 students, who are in the middle of a weeklong orientation for business school. It's one of a number of changes that Mark Wellman, the university's director of master of business administration and master of science programs has made in his first year on the job. Last year, the orientation was only one day and didn't include visits from area CEOs, such as Martin Marietta's Norman R. Augustine, who came this year.
And last year, the class wasn't divided into four "tracks," groups of 45 or so who attend all classes together, and ideally get to
know each other a little better than they might as one large student body. Mr. Wellman says the Outward Bound program, also a first (part of an extra $300-a-year fee per student), reflects the desire by businesses to hire MBAs who can communicate and work together.
Mr. Wellman lists "the typical criticisms of MBAs -- no teamwork, no creativity, no risk-taking." His boss, business school Dean Rudy Lamone, is credited with helping to get the university's graduate business program on U.S. News & World Report's list of the Top 25 Business Schools this year.
Out on "Denton Beach," a large grass field in front of Denton Hall dormitory, Outward Bound Director David Starnes promises the daylongactivities "will challenge you, they'll challenge how you think, they'll challenge how you participate in a group." He asks for "at least 100 percent effort," including no smoking. Somebody near me begins to hiccup.
We quickly break up into 10- to 12-member groups and head off across the fields to be on our own. Chris, our Outward Bound leader, is a 27-year-old adventurer who says he recently forged a new trail up the Himalayas, causing a few of us to wonder whether we wore the right kind of shoes.
One of the first exercises he leads us to is called "The Blind Man's Cure." On the grass next to a tree there is a large circle of rope, and in the middle of the circle sits a fuzzy blue ball made of rubber strands. The ball represents the cure to all world hunger and environmental problems, Chris tells us, and we have 30 minutes to retrieve it before it sinks away forever.
The catch is that the circle is actually filled with a highly toxic pool of slime, so we must pick up the cure without touching ground inside the circle, and we can use only the trunk of the tree, not the branches. Our tools are a long length of rope, two lengths of nylon webbing and Steve, a group member whom Chris has capriciously stricken blind through the use of a bandanna.
To my astonishment, we manage to jury-rig a harness that suspends the 6-foot-1-inch, 25-year-old Steve upside-down over the pool of slime. While the rest of us hold tight to Steve's harness line, Cary, a Cornell University hotel management gradu
ate, feeds instructions to the blind man, and he picks up the cure and saves the world.
Chris sits us down to discuss the skills we used, and makes an effort to relate the exercise to business management techniques. Walt Disney, he notes, used to think of himself as a worker bee, busily flying back and forth between the various specialists in his company, pollinating the hive, so to speak.
Most of the day turns out to be a mix of these types of exercises and discussions. During lunch break, I ask the students whether they think it's worthwhile. "I think it's more reinforcing things you already know," says Mike, 25, a University of Maryland graduate who worked at Chevy Chase Savings Bank and Blockbuster Entertainment before coming back for his business degree.
Joe, who says he spent time in the Chinese army and worked for an international arms dealer before coming to the United States, believes the Outward Bound program is "a bit like the real world: A group of people with problems thrown at them" who are forced to solve them however they can. No one argues with him.
Before the day is over, the challenges thrown at us will include fording an "acid river" using boards and cinder blocks; falling backward off a 6-foot ladder into our compadres' arms; running down a hill blindfolded in a kind of Outward Bound "Red Rover" (that's where I sustained my life-threatening finger sprain); and building a state-of-the-art airplane out of balsa wood, string, paper and masking tape.
The airplane exercise takes most of the afternoon and requires the coordinated efforts of four groups, each assigned a different task in marketing and production. Our "MBA One," a sort of balsa wood version of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, will have to fly 75 feet, and our marketing campaign will go up against those of the other three mega-groups.
At the end of the day, the crowd is gathered on Denton Beach to watch the planes fly and hear the marketing pitches. The first plane, whose salesmen proudly mention their Malcolm Baldrige quality award, flies at least 80 feet. So does the next one.
Next it's our turn. Our jingle, appropriately sung to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club ("M-B-A . . . O-N-E . . . P-L-A-N-E!") is a hit with the crowd, but the same can't be said of our airplane, which flies maybe 20 feet up and then 20 feet down.
Fortunately, the last plane, "the Gusty Glider -- undetectable to Cuban radar," flies even worse than MBA One, inspiring us to a rousing cheer of "We're not last! We're not last!" Capitalism proudly marches on at College Park. (Memo to editor: Did George Plimpton ever list an ice bag and finger splint on his expense account?)