The most oft repeated tale of my time at Rio Tinto R&TD is the Rambo course. Every year a dozen or so staff would be sent on a management training course. Many people were eager to avoid it. Although everyone had to do it at least once and it was advisable to go if you wanted to be promoted (so I was keen). Most people had been multiple times. Since our team was so small, about a third of the facility went each year.
It took two consecutive days and we all stayed at a place in the hills surrounding Perth. I wasn’t exactly a holiday resort, but comfortable enough. We were split into two teams each with a cross section of staff (in terms of experience). Each team contained one of the managers and had one new hire (a role I fulfilled on my team). Our General Manager was present as a observer and also worked with the facilitator (from some consulting company that Rio apparently used a lot).
The format of the course was alternating sessions of lessons on management with physical tasks. The physical tasks were set up so that during the first session the least experienced member of each team would lead it, and the last practical was led by the most experienced.
The course started with a task, thus I started as a team leader. The idea was that the whole team would be blindfolded and led into the bush. There we would be handed a rope and we had to form it into a square. As team leader I was allowed to remove my blindfold if I wished, but then I wouldn’t be allowed to move or touch the rope. I kept the blindfold on. Everyone else had to stay blind regardless. It didn’t go very well - neither team completed the task. My team’s square was more like a rounded triangle. However, the other team’s square wasn’t much better, although it was definitely more square-like.
Then we all gathered to analyse the team leader’s performance. I just remember getting a bollocking. There were loads of problems. Mostly they revolved around me not communicating enough, so my team wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be doing. In traditional consultant fashion, the facilitator ensured we finished with a positive. Apparently staying blindfolded was a good thing to do in Australian groups as it helped keep the leader as part of the group. Among other nationalities removing the blindfold was preferred.
Then points were allocated to the teams. Neither team completed the task so we both only got partial points. We were in competition with eachother!
Then followed various sessions. The management sessions were basic theory combined with information on Rio Tinto. We learnt about the different business units in the company and how to get promoted (act as if you were already at the promoted level). We were also told that there were no more than 7 levels of management. True enough, I worked out that my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss was the CEO.
The physical tasks were fun. The team leaders were keen to impress the General Manager and organised everything. The rest of the team just ran around in the bush trying to win the exercise. At the end of the day we were fed well. Although we had to share bedrooms and my room-mate snored - I slept in the hall and wasn’t well rested.
Then started the infamous second day. The teams’ scores were close with a single task left. Whichever team won it would win the whole event. The aim was to build a raft to cross a small lake (about 15-20 metres across), collect some widgets from the other side and then bring them back. Points were awarded for each widget returned and there was one widget worth of points separating the teams. The difficulty was increased by the rule that people getting wet were “dead” so couldn’t participate further in the task, and that only one widget could be transported on the raft at a time.
I actually suggested that the teams collaborate to build a big raft and bring back all the widgets together. That idea went down like a lead balloon. Having been outed as a naive hippy pacifist, my team sidelined me for the rest of their war planning. Our plan was to quickly build a raft and tie a rope to it. One person would then paddle across the other side and put a widget on the raft and stay on the other side while the team pulled the raft back. This would then be repeated, but the second person would come back with the raft on the return journey. The other team had basically the same plan.
Our raft was completed first. Hastily built from barrels, some wooden planks and rope - it didn’t look very stable. Sure enough, the first team member who tried to row it got a couple of stokes before toppling over. The raft was quickly pulled back, but the paddle was left floating in the lake. With one team member “dead” another rower had to be found. I swear all my team mates swivelled to look at me simultaneously. As I didn’t have a paddle, I had to use my hands to move the raft (the facilitator ruled that was ok). To improve stability I got myself as close to the water as possible, basically laying down on the raft. I then flapped my hands in the water from the wrists only (no arm movement) to propel myself to the paddle. Even in this position the raft felt very wobbly. One positive was the other team slowed down a bit as they laughed at my “duckling” impression.
After was seemed like ages, I reached the paddle and then crossed to the other side about the same time the other team launched their much more stable raft. From that point on I was largely an observer of the action. The other team soon followed us to the other side. We had a head start, but they were gaining fast due to a better raft. After a few back and forth journeys, the teams had an equal number of widgets. It was down to the last one. I think we just had it (the other team lost one after it got wet). As our raft started its return journey, both teams clustered on the far shore. Our team to shepherd the widget to where it would be scored. The other team to see if they could steal it.
As the raft arrived a scrum developed. Or at least that is how it appeared from my side of the lake. There were a half dozen people heatedly wrestling and a few more on the edges throwing buckets of water (which were ignored). The rules were forgotten and the widget didn’t survive (it was made of paper and soon crushed). Eventually it all calmed down and embarrassment ensued. The task was declared a draw and the other team won, although there wasn’t much celebration. A grand melee over paper widgets is not a good look in front of the General Manager.
When we got back to the office we all spent nearly a day filling in health and safety reports. Many violation of the rules were detailed. There were numerous bruises, a bad case of rope burn and a few dunkings in the lake. It must have made for strange reading for those not present (“so your work colleague tackled you to the ground, got you in an arm lock and then stole a piece of paper from you”). Luckily, there was video of the whole thing! There was much merriment from the non-participating colleagues at an office showing. There wasn’t a Rambo course held the next year.