One of the greatest problems in corporate America is that we promote people to leadership positions –simply because they have been there for years—not because they are good leaders. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the high tech industry. Engineers are hired for their knowledge and skill at writing code or designing, but they do not have any training to lead or manage a group.

You can invest in training courses and lectures but there is nothing like actual hands on experience. This is where team building exercises—the right ones—can be invaluable and very effective. Not only do they allow people to practice in an upbeat, supportive atmosphere, but if mistakes are made, there are no dire consequences. People can learn a lot about leading, managing  people and about themselves.

What makes a good leadership exercise? There needs to be a…

  1. Team and a designated leader. There’s no leader required if there are no people to lead.
  2. Challenge/problem for the team to solve.
  3. Deadline for executing a solution.
  4. Some scoring process to determine the level of success.
  5. Debriefing and constructive feedback for the leader and the team.

Interestingly enough, many team building exercises have nearly all these elements. Where many fail is the last point—debriefing and feedback. Sometimes people are having so much fun with the exercise that someone says, “Oh, they don’t really need a debriefing.” Unfortunately, when this happens, you are losing a great deal of the value provided by this type of event.

Here’s a great example of how a simple, fun team exercise can become a leadership training tool…

After dividing your group into small teams of 4-5 people, have each team designate a leader. Ask the team leaders to come forward so you can brief (only them) on the challenge. Hand each leader:

  1. 20 sticks of spaghetti
  2. 1 yard of masking tape
  3. 1 yard of string
  4. 1 marshmallow

Tell them that their teams must design and construct a tower using only the spaghetti, tape and string—that will hold the weight of a marshmallow skewered at the top. The structure must be at least 24” from the table top to the bottom of the marshmallow; the taller the better. They can’t use any other materials. The leaders are responsible for guiding their teams to success.

The leaders can take notes and ask questions, but ultimately must go back to their teams and provide them with the above instructions verbally.  They will also have to organize their teams to work as effectively as they can within the deadline.

Provide time checks as you go. When the time is over, measure the towers to determine whether a team has succeeded or not. Some teams will not have a standing structure at all.

Then ask key questions:

  1. Was your leader clear about the challenge?
  2. Was your team organized or just working at random? Organization could mean, identifying tasks or obstacles, allocating time for each task, deciding upon division of labor, or any number of things.
  3. What did your leader do to help the team succeed?
  4. How would each leader characterize his/her team—in a few adjectives?
  5. What could the team have done differently to increase their level of success?
  6. What could the leader have done differently to help the team increase their level of success.

The most effective way to get thoughtful answers is to provide these questions to each team in written form. Ask them to discuss and write down their answers. Tell them to be open and honest. Then, when everyone is finished, facilitate a sharing of their answers.

In the end, remember to congratulate those who have been successful and recognize the team with the tallest tower.