As her pupils squirm, Ali Boyd is smiling. After all, these are people used to being in control.
But on this December day, the supervisors, managers and executives attending the Denver Leadership Experience (DLX) are definitely outside their comfort zones.
Standing in a dirt arena, circled by a half-dozen 1,600-pound horses, they know the only way out is by gaining enough of an animal’s trust to lift each of its legs off the ground for five seconds.
“You can’t fake it with the horses in the same way you can fake it with people,” says Boyd, an assistant professor and director of leadership and professional development at the Daniels College of Business. “I love seeing the discomfort because the discomfort is where the learning happens.”
If that’s true, then the 17 participants sure learned a lot the first week of December.
For the last seven years, the college’s executive education office has welcomed experienced professionals to campus for an intensive, comprehensive and transformational course in leadership. Boyd and fellow Daniels faculty Scott McLagan, a clinical professor and director of the Bailey Program for Family Enterprise, are there every step of the way. The award-winning program they crafted is meant to revolutionize the way leaders are trained.
“What’s happening here is really about the whole person in a way that’s very practical and can be applied,” Boyd says. “It’s built on a foundation of good, broad theoretical work, but it’s actionable in a way that’s really relevant.”
Seventeen professionals are enrolled in the latest cohort through the Daniels Executive Education program. Some own their own businesses; others are supervisors or executives in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. They’re looking to find career direction, acquire new skills and become better managers or leaders. And the University of Denver campus environment provides an unmatched mixture of theory and practice.
Mornings at DLX typically feature skill-centric lectures, focused on how participants can succeed in a volatile, uncertain and complex world. Boyd and McLagan team up for talks on everything from dealing with difficult employees and company cultures to the science behind staying calm and keeping cool under pressure. The afternoons put those skills to the test.
“I think what makes us unique is the experiential dimension,” McLagan says. “You can go anywhere in the world and get a classroom experience. It’s the non-classroom stuff that reinforces and lets people practice that makes a difference.”
Indeed, the hallmark of DLX is what happens outside the lecture hall. Each day features a surprise activity designed to simulate a stressful environment. On day one, participants have dinner in complete darkness at a “blind café.”
On the second afternoon, Boyd leads her students to Margery Reed Hall’s Reiman Theater for a session with ExperienceYes, a company started by Daniels alum Bruce Montgomery and his wife Gail, that uses improv comedy to build stronger teams.
Each improv game simulates a skill needed in the business world: overcoming the fear of being wrong, offering affirmation, thinking quickly, supporting a team.
“Everything this week seems to be getting you out of your comfort zone,” says Jeremy Stelter, executive vice president of the Stelter Company, who took part in DLX. “I haven’t been in school in 22 years, so it’s been really beneficial to take time and improve on myself rather than just a conference or another sales training we always do. This is different.”
“Better than pottery and wine” is how Shawna English describes the following day’s team-building experience at Colorado Horse Rescue in Longmont, where she serves as director of development. “I’m going to ask you to do something you’re not used to doing,” English tells the DLX cohort, instructing them to walk around and introduce themselves to the animals. Later comes the challenge of lifting each horse’s legs.
Some members of the cohort stay firmly in place, silent, nervous and intimidated. Boyd reminds them to practice breathing from their centers as they approach. Each horse has a different personality, not unlike the teams they all manage on a daily basis. Calming them, Boyd explains, is a lesson in leadership, an exercise in authenticity and flexibility.
“It’s not sufficient to sit in a building with fluorescent lights and talk about these concepts,” Boyd says. “What really matters is actually to be able to be in an environment where I’m actually building [leadership] muscle. The way we work out is by engaging in experiences like this.”
The week is an opportunity to zoom out, Boyd explains. Leaders can step away from their desks and their obligations and take time for self-examination. When managers like Tonnett Luedtke plug back in, they’re refreshed.
“I need this time,” says Luedtke, the executive director of academic resources at the office of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, “to think about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, how I could do it better and where I can improve. [Time to reflect] is hugely important and a huge part of being a leader.”
DLX prides itself on teaching lasting lessons quickly. By the time the participants go back to their respective workplaces the following Monday, they are ready to apply what they’ve learned.
“There are certainly people who walk out saying, ‘I improved my leadership skills,’” McLagan says. “But the ones that are really amazing are the ones who say, ‘This changed my life. It changed my life at home. It changed my whole perspective on the way I interact with people, the way I lead my team, the way I go about my world.’ And that’s the most rewarding thing.”