Executives build teams through sailing

July 08, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

THEN THIS GROUP — AS THE SUN glinted over the Miles River at 8:30 a.m. in St. Michaels, Tom Katana led 38 insurance executives in stretching, bending, making small circles with their outstretched arms and moving about.

Then this group - accountants, portfolio managers, sales managers - split into teams and boarded six sailboats worth about $3 million. Few of them had ever sailed before. Failure, he had told them, "is an option" - if they don't work together.

His philosophy, as he explained later: "Overwhelm them. You want to create some controlled stress."

This is how, for the past seven years, Aegon, one of the world's biggest insurance companies, has sought to build bridges between the up-and-coming leaders of its far-flung company. The better they know each other, Aegon reasons, the stronger their company.

So for 10 days in June, Aegon turned its future over to a former Navy SEAL who rappels down 60-foot-high climbing walls for fun.

Katana, 53, runs Awe someteams.com, a Baltimore corporate consulting firm that puts on teambuilding and leadership seminars for three big clients - two he refused to name, and Aegon, which has headquarters here and in the Netherlands.

In a business suit he could at a glance be mistaken for an actuary, but actuaries don't look this dangerous. Katana's eyes flicker with intensity, even over a relaxed lunch at the Maryland Club; his carotid artery bulges as he speaks.

"He's definitely a very intense person," said John Bender, head of U.S. Investment Grade Fixed Income for Aegon USA Investment Management LLC, who was aboard a 43-foot catamaran called Big Dog.

"I am very impressed with his boundless energy ... clarity of mind," said Vimal Bhandari, country manager for Aegon India.

"He just comes at you," said Christopher Haggerty, another former SEAL, who has worked with Katana about eight years.

Under Katana's watch, the Aegon executives sailed from Baltimore to St. Michaels with classroom sessions, workshops and speakers interspersed. The teams hash over issues and look for ways to save the company money. They are a mixed lot. Brits are tossed in with Hungarians, Dutch with Americans, Spanish with Taiwanese.

From the start, Katana's instructions were simple. "This is a boat; you've got 12 hours to know it, then do it," said Johan van der Werf, president and chief executive officer of Aegon Netherlands, who checked in on the executives. "By the end of the program, they are a team."

Katana cranks up the pressure, making sure teams are at specific checkpoints at designated times. For several days they sleep on the boats, cook their meals and learn to stretch the $10 a day they each receive for food.

To make sure nobody gets hurt, Katana hired six former Navy SEALS and six professional skippers. All fight their better instincts as the teams lurch about the Chesapeake.

"The boats really allow them to reach out of their comfort zone," Katana said.

On June 23, a clear blue summer morning, Katana watched as six boats left Magothy Marina in Severna Park for the last leg of their journey.

At 8:53 a.m., nerves ran high as the crew on Big Dog left the dock, trying not to take a chunk out of Daddy's Girl, a neighboring sailboat. The departure was a little jerky, but smooth enough. Days earlier the maneuver might have been disastrous.

Within minutes the crew faced another challenge, a set of buoys that Gabriella Kollar, underwriting director for Aegon's Hungarian unit and first time helmsman, had to negotiate.

"Gabriella! Gabriella! We have a buoy coming up here," said Mark Rude, chief information officer for Aegon Direct Marketing Services, who was captain on this day.

She steered the big wheel with her right hand while eating a strawberry she held in her left. The boat swayed from side to side, but Kollar didn't hit a buoy.

Katana watched from a distance in a cabin cruiser called Drifting Profits. He likes to stay in the background and watch human nature unfold like some reality TV show.

"You have got to let them screw up," he said.

But he was pleased with what he saw when the group docked at the Inner Harbor East Marina, on time.

Today, he is in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with more Aegon executives. They will ride bicycles throughout the city, hunting for instructions at secret drop points that will give them further orders. The mission is to work together, exchange ideas and grow as a team.

"We are ready to rock," Katana said.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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