Camp Ketchum: In Over Our Heads

Take 77 campers plus 22 counselors and put them up in the Canadian mountains for five days. First, have the counselors teach the campers the latest strategy and best practices for delivering best-in-class public relations expertise. Everyone stays up late and drinks a lot. Next, bring in one of your agency’s largest clients to challenge the campers with a complex high-profile global challenge with an awesome budget. Put them into seven highly diverse multicultural teams of 11 people each from mixed expertise who don’t previously know each other, and make it clear the teams are competing with each other to win the assignment. Give them only 24 hours to present to the client, Ketchum’s CEO and 20 other Ketchum senior executives.
 
Yes, it’s a crucible, and, yes, the whole group is in over their heads! The assignment is basically impossible to do. The senior executives feel a bit stressed about taking the risk of doing this in front of a major client, and the client is likely wondering what she got herself into. . . . Welcome to Camp Ketchum!
 
As Ketchum’s Chief Learning Officer, it is a privilege to be a part of this unique collection of courageous individuals who are willing to put themselves to the test. Can we all trust that this event makes sense to do? Can we trust that we will all do our parts? Can it really be possible these teams will create excellence overnight? 
 
I’m thrilled to report that we all did indeed survive, and in fact thrived. What made this possible?
 
First of all, we had very high-caliber colleagues from all disciplines and countries, bringing good will to trust the process and a readiness to perform. Next, we had senior executives ready to deliver their best teaching from their own experience and ready to trust their colleagues could rise to the task. Finally, we had the good fortune to have a client who joined in the whole process, taking it to a higher level with her strong challenge that was real, immediate, of great importance to her company, and close to her heart.
 
Our client was Marike Westra from Philips. Her challenge on noon last Friday was global, across both the B-to-B and consumer markets, with both short- and long-term needs, with mindset shifts necessary in the target audiences, and a real urgency of execution. 
 
This caused our teams temporary heart failure, followed by the determination to make it. Off they went to their team rooms to review the brief, the sea of research data provided by Philips, and to eye their colleagues, wondering, Will we make it, or lose our careers? The counselors stayed up to 1 a.m. Saturday morning in case they wanted our expertise, but after that, they were on their own. 
 
Most teams went through a low point at which it seemed they would fail. Yet, somehow they pulled through. Starting at 7 a.m. on Saturday, each team got a 45-minute rehearsal. Then, beginning at 9:30 a.m., the presentations started: only 45 minutes to convince Marike and your CEO and the other 20 executives acting as judges that you had what it takes. They all came through in shining colors. How could this be?
 
Well, our CEO, Ray Kotcher, had convinced them this was not an evaluation of them; instead, it was a learning experience. The counselors had assured them they had gone through the same experiences themselves, definitely without being perfect. 
 
After all the presentations, Marike and the senior executives closeted themselves away and debated who would win. It was a thoughtful, spirited difficult conversation, with two teams rated in a deadlock for the win. The judging group even considered a co-prize. But in the end, we asked Marike to pick the winner. 
 
That night, senior leaders from business development, Europe and the U.S. did their all-night stand, reviewing seven hours of videos to produce a thoughtful analysis of all the teams presentations: video clips of what worked and what could be improved, shared with all the campers in the morning. All of these ingredients helped the process, but in the end, it was the graciousness of Marike that allowed the process to come to its highest fruition. She gave her full attention to each presentation, delivered specific feedback to each team, and gave a clear rationale for why she chose the winning team. No one was embarrassed. Instead, all teams were lifted up by the overall insights she gave them.
 
What a gift! Having such a committed client, passionate colleagues, and understanding executives, and everyone willing to trust themselves, each other, and the community as a whole resulted in an outcome far beyond our hopes and fears. Yes, in fact, we were all in over our heads at the beginning, but with hard work, willing hearts and an atmosphere of trust in each other, the whole community was able to reach a place where everyone benefitted, achieving an abundance of outcome. Over these five days we went from being in over our heads to being on top of the world, thanks to each and everyone’s efforts.

Partner and Chief Learning Officer at Ketchum. Complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity and velocity are mushrooming in the world. The ability to know oneself and to rapidly make sense of the fire hose of information helps. This equals Learning = World Problem Solution. 🙂