‘Company offsites’, ‘kick-off meetings’ and ‘sales incentive trips’ have long been part of the business landscape. Getting people together, talking about the future, educating, inspiring and creating alignment. It’s easy when you only have a few employees, but as a business grows the logistics and expense grows too.
So when I was talking with some of my fellow entrepreneur friends about taking the Big Red Group (BRG) to Uluru for a weekend, most thought we had “more money than sense”.
For me as co-founder of BRG (and founder of RedBalloon) our end-of-year trip is only in small part a ‘bonding opportunity’ and reward for a year of hard work and achieving results. We’re edging toward 100 employees, so it makes these types of events all the more important to make sure we’re joined up as a team and connected on an individual level.
One of our values is ‘we only win as one team’ and that was something I saw reflected the entire weekend we were away; watching employees bond over experiences, stories and great humour. Our Australiania dress up party was certainly a great way to break the ice, especially for all the international employees we have these days.
And while bonding is key to being ‘one team’, for us, these trips are more about living our values, bringing our purpose to life, and more importantly, showing people ‘why we do what we do’.
The business had been in planning for a number of months, we had set our purpose, values and were finalising the details of the plan — and yet I took a break in June (in the middle of the planning) for two weeks in Mongolia. As it happens, while inconvenient in timing, this ‘break’ gave me the time and space to reflect on all we had done in the planning process and over the previous 12 months. My time on ‘the frontier’ had allowed me to reconnect with my purpose, and the greater purpose of the Big Red Group.
But leadership is not about the journey of one. It is equally about who, and how you bring people with you on the journey. And I’ve always been a strong proponent of showing, not telling. So the next logical step was to pack up the business and head to Uluru for three days.
Of the 80 people we took to the red centre, only three had been there before — myself and my co-founder David Anderson included. This was a true bucket list experience. I lost count of the number of conversations I was part of, or overheard, where people said how they’d ‘always dreamed of going to Uluru’, but doubted they ever would have made it happen themselves.
Everyone was thrilled to see ‘the rock’, but it became about so much more than that. Each person I spoke to went on their own personal journey and experienced the red centre in their own individual way. It was a real personification of the BRG brand; we were shifting the way our people experienced life, in that moment. Our corporate affairs manager Loz, who has been with the business for seven years, said it was the greatest experience she’s had in that time — and she’s been on a few! She noted having a new appreciation and pride in the ancient Australian culture and Indigenous way of life — something she had previously felt largely disconnected from.
This notion of being disconnected is in fact something we discussed in our working session on day one of the trip. Increasingly, we observe the more we ‘connect’ — via smartphones and social media — the more disconnected we feel from the world and the experiences of life around us. So I set the team a challenge: put their phones on flight mode for the duration of the trip, to help us truly connect with each other and the space we were in.
As humans it is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing to belong; to be part of the community and connect with people. Think about how often are you are truly present and focussed on those around you (we are all guilty of not doing it, myself included). Yet putting away our smartphones seems really very hard — and it was really very hard for many on the trip. Yet it allowed us to truly embrace the experience and opportunity in front of us, and from this came some incredible moments of connection.
One of my most memorable moments of the trip was when we gathered in a large group to do a cultural dot painting experience. The silence was striking as we all listened intently to the two Indigenous women who were hosting us and sharing stories of their culture in the red soil. There was so much respect for the culture, the language and the traditions of the land on which we were standing — and I know everyone around me felt a similar sense of pride and respect for what we were part of.
We were then given the opportunity to create our own stories using traditional symbols of the Indigenous language, with each team member given a small black canvas on which to tell a story of their own. We laid the canvases down in a giant square and it created the most incredible artwork — a tapestry of our own stories, woven together in one place (see below). A number of team members were then handed the ‘talking stick’ (something I am contemplating implementing in leadership meetings!) and had the opportunity to share their own story. It was a truly incredible shared experience, and it’s a moment none of us will forget.
And as if the location itself wasn’t enough of an experience, we also enjoyed an exclusive dinner and tour of the Field of Light. It’s genuinely hard to put into words just how special this experience was. We sipped champagne as we watched the sunset over Uluru before enjoying an alfresco dining experience under the Milky Way. We even had a guide point out the constellations in the striking night sky, before being treated to an impressive full moon rise over the desert. We then wandering the field adorned with thousands of lights. The planets and the stars literally aligned for us as we gathered as one team.
Many of the team also opted for some very early mornings to take advantage of sunrise camel tours, walking expeditions of Uluru and helicopter flights. It was clear to see that although we were enjoying late nights of fun, laughter and dancing, everyone was keen to make the most of their time in this incredible location, and soak up as much of the wonder as possible.
That really inspired in David and myself a great sense of pride in the team — knowing that everyone was living our purpose and values by grabbing the opportunity to soak up every experience with both hands.
Sometimes it takes getting out from behind our desks (off our laptops and smartphones) and being truly present with each other; that is how community and true shared experience is created.