Corporate Boardroom in the Woods


I had a very cool experience last week. Imagine this picture. We were at a
“ropes course” in the woods. Ten adults. Five pairs of two: one was blindfolded
and the other was sighted, and their job was to get the blindfolded partner
through a maze of ropes, laid out among the trees. All five in blindfolds
entered at the same time.

Their partners stationed at the start began to direct them. They brushed up
against the ropes, against tress, bumped into each other. Their partners called
out, “Gary, take 5 steps to your left.” “Cheryl, stop! Turn. No, the other way.”
It got louder and louder, and more and more difficult for the partners to hear
who was speaking to them. They hit dead ends, readjusted. After a while one guy
came through the exit gate, loudly high-fiving his partner. Then a second,
third, and fourth pair were finished. Only one woman remained in the maze, and
her (female) partner talked her deliberately through.

With blindfolds off they discussed the difficulty of their disability, the
challenge of trusting, and the frustration the guiders felt at not being able to
see the course well enough to know where the dead ends were. One of the (seven)
men asked the last pair why it had taken them so long. The women both said they
just couldn’t be heard above the other voices. “Hey,” a 6’4″ guy said with a
laugh, “you just gotta yell louder, you know?” The other woman in the group of
ten said, “Wait, why is it that they need to yell louder? When things don’t work
for us why is your answer always that we have to do things your way?
Temperature’s rising a little with the ancient male-female divide appearing.
Before she could go on, the man replied, “Hey if it’s loud and you want to get
your team through you just have to yell louder. If not, well I guess you just
lose, but that’s your choice.”

Ten years ago I probably would have thought something like that, too. He’s
right. She’s wrong. But as facilitator, I asked him: “What is it that you heard
her say?” (Note: I didn’t ask, “Who is right?” or “Is she right or are you?”). I
just wanted to be sure he heard that there was another way to see it, and
I thought he then expressed her point pretty well. Sometimes someone is “right”
and often speed matters, but a lot of times “right” may be much less important
than a whole, or fuller view that allows everyone to have success in the
. And sometimes speed now creates delay later when not everyone is
on board.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection between this exercise in
the woods and a report last weekend in a Detroit paper. It listed the top fifty
executives in compensation in 2006. Guess how many were women? How about one?
Elizabeth Acton, CFO of Comerica. And she was last on the list. Maybe it’s a
jungle, or at least like a ropes course in the forest. And how much wisdom is
being lost in those corporate boardrooms, because the expectation is that the
women need to learn to act like the men?

The ones in charge don’t always have the best way, and knowing that helps you

Lead with your best self,


  • Another angle – What was the goal? For each individual group to get done, or for all of the groups to done – if it was the second, then how would the direction on getting it done need to change, because then we all ‘lost’ if we had some slow groups regardless of the fast groups that yelled over everyone. Sometimes we need to think like a team instead of like individuals – something some of us don’t do well (probably all of us don’t do well at some point or another).

  • Dannemiller Tyson Associates from Ann Arbor did a great forum two weeks ago on diversity. Scott Page from U of M presented his work, based on a mathematical model rather than a social science model, that diverse groups are more effective at solving problems than groups of experts. Seems that after a certain critical mass, experts points of view become redundant. Diverse groups bring more points of view and more problem solving techniques, so arrive at better solutions.

    Scott makes the case that adding diversity, more women for instance, may or may not be not a social justice issue, but is surely a productivity and performance issue. To improve problem solving performance, increase the diversity of the group.

    Scott has his research posted online at
    and his book is:


    How The Power of Diversity Creates Better

    Groups, Teams, Schools, and Societies

  • I would also have asked what the experience of the blindfolded woman was related to those of the others. Did she feel more supported because of the quiet leader, or just frustrated by the loud ones. We do the same with many disabled people…talk louder to the blind or the person in a wheelchair as if that challenge merits more heat than light!

  • As an owner of a small Michigan manufacturing company, I’ve had the pleasure of employing and observing women that held down various positions, ie; traveling machinery sales person, order desks, machinest, Kiwanis and Rotory club members, bank officers ,board members etc…and most have stepped up to the plate and performed as well as their male counter parts….
    But I know that some men are afraid to promote women to the “Big Chair”, because down deep they can’t get beyond the perception, true or false, that women in authority can if necessary, exibit feline traits that could lead to a management disaster. And firing an underperforming minority is a very risky business, so best not to promote them in the first place.That’s unfortunate.
    But, true talent always rises to the top , and as women move up though the ranks, gaining experiance and exposure, the Big Chair is waiting.

    The Donald Trump show may have set the female cause back twenty years.

  • What if the exercise was a measure of use of brute force versus reason. Would the first be last and the last be first? Somewhere back in my younger days, I had a coach that liked to repeat to us that it wasn’t about winning, but how you played the game.

    And what if all the yelling demonstrated is just another example of the predominance of a failed approach in problems solving? The ends justify the means? For who, and to what ultimate end?

    Being a woman and/or a minority is often, alone, a very risky business. Being someone who follows quiet reason and fairness, in this culture, is very risky; and shouldn’t be.

  • My thought was about how many people of color were on the list as well. There are multiple levels of diversity and when everyone is not represented at the table, then the decision makers have not included all stakeholders or their perspectives. That can make a big difference.

  • Thank-you for recognizing women in the business world and the sex bias in the work place. I have studies on the pay and promotional difference in the work place. This is not imagined, but proving the bias in the work is almost impossible. One would have to have calibration of the men in the office, and as you notice in most cases it will not happen.

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