West Coaster Zak Shaw teaches leadership skills by taking American corporate bosses into the wilderness for a week.
This is an excerpt from our weekly business newsletter Stocktake.
Zak Shaw can handle himself in the bush. Like many New Zealanders who enjoy tramping our vast array of forests and mountains, he knows how to use a compass, cross a river, set up camp, cook dinner over an open fire and look after anyone he’s with. It’s also his job. For the past 20 years, Shaw has been employed in a variety of environmental education positions, roles that have put him in touch with all sorts of people and taken him around the world.
But whatever you do, don’t compare him to Bear Grylls, the infamous British TV adventurer who would drink his own urine out of snakeskins and keep warm by sleeping in the stomachs of butchered camels. “It implies bushcraft,” says the understated Shaw about any comparisons. The father-of-two doesn’t want people to think he heads off on expeditions with nothing but his bare hands, “… and now I’m going to jump off this cliff and land safely at the bottom and now I’m a hero.”
What Shaw does is model a different set of skills. “This,” he says firmly, “is education”.
For the past eight years (Covid and closed borders aside) Shaw has conducted week-long expeditions into the bush with up to 20 corporate CEOs in tow as part of a leadership programme run by Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Who are these people? “They’re extremely intelligent,” says Shaw. “They’re the movers and shakers of the American corporate world. They’ll be the chief executive of a multi-billion-dollar start-up in California. They’ll be the leader of some other company you’ve heard of.”
They also want to learn. Many of those on Shaw’s expeditions have never done anything like this before. “If you ask them, it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” says Shaw. “The outdoors is not their thing. It’s uncomfortable. You’re carrying a pack. You can’t wash. There are bugs and spiders that are going to bite you. You’re sleeping under a tarpaulin and there are thunderstorms and it rains.”
Some can’t even cook for themselves. Instead, they’re used to eating on the run, or ordering food through delivery apps. Shaw shows them how to start a fire. “Cooking on an open fire is a game changer … real cave man stuff.”
They’re not there just to rough it for a week. The programmes that Shaw helps host are extreme leadership initiatives for those already nearing the top of their game. Shaw puts them through their paces, giving them daily tasks that combine survival skills, teamwork and leadership initiatives. They’ll traverse mountains and bush, and take rafts down rapids, and are expected to meet deadlines. It’s designed to push them to their limits, and beyond. “The outdoors doesn’t have anything artificial about it,” he says. “Everyone has their moment of being the slowest member, or of not knowing what they’re doing.”
After a couple of days of this, sleeping in the open with none of the creature comforts of home, normal societal boundaries start breaking down. People on the programme get personal around the campfire at night. “They’re quite vulnerable at times. They’re exposed because they’re tired, they’re uncomfortable and they need to share how they’re feeling with other people,” says Shaw.
This is the point Shaw can step in and show why he’s really there: to facilitate leadership initiatives. Shaw’s training is designed to accelerate team performances, to help them hold each other accountable, and increase their self-awareness, things that they could be lacking when it comes to boardrooms and corporate ladder climbing. “I give people skills and frameworks so you can have constructive discussions about performance and capability without … a lot of conflict existing in that moment.”
Shaw could set up whiteboards and talk this stuff through in the exact same boardrooms participants are used to. But it wouldn’t be the same. “When you put people into [an outdoors] environment, their behaviour changes,” he says. “It’s really easy to come to work and be friendly and social. When you’ve had a rest, it’s pretty easy to be patient with people. To operate in a stressful environment where you have to have a really broad range of social skills to manage working relationships and lead is a different story. That’s where the outdoor component comes into its own.”
Surprisingly, no one has ever quit one of his courses. Shaw says the reputation of Warton’s leadership programmes precedes it, and participants know exactly why they’re there. They want to grow and be the best CEOs they can possibly be. “It’s like they’re built for success,” he says. “There’s so much confidence and self-belief.”
He’ll be putting that to the test again soon when 20 more participants arrive in Aotearoa for a week-long trek from one side of the South Island to the other, the first time it’s happened here. He can’t wait to see their beaming faces once they make it through the week.
Shaw will be happy too. His favourite part of the course is seeing transformations happen right in front of him. “It’s like, ‘Holy shit, I just made it from one side of the South Island to the other with pretty much 20 people off the street. There’s some burly terrain in there. The goal you set is quite big and to get there is cool.”