Executives Head for the Hills : Cipher Data Takes Acid Test in Teamwork

February 11, 1986|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Last Wednesday was not just another day at the office for Cipher Data Products President and Chief Executive Gary Liebl.

By 10 a.m., his tennis shoes were soaked and his Jordache jeans were spattered with mud.

A handful of his top managers were falling backward out of trees, and others were wearing blindfolds, as they stumbled through the wet bottomland of Penasquitos Canyon Reserve in Northern San Diego County.

But things really didn't get sticky until mid-afternoon, when a blindfolded Liebl found himself stranded on a wobbly wooden beam that stretched across an imaginary "acid-filled" river. While a group of managers shouted encouragement and advice, a pair of managers carefully balanced themselves on either side of the executive and guided him to safety.

"They always told me Cipher Data was an exciting place to work," deadpanned one of the 99 Cipher Data managers and executives who spent last Wednesday working through the problems, pratfalls and adventures of a one-day, abbreviated management and group participation skills program conducted by the Colorado Outward Bound School's San Diego-based subsidiary.

Cipher Data took to the unspoiled hills and valleys of Penasquitos Canyon Reserve with the hope that its managers would learn group communication skills that would help the company cope during an ongoing computer industry downturn.

The expedition by Cipher Data, which designs and manufactures magnetic tape peripherals and controllers used in data storage systems, is evidence of the unusual steps that companies are taking to build a team spirit that will help them endure in volatile times.

The Outward Bound program, for example, has attracted increasing interest from corporations. In 1986, corporate clients are likely to generate more than $500,000 in revenue for the nonprofit Colorado school, one of five Outward Bound programs in the United States. As recently as 1979, Outward Bound's courses for corporations brought in only about $20,000.

"To be blunt, this is an experiment," Liebl said, while his Outward Bound team, which had dubbed itself the "Pink Panthers," sat in a sun-drenched field munching bagels stuffed with Cheddar cheese and celery sticks coated with peanut butter--all washed down with a container of orange drink.

Liebl predicted that the Outward Bound expedition would leave his sunburned and mud-covered managers better equipped to manage the "constantly changing environment in the computer industry."

Like the rest of that industry, Cipher Data has had its share of troubles. Although Cipher Data finished fiscal 1985 in the black, profits fell by 83% to $655,000 in the first quarter ended Sept. 30 and revenue fell 15% to $36.2 million. The results reflected a "very sudden and intense" drop in demand that started during the second half of the fiscal year, which ended June 30. Cipher has responded by trimming staff, reducing inventories and announcing a joint venture with IBM.

President Resigned

The company also saw the departure last April of President and Chief Operating Officer Charles Mathews, who resigned after 15 months because of what one Cipher Data officer called a "mismatch of management styles." Liebl joined Cipher Data last October after serving as group operating officer in McDonnell Douglas' Information Systems Group.

To emphasize the changing environment in the computer industry, only a handful of top executives had been informed that one day of Cipher Data's four-day sales, marketing and management meeting would be spent in the Penasquitos Canyon Reserve.

One manager, who suggested that surprises were the only constant during the four-day meeting, laughed as he described how one of the earlier meetings was interrupted when the Pacifica High School Marching Band burst in playing the theme from "Rocky."

Wednesday's canyon break was equally unexpected, even though managers knew they would be part of an Outward Bound program.

"I had a picturesque view of sitting somewhere watching whales go by," said one executive. "All they told us was to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes."

Outward Bound's nine instructors led the managers through a course that forced participants to rely upon each other's strengths--both physical and mental--and to acknowledge their own weaknesses.

More-Complex Problems

Early exercises--falling backward into the outstretched arms of their fellow patrol members or trying to untie a human knot of eight executives holding hands--warmed the managers to more-complex problems slated for later in the day.

The managers paid special attention to nature's details during an exercise in which team members were blindfolded and led over logs and through the Penasquitos Creek.

"To think that I'm paying you guys to take a walk through the woods," Liebl laughed as the Pink Panthers--wet, muddy and whistling the theme from "Bridge Over the River Kwai"--broke from lunch and followed their Outward Bound instructor to one of the tougher problems--the innocently titled "retrieval exercise."

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