3 Practices That Build Business Resilience, From a Team of Extreme Adventurers

Thursday, April 16, 2020

By Megan O’Brien, finance and business editor
7-minute read

In short:

  • The AIP Group uses lessons from world-class outdoor adventurers to help companies develop their talent. 

  • The team has shifted its offering slightly to help both its clients and its own business adjust to the impact of the coronavirus.

  • We’ve summarized The AIP Group’s insights in three practices that can build resilience in individual employees and your business as a whole: recalibrating, reframing and reconnecting. 



We don’t typically compare business endeavors such as preparations to take your company public to extreme adventures like climbing Mount Everest. But Shane Toohey and Ian Schubach are not typical thinkers. 

The cofounders didn’t have typical business backgrounds when they created a talent-development company together in 2006. Toohey, an Australian-born adventurer, was known for skiing mountains on all seven continents that had never been skied before. Schubach was a Big Five game safari guide out of South Africa. 

After meeting socially in Sydney, they got to thinking about the concept of leadership in the remote environments in which they had adventured. They considered whether those leadership skills could transfer from extreme climates to the corporate realm. As Toohey and Schubach scratched the surface, they identified crystal clear similarities – and looked to appeal to business leaders tired of a cookie-cutter corporate training experience.


Thrown for a loop

Toohey and Schubach’s outfit, The AIP Group (Adventures Inspiring Performance), employs both world record-holding explorers and experienced talent development leaders, creating  immersive programs with mountain, ocean and exploration themes. The goal is to help business leaders and their teams work cohesively amid challenges by drawing parallels from virtual adventures to business. The AIP Group films real-life sailing, mountaineering and hiking adventures across some of the world’s most treacherous terrain and uses that footage to immerse clients in simulations on screen. 

For example, The AIP Group held a session with McKesson, a healthcare company, to help the core leadership team prepare for a business division integration. Participants were immersed in a mountaineering simulation, during which a video put them in the shoes of climbers facing challenges such as unexpected weather conditions. As each challenge became apparent, participants collaborated to decide what to do next – very much like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, a source of inspiration in The AIP Group’s founding). 

The AIP Group uses video simulations of outdoor adventures to build decision-making skills in corporate teams. 

Through these simulations, teams build their decision-making skills and build camaraderie as they learn to rapidly reframe and adapt while navigating uncertainty. The AIP Group’s approach has allowed it to create unique, award-winning learning experiences for clients such as Deloitte, Google and BlackRock. 

Now, though, the company is faced with guiding clients – and  itself – through an unprecedented event: the coronavirus. As firms seek to adapt, the principles taught in AIP’s programs provide some timely advice for building resilience. In our chat with Ryan Southern, vice president of client relations, three helpful practices emerged: recalibrating, reframing and reconnecting. 


Recalibrating with caution

The AIP Group, like the rest of the world, faced an unexpected obstacle in the spread of COVID-19. Rooted in on-site experiences, the business was forced to recalibrate when offices nationwide told employees to work from home

However, it didn’t change its model dramatically, said Southern. Rather, The AIP Group tweaked its service to fit customers’ current needs without changing the service more than necessary. 

The company quickly shifted course to embrace the new normal of social distancing. Its traditional face-to-face learning program is now available virtually in three versions: “building resilience & adapting to change,” “remaining productive & focused virtually” and “achieving peak performance.” Visual scribes, who normally document the in-person sessions, are now available to create illustrations, GIFs and time-lapse videos for the virtual sessions. The AIP Group keynote speakers now conduct “virtual coffee chats” to provide needed bursts of energy and focus to teams during a session. 

The AIP Group is running  its adventure-inspired training sessions online in the wake of COVID-19.

Aside from its training sessions, The AIP Group introduced “Wild Wisdom,” an online series of short videos, journal entries and useful tips to help guide companies through this time. The company site, now emblazoned with mantras “Virtually, anything is possible” and “Working remote but not alone,” maintains its adventure-based messaging.

The mildness of the changes both ensures continuity in The AIP Group’s value proposition and prevents the need for any major changes once the market shifts back toward normal.  

“It's less of a massive pivot in the business, and it's more of a reframing of what's possible in terms of how we bring those messages to life,” said Southern. 

Takeaway: When hit with a temporary change in your market, recalibrate your business – but don’t lose sight of the big picture. How will your adjustments affect business once the market goes “back to normal”? 


Reframing to handle challenges

The concept of “cognitive reframing” is a key component of the learning philosophy The AIP Group imparts to its corporate participants. The practice includes transforming negative thoughts into more positive ones by consciously managing your emotional response to a challenge.

“We've got this unique culture because the majority of us were adventurers. It's in our DNA,” said Southern. “The ability to reframe [is critical] when I've wiped out in a massive wave, or when I'm trying to hike across the North Pole, or when I'm on some kind of crazy skiing or safari expedition. ”

One of the team’s speakers, Mark Matthews, is especially experienced in reframing. 

Matthews, a professional big wave surfer and Red Bull athlete based in Australia, suffered a horrific wipeout on a wave in 2016. The damage was extensive with a broken leg, dislocated knee, two snapped ligaments, severe nerve damage and an artery that tore lengthways. Doctors said he would never surf again and would suffer from permanent foot drop. He would ultimately spend a couple months in the hospital, several more months in a hospital bed at home and endure six surgeries over the course of a year and a half.

“I was in pain all day, every day in the hospital,” he wrote in a company blog post

However, Matthews then had a visit from a young patient in the same hospital who had been a surfer himself but was now a quadriplegic from a snowboarding accident. After that, he realized how much worse his situation could be and worked to mentally reframe it from a setback to a learning experience. 

Instead of succumbing to the implications of his injuries, he focused on what he could control, like his rehabilitation process. He set small, achievable goals like standing up on a surfboard and getting back into the water. In 2018, two years after what was considered a career-ending injury, he surfed a small wave again. In 2019, he surfed Shippies, a globally-renowned big wave surfing location on the coast of Tasmania, Australia.

“Having that mindset helped me heal better than any other rehab I was doing,” Matthews told surf site Magicseaweed

The mental strategies he used to build resilience are the subject of his curriculum with The AIP Group today.  

Surfer and AIP Group speaker Mark Matthews explains his strategies for mental resilience.

Cognitive reframing is extra relevant as businesses leaders deal with COVID-19. When faced with a daunting situation, humans tend to focus on the uncontrollable. The AIP Group advises otherwise. 

“Instead, reframe it and say, ‘Actually, there are things that I can control,’” said Southern. “‘I can control how we're going to talk about things at home. I can control what I'm going to do to maintain some type of normalcy or some type of comfort.’ It’s about reframing security. And if you can reframe things to say, ‘You know, I actually I'm doing pretty well in some cases,’ it just changes the mindset [with which] you approach the bigger, more daunting challenges.”

Takeaway: As a leader, you can more productively handle uncertainty if you reframe your situation by focusing on what you can control vs. what you can’t.


Reconnecting in a virtual world

As companies go remote, many are struggling through the nuances of remaining connected in a virtual world. Lack of face-to-face camaraderie could take a toll on both team morale and productivity over time, Southern said.

He cautions leaders against jumping right into the business implications of COVID-19 in meetings. Though it may be counterintuitive, it’s often more productive to assess your team’s morale first. 

For example, at the start of each of his team’s video calls, he asks team members to share how they’re feeling amidst the coronavirus’s changes to their daily routines. Then, they get to work. 

“At times like this, when information is already high and you log right into facts and figures and numbers and rational thoughts, it tends to send people even into more of a spiral and more of a panic,” Southern said. “So we really focus on making sure that we're allowing [our team the] time and space to express how they're feeling from an emotional standpoint. .” 

Research suggests that creating that sense of psychological safety can build a more resilient team

Takeaway: When your team gathers via video or phone, allot time for emotional expression, which creates human connections over virtual channels. 


The bottom line

Matthews’s keynote speaking program is ever-so-aptly titled “The Edge of Chaos: Where Growth Happens.” 

His and the rest of The AIP Group’s teachings, along with the example of how they help The AIP Group itself, can help your company navigate the uncertainty of COVID-19. Focus on recalibrating, reframing and reconnecting to develop resilience among employees and your businesses as a whole. This trait will deliver value both now and in the future.