In light of Sabre Corporate Development turning the big 3-0, our digital content editor caught up with its founder… and discovered that we all really need to lay off the Amazing Race knock-offs.

Ah, team-building. Due in part to The Office – and its pervasive depiction of an over-zealous boss and eye-rolling employees – quite a lot of us view it as, well… cringe-worthy.

For precisely this reason, I was stopped in my tracks a few months ago by news of a corporate team-building company celebrating 30 years in business.

Could you imagine 30 years of dealing with reluctance? And apathy? And patiently tending shrinking violets until they bloomed into bastions of corporate enthusiasm? This introvert certainly couldn’t. I had to talk to these people.

Of course, as is often the case, upon making contact with Sabre Corporate Development, I was proven wrong on two counts.

One, with a hearty dose of integrity, thirst for innovation and a few sneaky beers when things go awry, corporate team-building can be enjoyable and rewarding. Two, unfavourable team-building depictions aren’t limited to Ricky Gervais and his awkward brand of good-guy management.

“Brooklyn 99, The Big Bang Theory, the list goes on,” says Talan Miller, Sabre’s founder.

“If only these fails didn’t happen to teams for real, but sadly, they do, when the wrong approaches that don’t suit the people or their aims are deployed.”

Such knowing words could only be uttered by someone who’s seen it all – and it’s safe to say that between running his first group exercise as a teenage employee of the Gold Coast War Museum and now – Talan’s come close to it.

Way back in the sepia-toned 1988, mullets were the norm, the Maroons were gearing up to take out the Origin series and Sabre’s first corporate group exercise was held at the Sheraton Mirage Gold Coast. Born from a desire to extend the museum’s service in hiring out military equipment to film producers, Talan and museum owner Vic Coote developed the ‘Strike Force’ event, an exerting mix of commando raids, team games, obstacle courses and, occasionally, pyrotechnic blow ups of competitors’ products.

“It was a unique approach,” says Talan.

“The combination of experiential learning and team-building with theatricality and fun, and the authentic staging and equipment, made it stand out from the ropes courses that were the main alternative back in the day.”

As the 80s became the 90s and the Maroons gave up their hitherto reign, things continued to look up for Talan and his Sabre prototype. Word spread like wildfire, and early clients such as Woolworths began recommending Strike Force to companies including Coke, Nestle and Pepsi.

The media also took notice, with The Derryn Hinch Show, Today Show and The Bulletin each waxing lyrical about this unorthodox-yet-effective team-building approach.

In 1993, Talan bit the bullet and officially established Sabre Corporate Development, a company which now has offices in Australia, USA, Malaysia, Germany, the UK and Hong Kong.

The intervening years have played out as a montage of change and adaption for Sabre, with the company expanding its offering to include creative indoor options and its owners teeing up with competitors to provide Belbin behavioural profiling – a standard to measure workplace impacts – to a wider audience.

However, such is the way with every epic tale, Sabre has had to overcome obstacles that extend beyond its rope ladders and climbing apparatus. Talan identifies 9-11 and the consequent air strikes as a particularly trying time for the business.

“It hurt… The overnight slowing of the MICE market hit that part of the business as it did everyone else, but luckily for us, other aspects of our business that were pitched at the higher end/learning and development sector were slightly less impacted.”

This distinction between the team-building goals of the MICE sector compared with those of internal senior managers is the veritable bee in Talan’s bonnet.

Sabre’s founder describes the perceptible shift from outcomes-oriented programs to ‘cheap and nasty’ alternatives with a focus on recreation and showmanship.

“The spectrum of client aims has broadened over the years with senior level clients seeking ‘classic team-building’ with outcomes in the workplace being the aim, while others seek purely theme-driven activities for MICE,” he said.

“The advent of reality TV combined with the Google factor created a rash of easy to sell TV show knock-offs, for example Survivor, The Amazing Race and MasterChef.

“As with any other field of endeavour, basing something almost entirely upon the creativity and formats of others tends to lower the bar, and so these parodies contribute, perhaps, to greater cynicism of the value of team-building.

“Sophisticated approaches are those tailored to draw out and address certain behaviours and real-world scenarios that will actually improve business performance or team dynamics in a pragmatic way at work.”

So… what’s the standard-bearer in the realm of team-building’s solution to this entropy? Provide a bit of everything, and match it to the client’s brief.

“It depends what the client’s paying for.

“Pure fun? Pure fun with some outcomes? Strong focus on outcomes?

“For the higher end, we use Belbin behavioural profiles and reports to measure workplace impacts.

“If pure fun is the aim, then the measure of that is that they had fun and stayed safe.”

When pressed on the secrets to Sabre’s longevity, Talan ever-so-humbly credits the training and experiences offered to him as a young man in the Australian Army. (We have a sneaking suspicion it has a lot to do with his hard work and agility, too).

With a knowledge of team-building extended beyond a British sitcom, and my suggestion of a Bachelor-themed group exercise stashed firmly in my back pocket,
I concluded my exchange with Talan Miller, team-building pioneer and extraordinaire.

Three decades is a mean feat in an industry so prone to change, and with plans to greatly expand the creative team and the development aspects of the business, we look forward to seeing what Sabre comes up with next.