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Stalking some career strategies in 'Survivor'

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iconA "company" of survivors? Just how many lessons in liaisons, networking, committee formation, working groups, leadership, marketing-of-message and sheer business savvy can you pick up as the new "Survivor" group gets whittled down?  

In this story:

No fax, either

'Efforting' success

Eyeing the market

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(CNN) -- Who might have thought spearfishing and "immunity challenges" could mirror the business world? But when H. David Hennessey watched the summer's hit CBS show "Survivor," he saw all this and more.

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Granted, contestant Mike's pig-hunting disclaimers on the new edition of "Survivor" don't sound too far from the pledges of hard work you heard in that big staff meeting last week: "I am very determined to kill that pig." And even the latest layoffs at your shop might bear some similarity to the difficulty that Ogakor Tribe members had in voting out the former police officer Maralyn "Mad Dog" Hershey.

But scholarly consideration of the business implications of "Survivor?" You've come to the right place.

"While it has entertainment value as a show," Hennessey says, "there's an awful lot you can learn about business by watching 'Survivor.'" Carte blanche, students -- at 8 p.m. EST Thursday, feel free to put down those books and gather around the tube to learn at the feet of CBS programmers all about business outside the big city.

Hennessey is an associate business professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. That's about 14 miles and, well, how many careers laid end-to-end from the Australian outback?

The way Hennessey sees it from the rugged terrain of his 3,400-student suburban campus, the TV "survivors" are put into an isolation that parallels the business challenges awaiting a lot of careerists. Adaptation is the key. No support groups, friends, family or psychiatrists -- no secretarial backup, no tech services division, not even the company cafeteria to choke in.

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No fax, either

As Hennessey watched the island "Survivor" of the fall season, he says he followed the alliances being formed within the two competing tribes.

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The contestants of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" shortly after arriving in the outback  

"People tend to group with one other person," he says. "Once [this] is complete, they then start to bring others into the team." Your working group soon defines its precise needs -- maybe even comes to decipher what management wants it to produce -- and selects new associates to contribute to its goals.

In business, the maximum number for an efficient team is five to six people, Hennessey says, numbers reflected in the first "Survivor."

And for a team to be effective? Hey, just as in this season's Challenge Beach on "Survivor," your group needs a clear goal, open communication, and a way to resolve differences quickly.

Hennessey says he follows how teams on "Survivor" function like teams business settings -- maybe with fewer clothes on, of course. "In order to have good communication," he says, "people have to trust each other. We see on 'Survivor' that if you don't have good trust, then you're not going to share all the information."

Uh-oh. Remember that memo you think was sent to everybody but you? It's a jungle in here, isn't it? -- some people you trust, others you regard as potential food, should those kangaroos be too fast for you.

"In 'Survivor I,' early on, an alliance was formed, and these alliances are important in business as well. Its members were a group of people who annihilated everyone else, and at the end, they all became competitors."
— H. David Hennessey, Babson College

And to succeed on "Survivor," a contestant needs the right skill set.

"If you had all really fit men and women, very athletic," Hennessey says, "they'd do well in the challenges that required physical endurance."

But physique isn't everything (don't tell your trainer), and there are many challenges that deal with intelligence and creativity.

"One of the skills that contributed significantly to Richard Hatch winning" in August "was that he was able to spear fish," says Hennessey.

Knowledge of building is also important to surviving, too, and not only to careerists in architecture firms. "In many challenges on the show, you build something," says Hennessey, "to cross a river, where you sleep," he says. Or maybe you build an interdepartmental procedure to be sure quality control is being monitored by each part of the operation.

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'Efforting' success

Although you might not find "water torture" and "lock step" to be as useful in your work as, say, three or more years' experience in C++, JavaScript and HTML/DHTML -- or even some fast typing ability -- the skill set you bring to your team is important. Have you caught that pig for dinner yet?

If you're on a team working for a genetics company, although everyone is intelligent, the team needs a mix of talents -- someone with math skills, another who has creative skills, and a person with good marketing skills. Hennessey stresses the mix of expertise: You need to get it right to be successful, yourself and as a team member.

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H. David Hennessey  

Hennessey says, though, that one skill, stands out above all.

"That's tenacity. An unbelievably strong will to achieve the objective is important both in business and in 'Survivor.'"

Last summer, on the Malaysian island of Pulau Tiga, perseverance was the indispensable key to several of the "immunity challenges." The challenge in which contestants had to keep a hand on a wooden post -- keep a hand there the longest, win immunity. Although the task wasn't physically or intellectually challenging, the "Survivor" contestants needed to mental discipline to keep their hands in position.

Another challenge best handled by the tenacious required the contestants to hold their breaths under water.

In the current "Survivor: The Australian Outback," tenacity has quickly become a valued commodity.

"Last Thursday," Hennessey says of the third episode, aired February 8, "the obstacle course really required people to push themselves."

One contestant, 53-year-old Rodger, a schoolteacher from Kentucky who selected his Bible as his take-along "luxury item," pressed on under obviously heavy strain, getting Kucha Tribe through the "immunity challenge." And when it was time for the losing tribe, Ogakur, to go to tribal counsel that evening, Maralyn was voted off because she didn't do well in the obstacle course.

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In the first "Survivor," groups were important and alliances proved critical, particularly as their impact became clear near the end of the show's run.

"In 'Survivor I,'" Hennessey says, "early on, an alliance was formed, and these alliances are important in business as well. Its members were a group of people who annihilated everyone else, and at the end, they all became competitors."

Well, sometimes associates go off to form their own companies, don't they?

Last week while watching the new "Survivor," Hennessey says he noticed that Nick, a 23-year-old student and U.S. Army officer aligned with Kucha Tribe, hasn't formed any alliances yet. This, Hennessey says, could be trouble for him down the road. Where's a quick memo when you need one?

And finally, what's more a part of the American business model than alliances with the competition? Greetings from AOL Time Warner. Have a look at DaimlerChrysler. Consider American Airlines' alliance with Swissair and Sabina.

Consultant and author Ronna Lichtenberg may have put it best in a quiz she includes in her book, "It's Not Business, It's Personal" (Hyperion, 2001).

"Kiss the competition's butt," Lichtenberg writes, "because they may also be a client."

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Richard, Kelly, Rudy and Sue of the Tagi tribe in the first "Survivor": They formed an alliance  

In business as well as on" Survivor," there are long-term and short-term goals. On "Survivor," the short-term goal is winning the challenge each week and not getting voted out of your tribe. Long-term, the aim looks very green: winning the $1 million prize.

"In order to win in the long term, you have to win in the short term," says Hennessey. "But just because you win in the short term doesn't mean you'll win in the long term. You need two different strategies."

As an example of this in the business world, Hennessey says, is Coca-Cola winning with sales in the short term. But in the long term, says Hennessey, the company lost sight of some of the major changes in the marketplace -- particularly the bubbling popularity of bottled water. Pepsi, Hennessey says, saw this trend earlier and started bottling its own brand of water.

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Eyeing the market

Can Hennessey predict a winner on "Survivor: The Australian Outback?"

"I think there are a number of interesting people who could win. Someone like Colby, the Texan, has a shot, but some other people as well."

That's funny. Hennessey hadn't mentioned diplomacy yet, had he?

And all those weeks ago, you see, Richard Hatch's spearfishing, bare romps and bald machinations were actually corporate strategy -- for swimming with the big kahuna.



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[watercooler]



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Review: Taking business personally
January 29, 2001
'Rich' emerges victorious in final 'Survivor' vote
August 24, 2000

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