May 21, 2008: 10:56 AM EDT
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Team building in paradise (pg. 2)

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor

He sketched out a regimen based in part on his latest passion, team adventure racing, and his experience in the military. "I learned a lesson a long time ago in the Army. Nobody really wants to die for their god. No one wants to die for their country. Absolutely no one wants to die for money. But people put their lives on the line for the respect of their platoon mates," he says. "Why do people run up the beach at Normandy? Misinformation. And because you will not let down your teammate."

CONFLICT - Tuesday, 7 P.M.

At this point our bodies are aching. Afternoons have been devoted to physical training. One tribe goes mountain biking while others go kayaking, orienteering, or rappelling. Meanwhile, our heads are fuzzy from jet lag, 17-hour days, and the residue of last night's bottomless glasses of local pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.

Before arriving, we all read "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," which recounts the unraveling of a fictitious company that failed for the following reasons: absence of trust; fear of conflict; lack of commitment; avoidance of accountability; and inattention to results. Those dysfunctions make up the Eco Seagate framework. Each day centers on one of those scourges. Yesterday neuroscientist Robert Cooper explained the Darwinian rationale for trust while offering tips for staying in top mental and physical shape. (Sip cold water to speed your metabolism.) Last night Peter Hillary, a mountain climber and son of Sir Edmund Hillary, spoke to the importance of teammates in harrowing circumstances.

Today was conflict day. Conflict sounds negative, but it's integral to a healthy organization. True dialogue comes from trusting colleagues enough to solicit and offer unvarnished opinions. Apparently Seagate has an epidemic of pre-meetings, in which employees prepare for scheduled meetings by rehearsing. This, we're told, is a symptom of a lack of trust. Pre-meetings?

COMMITMENT - Wednesday, 5:30 P.M.

I'm standing in front of a pristine mountain lake wearing nothing but black Spandex bike shorts and a headband. But that's jumping ahead of myself. Today has been heavy with lessons.

Watkins isn't on a team this year. His knees, injured back in high school while playing football, are acting up. He's nevertheless a constant presence, hobbling between tribes in a leg brace, chatting in shorts and a T-shirt, looking like the Deadhead that he is. The rest of the execs are distributed among the tribes and instructed to hang back to observe employees and allow lower ranks to gain confidence. In a closed-door meeting this morning, tribe leaders, the race director, organizers, and trainers sized up the troops thus far. They identified people with language barriers, shrinking violets, early favorites - Team 39 is "the fittest team I have ever seen," says one guide - and those who have blossomed unexpectedly. "I think you have a potential leader in Wanda," says the rafting instructor.

Then there are the problem cases. The EVPs mostly hang back as instructed - so much so that I still can't identify the top-ranking employee in my tribe. But executives at any company rise through the ranks partly because of an aggression that's tough to bury. "We had Charles Pope with us yesterday," says the orienteering guide, referring to Seagate's CFO, whose 2007 team had to be helicoptered out of the mountains after veering seven miles off course. "He's really overbearing. I'm concerned that the rest of the team is not getting a very good experience."

The morning program started with Malcolm, the tireless Aussie emcee, screaming into his microphone. He's relentlessly chipper, but today he has an admonition for the bullies, including Pope. "Those of you who need to shut up, shut up!" he barks, turning to the CFO. "Don't look at anyone, Charles."

Watkins takes the mike and tells a story about running the New York City marathon. At mile 20, he was desperate for motivation to continue. He saw a woman with an artificial leg just ahead. He set a goal to beat her. For six miles he demonized her for having a "bionic leg," but he eventually passed her, finishing in four hours. "I could have been world champ and wouldn't have been any happier than beating that one-legged woman," he says with a laugh. "I was so excited." The moral: Happiness comes not from winning, but from assessing what you're capable of and doing it.

With that, we enter a room where a tae kwon do master implores us to live our lives at a higher level. Most people operate at a seven on an intensity scale of one to ten. Success comes from living at eight or nine. We learn basic kicks, punches, and tricks about how to focus our energy. He advises us on our diets and love lives, exuding positivity all the while. He yells at us, "You're awesome!" We yell back, "You're awesome!" Amped up, we line up to break boards with nothing but our bare hands and our mightiest karate "Ha!" We leave for training yelling at each other, "You're awesome!"

Soon it's twilight, and I've got my headband on. It's time for the Haka contest. Each tribe has had to learn the traditional dance of New Zealand's Maori people. The men are shirtless in tight black shorts. The women don makeshift dresses. Watkins sits at an elevated table with the other judges, a Maori leader and Eileen Collins, the first female commander of the Space Shuttle. Ruru goes first. Two days ago it seemed we'd never learn the lines or memorize the choreography in time. But after five hours or so of rehearsal, we're feeling pretty good, and united. "Ho-pay!" our alpha male starts with a guttural yell. "He!" we respond, pounding our thighs. "He-aru!" he yells back. "Ha!" Arms to the sides.

We go on like this for 19 lines and stick the ending. We falter in places. Clearly not everyone remembers every Maori word. But we lean on one another, and the final product is impressive. Tongues wagging, we slap our asses as we run by the other teams in a traditional Maori taunt. We set the bar so high that the Tuis jump into the lake at the end of their routine. In the end, it's unanimous; Ruru wins. Maori women drape jade pendants around our necks. We retire to the tent for dinner, dancing, and pinot.

ACCOUNTABILITY - Thursday, 12:30 P.M.

To ensure proper rest for tomorrow's race, we trained in the morning today. For Ruru, it was orienteering day, and GB5 fared better than expected. We finished the course first by a wide margin, thanks to our relative fitness and a helpful guide who showed us how to read a map.

Watkins has received some flak over the years for this event. Shareholders aren't usually fond of spending $2 million on something as fuzzy a retreat. That's especially true given Seagate's stock performance. The top and bottom lines continue to grow. Revenue reached $11.36 billion in 2007, up from $9.2 billion the year prior. Net income jumped from $840 million to $913 million. But shares of STX (STX) are almost exactly where they stood five years ago.

The CEO is obviously frustrated that Wall Street doesn't understand Seagate's upside at a time when data storage is essential to both the enterprise (think about SEC requirements to maintain copious records, for starters) and consumers (digital photos, MP3 players, game consoles, etc.). But Watkins refuses to use stock price as a barometer. Nor is he concerned about whether shareholders like Eco Seagate. No, he can't precisely measure the returns, but more employees every year call him Bill. And there are other, more obvious signs that Eco is working. Each year participants are asked to sign a flag, which Watkins mounts in his office. I jotted down a few of the universally fawning comments before we all went home. "This is the greatest experience I have had in my life," reads one. Another: "Dear Bill, You took away the fear." And several on this theme: "Bill, I'm a changed man now."

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