Davos: In 1988, Andreas Heinecke left a bright future at a German radio station to launch a new business: locking bankers and businessmen in dark rooms.
This week, Heinecke brings his drapes and deadbolts to the 37th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he aims to usher luminaries such as BP Plc Chief Executive Officer John Browne and Coca-Cola Co. CEO E. Neville Isdell into a pitch-black sensory deprivation chamber alongside Google Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, Citigroup Inc. CEO Charles Prince and hedge fund Third Point LLC’s chief executive, Daniel Loeb.
It’s never easy being a global leader in Davos, and Heinecke plans to turn this year’s meeting into a “pleasantly terrifying” episode for the some 2,300 economists, investors, academics and politicians scheduled to attend the five-day alpine conference, which opens tomorrow.
“They’ll all be scared, and some will panic,” says Heinecke, CEO of the Hamburg-based management consulting firm Dialog Im Dunkeln GmbH. “Dialogue in the Dark is an intimidating situation.”
How about goofy?
“It’s that, too,” Heinecke says of his mischievous management training method, which involves CEOs spending an hour inside a dark room rigged with surprises and traps while attempting to accomplish a series of tasks and discussing how they feel about losing their authority and influence.
The WEF’s founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab, is so smitten with the allure of Heinecke’s dark room that he has scheduled four separate sessions, the most ever held in Davos on one topic.
“This is a deadly serious event,” Schwab says.
“Dialogue in the Dark is management training as entertainment,” the 50-year-old Heinecke explains. “All status disappears inside the room. The only thing that counts is personality. The CEO’s brain cells must dance.”
Dancing in the Dark
And sashay they do, says Andrea Reise, human-resource director of the commodity certification firm SGS GmbH in Taunusstein, Germany, and one of the some 2,500 senior executives whom Heinecke has plunged into darkness over the past 19 years.
“It’s certainly not boring,” says Reise, who has spent 12 hours in the labyrinth as part of Geneva-based SGS SA’s plan to send some of its 46,000 employees in 140 countries into Heinecke’s world for leadership training.
“The dark room creates the ultimate unpredictable situation,” Reise says a few moments before leading a team of executives into the maze at Dialogue in the Dark headquarters. “It’s a provocative situation designed to irritate and intimidate CEOs.”
Dialogue in the Dark methods replicate some of the tricks that U.S. Central Intelligence Agency interrogators conjure up when persuading detainees to spill the beans.
“The more completely the place of confinement eliminates sensory stimuli, the more rapidly and deeply will the interrogatee be affected,” states the CIA manual. “Results produced only after weeks or months of imprisonment in an ordinary cell can be duplicated in hours or days in a cell which has no light.”
Heinecke says his subjects have never lodged a complaint, and his roll of dark graduates includes executives from DaimlerChrysler AG, SAP AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Bertelsmann AG, BT Group Plc, American Express Co., Pirelli & C. SpA, HVB Group, Volkswagen AG and the Trump Organization.
“No one has ever given up a corporate secret,” Heinecke says. “Most CEOs are eager to see if they can meet the challenges of the dark room.”
Heinecke says the WEF is the ideal spot to consign some of the world’s most influential people in a 70-square-meter (753- square-foot) room, where they must deal with the consequences of forfeiting power and control.
“If the leaders don’t speak, they won’t exist,” Heinecke explains. “The environment is nothing special for the blind people who are there to help them, but it’s a real shock for executives who rely on their egos and physical presence.”
The WEF game plan involves Israeli philosopher Addyd Emile, three multilingual blind women and a wine bar to help 24 WEF delegates at a time to “rely on their humanity to survive” an encounter with their personal hobgoblins.
“They will have to listen closely, something most powerful men find difficult to do,” Heinecke says. “The blind women are the angels. Once back in the light, the executives are greeted by a philosopher to discuss the emotional implications of the experience.”
There’s just the sound of stumbling executives inside the 600-square-meter dark room at Dialogue in the Dark’s training facility, a refurbished six-story coffee warehouse in Hamburg’s Poggenmuehle Canal area. The full-scale two-hour experience Heinecke offers corporate clients involves accomplishing eight missions (such as finding items and building objects) in concert with four or more other team members.
Navigating the maze without vision combines the tingle of an amusement-park thrill ride with the resoluteness of making instantaneous decisions that affect the other executive team members. Yet the disorientation is palpable and, for the first 20 minutes, causes a throbbing headache.
“The headache will pass, concentrate on the tasks,” SGS’s Reise says blindly over the blare of a police siren. “Not your usual fare of Davos, is it?”
The Dialogue in the Dark exercise is a byproduct of Morgan Stanley Chief Economist Stephen Roach’s autopsy of the 2006 WEF annual meeting.
‘Degree of Complacency’
“What’s occurring right now in markets and policy circles is a dangerous degree of complacency,” Roach said at the conclusion of last year’s meeting. “And from complacency comes the most damage to markets and economies.”
“Dialogue in the Dark is not an isolated, gimmicky seminar,” Schwab says. “Davos is designed to provide global leaders with transformational experiences, and I want sessions that deal with identity,” he adds. “Leaders without personal identities fail to address the underlying concepts that go into decisions. A few hours in the dark room help shape a leader’s identity.”
Gary Butler, CEO of Roseland, New Jersey-based human- resources firm Automatic Data Processing Inc., has seen it all. The 60-year-old management solon, who has spent the past 31 years at ADP exploring organizational psychologies and automating institutional systems, says CEO management-training sessions stretch “from very good to psycho-babble.”
Slowly peeling the skin of a clementine in a Paris boardroom, Butler says the global leaders are probably in for “a magical mystery tour of management” once they enter the dark room.
Listen and Survive
“All leadership, all management,” Butler reflects, “depends on the quality of those around you; it’s important to have people around a CEO who can get in your face. Don’t manage from your office or your title,” he adds. “Jump in and become part of the solution. Listen.”
Paola Hjelt, the WEF organizer in charge of the dark room, says that’s precisely why the forum decided to stage the event. “Dialogue in the Dark Davos is designed to make global leaders listen,” Hjelt says. “If they don’t listen, they won’t survive the room.”