Adventure Inspiring Performance

How Global Brands Are Building Leadership Teams with Adventure-Based Immersive Learning

In an interview with polar adventurer, professional speaker, and The AIP Group’s EVP of Client Experience, Matt McFadyen, we learn why bringing adventure to the ballroom works for building leaders.

Matt McFadyen is a polar adventurer, long-distance ocean sailor, speaker, and consultant. He’s walked to The North Pole three times and rowed the stretch of the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage.

He’s also the EVP of Client Experience and Lead Facilitator at The AIP Group, a leadership development company comprised of world-class adventurers that bring their bold-pursuits to ballrooms and boardrooms by way of adventure-simulations and workshops.

In this interview, we learn about the concept of adventure-based immersive learning and the power of emotionally charged choose-your-own-adventure decision-making inside of skill development experiences.

Time Code Notes:

[00:00] Intro

[01:15] About The AIP Group

[02:15] Why bridge the gap between the adventure world and the corporate world?

[04:50] Matt McFadyen’s background as a professional adventurer

[07:00] Why Matt decided to take his experiences and lessons learned from adventure to business leadership, from personal to professional development

[09:20] What is adventure-based immersive learning? And why leaning into emotions in the workplace can actually lead to greater success.

[12:10] The power and effect of choose-your-own-adventure event facilitation experiences

[15:00] The reason you often-times learn more from failure, or setbacks, than success

[16:20] Skill development exercises, relevant for the moment, as dictated by the audience

[17:30] The concept of neuroscience for leaders and how to layer learning on top of a simulation

[18:30] Matt’s previous career as a stand-up comedian and how he personally uses that experience to bring fun and excitement to learning and development while AIP aims to disrupt the industry in a similar fashion

[21:30] How AIP uses live-scribes to deliver on-site, in the moment graphic facilitation to capture the experience as well as to cater to the estimated 70% of audience members that are visual learners

[23:00] The importance of delivering interactive information by way of varied mediums to keep people engaged, attentive, and immersed in learning how they want to learn

[25:00] Matt defines the key business outcomes of their engagements, those being getting teams aligned, strengthening relationships and connection, and equipping people in the room with leadership skills of the future

[27:00] What’s next for The AIP Group (the Baffin Island simulation, global deliveries, an expedition to the Greenland icecap, and a community giveback program with the Inuit community in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island)

Written Synopsis of the interview with Matt McFadyen by Jonathan Ronzio -

Matt McFadyen is The AIP’s Group’s EVP of Client Experience and Lead Facilitator. Matt, why don’t you explain a little deeper, who you are and what The AIP Group does.

Thanks, mate. I’m Matt McFadyen, as you can tell from the accent, I’m originally from Australia, but have been in the United States now for almost 10 years, currently based out of Atlanta, Georgia.

The AIP Group, our company, was founded in Sydney, Australia in 2002 by a high altitude mountaineer, a first descent skier, and an African safari guide. And these three individuals that have been part of and led teams to some of the most extreme and most challenging environments on the planet really started to look at those elements of leadership in the adventure world, and how it translates into the corporate world.

And although those two worlds seem vastly different on paper, when you really scratch the surface, the similarities there are really crystal clear around finding and aligning behind a common goal, building a high-performing team, planning, preparation, and finally executing in a constantly changing environment. So it’s really about taking our experiences as adventurers and giving people an opportunity to live vicariously through our experiences.

And we developed an immersive learning, simulated experience where we as adventurers, go out and film ourselves climbing mountains or sailing in the world’s oceans or surfing the biggest waves on the planet and then come home and build an immersive learning simulation where the audience, in the safety and comfort of the training room essentially gets to live through our experiences on a video-based, choose-your-own-adventure style simulation.

They make critical decisions in the shoes of the adventurer, but also are constantly linking back to the opportunities and the challenges and the business objectives that our clients deal with on a daily basis.

I want to dig into the power of that, the choose-your-own-adventure thing, but speaking of the adventure, let’s hear a little bit about your backstory as an adventurer.

Sure. So, not only have I been a lead facilitator and a professional speaker for the last 15 or so years, but also me and my background, like the majority of our team at the AIP group, come from the adventure world.

Particularly my background is in the polar regions and long-distance ocean sailing. I became the youngest Australian in history, at the age of 23 to reach the geographical North Pole on foot. And then I’ve been lucky enough to go back and actually reach the pole two other times. So in total three times, dragging a sled across the frozen Arctic Ocean for weeks at a time.

I’m also long-distance ocean sailor and have sailed yachts all over the world. But in particular down to Antarctica on two separate occasions. Once out of Sydney and the other time out of South America. And then most recently, a couple of years ago, myself and a friend of mine who actually works for us at the AIP group, we rowed a 17.5-foot boat for 44-days across the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a very famous stretch of water that links the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

So, traversing and trying to really go to places that very few humans have ever been before. But then ultimately using those experiences, as I said earlier, to fuel our business. Taking the experiences that we’ve learned from the adventure world, and then tying it back into helping our clients achieve what they set out to achieve.

Now, there are adventurers and incredible athletes out there are doing things like that. Of course, it’s a very small, micro percentage of the world’s population, but there are people doing that, and that that’s their whole focus. Just adventure, and traveling. What is it about you or your background that made you want to do more with those experiences and bridge that gap to bring those lessons back to the boardroom or the ballroom?

Well, first of all, to make money, to make a living from it really. In my early twenties when I started in the world of adventure, I think it was all about, could I be the next Bear Grylls and make documentaries and all that kind of stuff. But I think I quickly realized that there’s probably a large percentage of adventurers out there that are doing way bigger and better things that I did.

But I saw another opportunity in my experiences. People think that the adventure world is so different from the corporate sector, but when you really start to look at it, there are some really great lessons there. And I don’t think it’s just about the corporate world either.

I think what we do at The AIP group really bridges the personal and professional. It’s really giving people an opportunity maybe to do some self-reflection on how they can use some of these skills or tips and techniques to first and foremost just be better humans. And have the most impact they can personally, whether that be in whatever capacity that is with their families, their communities, their whatever. And then ultimately, that is going to allow people then to be the happiest and healthiest they can outside of the office, which entail, allows people to be happier and healthier inside the office.

I think those two things are so intertwined. I often say on stage when I’m working with my clients that the concept of work-life balance doesn’t really exist anymore… It’s work-life integration. We’re so connected, and so on all the time. We have the opportunity to check emails from our phones at any time of the day or night. So how do we actually bridge those two and be the best that we possibly can outside the office, that, as I said, ultimately creates the best inside of the office?

How AIP delivers in the room, with the adventure-based immersive learning, as somebody who has kept his finger on the pulse of trends and the hottest experiential tactics for the past four or five years working on content with Cramer, it struck me as something just so powerful and so unique. You can see it, it’s palpable in the room. People are immediately drawn in as if they truly were in the mountains and every really is at stake. What is it that gets people so invested right from the start?

It’s emotions. We’re emotional people. I think the concept of emotion in the workplace, for a long period of time, had been stifled. You don’t want to be emotional at work. I think that’s completely wrong. We’re emotional beings.

What we do at The AIP Group, we create an environment where people get emotionally invested in the story. And I think the story is really the crux of it. We’re hardwired as human beings to receive information through the power of narrative, whether it be through reading books, listening to podcasts, watching movies, that’s how we like to take in information. So we create a narrative through the adventure piece and we use video-based immersive learning to transport people out of their current environment in an honest and compelling way.

Not everybody is going to have an opportunity to climb Mount Everest, but we create that virtual opportunity for people. They can go and surf 50-foot waves and they’re there, and they’re actually living and breathing it, without having to actually strap on a surfboard and risk their lives. So by creating an environment where people can get immersed in a scenario or a situation that is foreign to them, it really taps into that emotional part of our brain.

Thus, when you start to layer in business messages or key learnings or skill development, the retention of that is far greater than just the traditional way of learning and development, which is, you deliver X amount of powerpoint slides in a short period of time and expect people to retain that information in the world that we live in.

These days we’re so overloaded, so how do we do it in that really emotionally compelling way, thus creating, higher levels of retention, better ways to learn, and better ways to then apply that both personally and professionally.

The choose-your-own-adventure narrative concept isn’t new. But it’s getting more popular now with series like Bandersnatch, by Black Mirror on Netflix, where it’s this interactive programming and you can choose what happens to the character. And with virtual reality and 360-degree video, the viewer is able to narrate and conduct their own experience of how they consume information. 

So bringing that to the room, what do you think the effect is of being able to choose your adventure? I’m sure that after every conference or every meeting, you are walking out of there and the teams have experienced it a little bit differently because of that.

Yeah. That’s the beauty of it for me as a facilitator, it’s different every time. I can deliver the same simulation a hundred times, but the discussions and the results are different. What we do at the AIP group is, it’s not a pollyannaish approach where everybody succeeds and summits the mountain. People don’t get there. And that’s the reality of life.

With the decisions that they make and other scenarios that they go through, ultimately, some of the room will be successful, and others are not so successful. There are definite learnings there. It’s not sugarcoated in a way where everybody, at the end of the day, we all stand at the top of the mountain and Rah, Rah, Rah and high five each other. There are actual implications for the decisions that they make.

It relates very much to the world that they live in from a corporate side of things. We’re not always going to hit the goal, the target, whatever it may be. There’s going to be consequences in the decisions we make. So really dissecting that around how we make decisions and what can we learn from let’s say, failure, in some capacity, then how do we apply those learnings to the next journey, the next mountain, the next whatever it may be.

That’s why our clients tend to love what we do and obviously come back for more and more. It’s because there are incredible narratives and stories and it’s delivered by people that were there, in the mountains or surfing the biggest waves, or sailing the world. There’s that authenticity that people want to hear from the people that were there, but also there’s some real tangible application and learnings that come out through all of the simulations that we deliver.

That’s such an important point to talk about. The fact that you won’t always be successful. I look back on some of my own adventures and would argue that you learn more from not succeeding, always.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s life, right? It’s not all unicorns, sunshine, and rainbows. I think it’s probably more so the opposite in this day and age. So how do we actually look at failure as an opportunity?

And I caveat failure. I think that word is kind of loaded. It’s not really failure, it’s setbacks, more than anything. And how do you actually adapt to that, learn from it and then apply those learnings into the next journey.

Because, let’s face it, in what we do, you know, it doesn’t matter what industry we’re in, we’re always committing to the next journey. We’re always looking to the next one and the next one, the next one, and being asked to, to re-up over and over and over again.

I know The AIP Group has a wide breadth of skill development that you do as far as design thinking and building resilience and achieving peak performance. One thing that I’ve seen as you have been delivering is you have all these modules in your back pocket and then based on where the conversations are going, based on how the simulated adventure is developing, you might pull in the resilience piece or pull in the mindfulness piece, as relevant for the moment rather than going with a set plan.

In my opinion, that’s true facilitation. As a facilitator, I’ve got a guide and I’ve got an understanding of where my client wants me to end up in the objectives that we’re trying to hit, but it’s really about letting the audience dictate the route in which we get there.

As you mentioned, part of what we’ve invested heavily in over the last five years is obviously building out our simulated experiences, but also, we’ve really doubled down on the concept of neuroscience, and neuroscience for leaders.

How do we take some of the detailed white papers coming out about our brain around how to be more productive, more effective and efficient in what we do, day in, day out, whether that be around the science of high performance, or focus, attention, and positivity, or resilience as you mentioned, and create stories around it.

We have a number of these sort of skill development modules that will be intertwined throughout the simulation to really maximize the investment that organizations and our clients are making to bring people together to be in a room, and they’re not just going through an experience for the sake of going through it. They’re learning from the simulation. But then we’re layering in some very tangible and applicable skill development modules that people can use in their day to day roles.

When we were up in Whistler back in February, The AIP Group founder, Shane Toohey, had mentioned that back in your earlier days, you had a similar yet different career, that once I heard what it was, made so much sense for how you deliver some of these skill development modules. What was that career?

A comedy career. I was a stand-up comedian before I became a facilitator. I was a professional stand-up comedian for a number of years in my late teens, early twenties. So I, as a front of room guy, I’ve used that experience as a comedian to bring fun and excitement to what we do.

Again, part of what we’re trying to do with The AIP Group is to really disrupt the whole idea of learning and development. I think it’s stale and old and it’s been being delivered in the same way for so long that, it’s almost a dirty word and people don’t want to come to these events and they see it as a waste of time.

So how do we do it in a different way? Obviously one is, using the adventure-based simulations. But for me personally, I want to make people happy and enjoy it and have a laugh. I call it focused fun.

These things have to be fun and also find a focused way to deliver on objectives. It’s a big investment to bring people together from around the world. I like to have fun up there on stage and make people laugh and I think at the end of the day, it makes it memorable. Thus having a high level of retention of the information that we’re delivering people.

I think there are two ways to really get somebody to remember something and it’s tugging at the heartstrings to make them feel and be inspired, or it’s making them laugh. Because those are the two things that when you walk away from something you really want to share. And obviously the third might be to make them angry. They’ll talk about that too. But that’s not what you want.

No, no we don’t want to get to the third round.

Now I know there are a few different ways information is delivered and captured in the room. There is live scribing too. Let’s talk about that.

At every event that we deliver, from a few hours, whether it be a skill development model, through the multi-day events, we always have a live, what we call graphic facilitation or live-scribing.

We have somebody there from our team able to visually capture, on big foam core boards, the experience. We do that for a number of reasons. One, it’s a great way of live note taking for people. So they don’t have to. And we always create output documents that we send to our clients within about 72-hours of the event finishing. It’s a great way to recap the experience they went through because we are overloaded with information these days.

We don’t want people to go back to business as usual. So this is a way for them to recap what they did. It’s a great way for them to tell the story to their teams or other people in the organization that didn’t go through it. And also it’s really catering for the vast majority of people in the audience that their learning style, I think it’s roughly 70% of humans are visual learners.

We learn by looking at things, we learn by watching things. We cater to the other parts of learning styles too, auditory learners. You know, obviously we’re talking and we’re sharing information and then kinesthetic learners that are people, a small majority of us that like to build and touch things. So, we do all of those things to engage 100% of our audiences.

I think it comes down to attention. People in the audience aren’t just sitting there, sinking back into their chairs, and looking at their phones. You don’t allow people to lose attention.

Exactly. And that’s what it is. It’s really, behind the curtain, about how do you keep people engaged for long periods of time? Mixing things up, engaging a hundred percent of the audience, making sure that it’s not just one-way dialogue, that it’s interactive. All of those things go a long way to delivering excellence in what we do day in, day out.

It’s a testament to our team that we work predominantly on referral business. We do little to no outside marketing. It’s about people that go through it and bring us back, or move to another organization or refer us to other people because what we offer is so unique and so different to what people have gone through in the past that it becomes incredibly memorable. Thus, when you layer in the real business topics and priorities, you see the application and you see the results.

I know this varies on a client to client basis based on why they’re bringing you in, but what is the overarching desired result or general outcome from walking away from having delivered the experience?

If I was to boil it down to a few key areas, one is alignment. I think is the big one. A lot of our clients bring us in when they’re announcing their strategy or their strategic direction for the coming year. How do we deliver that in a compelling way that generates that alignment piece, thus that when people exit the room they are running in the same direction, they know what’s asked of them, how their role fits into the overarching sort of strategy.

The second would be, just the whole concept of building the team. Coming together as an organization and building and strengthening relationships and connections. I always say that for 99% of the problems, issues, challenges that most organizations face, the answer is somewhere in the organization. But how you unlock that knowledge and that information is the key.

And then the third would be really double clicking into what are the skills that leaders, and I say leaders because we define at The AIP group, that everyone in an organization, is a leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re an individual contributor through to the CEO, everyone’s a leader. So what are those leadership skills that people need now? And more importantly, what are the leadership skills of the future? How do we actually equip the people in the room with those skills that they’re able to be more effective, more productive, more efficient in what they do to give them a competitive advantage

So what does the future of The AIP Group look like? What’s exciting upcoming for you? And I know that there was a whole big team expedition to Baffin Island that was then rolled into just a beautiful simulation. So there’s a lot of excitement right now, but I’ll let you dig in.

Yeah, we’ve got a great new simulation that is probably the most visually stunning simulation that we’ve ever produced. You know, shot in 4k, with drones. The team walked across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, about a year ago. So that has been produced now and we’re out delivering that getting rave reviews from the few deliveries that we’ve had thus far.

We have some huge global programs that are launching right now with two major technology clients that are going to see us, all of us in the team, delivering, two to three-day leadership programs. I think about 50 or 60 of those around the globe.

And then we as a team every year or every other year plan a big expedition together to continue in the adventure world. It’s not only to build out our simulation content, but it’s also to build the bench strength of leadership in our team. I think next year the team, and I think Jonathan, you’re going to be with us, are gonna walk across Greenland, the ice cap in Greenland.

We have another project that’s happening, sort of a little caveat to what we do from a corporate side of things. A give back program for the local community in Pangnirtung, which is in Baffin where the team started. It was a very impactful expedition, not only from the adventure side of things but, the team got to spend time with the local Inuit community, in Pangnirtung, which like a lot of Inuit communities around the globe is struggling with a number of things. The big thing that they are struggling with was youth suicide.

So we’re partnering with them to give a little back. We’re hoping to open a youth center up there and hopefully bring some clients along to experience how we can do some corporate give back and really have an impact instead of just writing a check. To actually create jobs in the local communities. There’s a lot going on at the moment. It’s an exciting time.

Across the board, awesome. I’ll reiterate, having looked into trends of everything that’s happening within the brand experience space, it really does stand out. And so I’m glad we got to share that with the readers and listeners here today. Thank you again for being here.

No problem. Thanks for having me!

To learn more about Matt McFadyen and The AIP Group, visit theaip​group​.com

Written by

Jonathan Ronzio

Experience Chaser, Writer, Speaker

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