Bridging divides

Team Building Asia co-founder David Simpson tells MIX how conflict in Northern Ireland and efforts by community leaders to bring youth from both sides of the sectarian divide together led to career in staff engagement

How has your cross-community relation-building experience in Northern Ireland helped in your work with Team Building Asia?

My full-on introduction to teambuilding began with R.E.A.C.H. Across, a pioneering group whose sole aim was to bring together the divided communities of Protestant and Catholic youths to promote contact and integration. They achieved this through a series of activities such as abseiling, rock-climbing, canoeing and other outdoor pursuits.

These hard-core elements of teambuilding built trust quickly and we progressed onto workshops that dug deeper, opening dialogue and ultimately building friendships.

Nowadays, when I’m dealing with particularly sceptical groups or with teams that are really struggling, I often reflect on the challenges we experienced in the cross-community group and use that mindset to push forward and make a difference with more challenging teams.

How did your career evolve from community work in NI to corporate teambuilding in Asia?

In Hong Kong I was lucky to be employed by KELY Support Group working with youths experiencing drug, emotional and/or behavioural problems. I received extensive training in all these areas during my time in Northern Ireland, as once we had integrated the target group there, all sorts of other issues would arise that required peer-support and we had to be properly trained and prepared for them.

I decided to move into the corporate arena because as I grew older I wouldn’t be seen as close enough in age to the target group to be able to provide real peer-support. So I took my facilitation and event management skills and established Team Building Asia with my business partner Stuart Harris.

Can you share any memorable events from your work in Northern Ireland?

The very nature of cross-community work in Northern Ireland was risky but this manifested itself in many positive forms.  For example we once organised a guerrilla style abseil from the top of the Foyle Bridge, 40 metres over a busy four-lane dual carriageway as a team-builder. It was a real buzz, but I doubt we would get away with it these days.

We also went into “hotspot” areas to talk with community leaders and encourage them to send us young people from their areas to build our numbers and it was very rewarding to see those youths go back to their communities and encourage their friends and associates to join and be part of something really exciting. Similar groups were springing up across Northern Ireland, resulting in greater interaction and breaking down barriers across different communities.

The real reward came around 1994 with the first ceasefire, meaning that our work was having a direct effect and was more necessary than ever.

What events in the Asian corporate sphere stand out?

I love doing programmes where the participants are a mix of Western, Chinese and other Asian countries and seeing them completing activities and really getting to know each other.

We have become so disconnected today with emails, conference calls and different forms of social media. When participants get the chance to meet and work with their colleagues and counterparts from other countries through a business simulation, musical, outdoor or innovation activity, it creates better harmony, integration and employee relations back in the office. l

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