Rubbing Elbows

Wave Rider

Brian Formato believes he's created the perfect leadership training program—and it involves a surfboard


Illustra­tion by
Peter Horjus

illustration of business people in ties and bathing suits, surfing

Brian Formato was working as a leadership coach when a CEO approached him about crafting a training program for his whole team. Formato's first thought was: it will never work. "I said, if I put you all in a room together, it would be like trying to sing karaoke without alcohol," he says. "Everyone would be afraid of being judged by their peers."

Still, the idea got him thinking. What if he could create a leadership program for a group of strangers, where they would feel more willing to let down their guard? And what if he could focus it around a skill that they could learn together so everyone would be on the same level?

He knew just the thing: surfing.

Formato, SPA/MSOD '01, was six years old when he first climbed on a surfboard, and he knew of no better way to focus his mind. "For years I've been telling people, you have to match your passion with your skills," says Formato, 46. "But when I started thinking about what I was passionate about, this was it."

Last April he launched LeaderSurf, an intensive leadership training program that brings 10 executives to Nicaragua for a week of mastering surfing and leadership skills. Participants have raved about the transformative nature of the experience. Convincing the boss to back them, however, hasn't been as easy.

"In my heart of hearts, I know it's an incredibly impactful program, but what are the optics of saying, I am sending someone on some boondoggle to a beach resort in Central America?" he sighs. "How am I going to justify that?"

The ocean inspires ample opportunities for metaphor, and Formato is adept at business-related aphorisms from the sea. "You can't control the ocean. You can only control your reactions to it." "You have to put yourself in a position to be caught by the wave." But the key to the program's success goes beyond the symbolism: the real value comes from getting people out of their physical comfort zone.

The shock begins as soon as the participants arrive in Managua, a location Formato chose for the contrast it provides to the day-to-day lives of most execs. A bus travels two hours down a bumpy road—what locals call the "Nicaraguan massage"—and opens onto a magnificent azure bay ringed by mountains dotted with palm trees.

The next morning, a session on leadership begins with the question: If you were at the office right now, what would you be doing? The fact that everyone is outdoors, in bathing suits and flip flops, helps them appreciate the 90-minute lesson each morning; even so, Formato keeps it brief. "The attention span of adult learners sitting in a classroom is so much less than a kid," he says. "After a few minutes . . . you are thinking, Did I pay the mortgage? Did I do the dry cleaning?"

Next, the group hits the beach, though not necessarily the water. For the first lesson, participants sit in the sand and observe the ocean. Unlike on the East Coast, where waves mostly emanate from surface winds, the waves in Magnific Rock Bay build from deep ocean swells. "They come in sets that you can almost time your watch to," Formato says. "If you try and paddle out at the wrong time, you are going to get crushed." That lends itself to the first leadership lesson: Never launch a product without observing the landscape.

The second one quickly follows, as people strap themselves to the ankle tether on the surfboard—which can be a surfer's savior, but under the wrong circumstances can also be a weapon. You have to be very careful about who or what you tether yourself to.

Finally, the participants push themselves out onto the water, where they learn the third lesson: paddle, paddle, paddle. Despite what you might've seen in The Endless Summer, actually riding a wave is maybe 5 percent of surfing. "Eighty-five percent of the time is paddling; the other 10 percent is waiting for a wave," Formato says. Of course, when that wave comes, there's nothing like it.

Formato grew up in Manhattan, where his father owned a chain of independent movie theaters. His biggest thrill came when the family went out to the Hamptons on Long Island in the summer. There, Formato lived on the waves—first on a Boogie Board, and later, on a surfboard. It wasn't just the excitement that drew him to the sport; it was also the meditative experience of being out in the middle of the ocean and being able to negotiate it with just a piece of fiberglass. "It taught me fear and respect for the ocean, but it also taught me confidence in myself," he says.

He tried to recreate that feeling while attending boarding school in Massachusetts by taking up skiing and snowboarding, but it wasn't the same. While speeding downhill might offer thrills, it also requires more clunky gear and clothing that separates you from the purity of the experience. Eager to get back into surfing, he hoped to go to college in California, but his parents overruled him. Instead, he opted for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he majored in business management, and took a job at Bear Stearns after graduation.

Soon realizing that Wall Street wasn't for him, he left for a position in human resources at Golden Books. When his wife's career took her to DC, he followed, working at AARP running employee training programs. After a business coach recommended that he hone his own leadership skills, Formato enrolled in AU's master of science in organization development (MSOD) program.

In one of his courses, Formato learned about a concept called appreciative inquiry, which focuses on how to build on the strengths of a brand rather than on fixing its weaknesses. The idea resonated with Formato, who adopted it as the basis for his consulting company, Groove Management. His first pro bono client was the Motley Fool, the irreverent stock advising company, which hired Formato after he graduated from AU. From there he worked for Time Warner, which moved him to Charlotte, North Carolina. Other jobs at other companies followed—until 2014, when he decided to strike out on his own, reviving Groove Management and running leadership trainings for executives in companies like MetLife, Hertz, and several Silicon Valley startups.

After conceiving LeaderSurf, he discovered that learning to surf is a popular item on people's bucket list. Unlike learning to speak a foreign language or play the piano, surfing can be learned quickly, making it an ideal skill around which to organize a weeklong program.

Before participants learn to ride a wave, they learn how to fall. There is a right way and a wrong way, Formato says. The right way, unfortunately, looks ridiculous, involving splaying arms and legs like a starfish. "Being surrounded by people you don't know makes looking goofy easier," he says.

Learning to fall was the hardest part for Suhana Gordhan, a creative director with the advertising firm FCB Global, who participated in the program last February. Gordhan grew up in Durban, South Africa, one of the world's surfing meccas; as an Indian woman, however, the sport wasn't a part of her culture. Getting on a board for the first time, she was thrilled to paddle her way to standing. But she was so afraid of falling that she found herself leaping off the board in anticipation of a wipe-out.

The surfing problem mirrored personal issues that she was experiencing at work. Formato asks each participant to come prepared to discuss a business problem in one-on-one coaching sessions and with the group. Gordhan's issue was self-confidence. Even though she had been creative director for eight years, she felt that she had never learned how to lead. "I just did what people did around me," she says. As a result, she developed a healthy case of imposter syndrome, doubting her own judgment and allowing fear to take hold whenever she had to do a presentation.

Gordhan was nervous about sitting down with the other business leaders and admitting her fears, but after a full morning of surfing—and falling—together, she found a supportive environment. "You are never going to get rid of those voices," she says. "All you can do is leave them outside when you walk into the boardroom." Recognizing that she was jumping off the board too early made Gordhan see how she similarly undercut herself by bailing on opportunities at work. "There is a little bit of fear and anxiety every time you go into the ocean, but to truly enjoy it, you've got to park that fear and leave it behind," she says.

In addition to the surfing and coaching sessions, Formato has incorporated a service component for which participants spend a day installing water filters in a nearby village. The project provides another lesson in leadership: participants must show residents how to use and replace the filters. "Leadership should be a selfless act, not a selfish one," Formato says. "This is a way to show that, and, at the same time, make a sustainable difference in people's lives."

Formato has led three sessions: a pilot last August and one in February and in June; another is planned for November. It has been a struggle to convince companies of the value of a program built around surf lessons. So far, he has had the most success with smaller, creative companies like FCB and Silicon Valley startups, rather than larger companies that might be more likely to afford the $6,800 program fee.

Suhana Gordhan attended the program based on the recommendation of Holly Brittingham, FCB's senior vice president of global talent and organization development and a classmate of Formato's at AU. Brittingham was struck by his thoughtfulness and gift for facilitating groups, so she knew the program would be good—but she had to sell it to her supervisors. When she pitched it, however, they were enthusiastic. As an advertising company that prides itself on creativity and outside-the-box thinking, they could see how the experiential aspect of the program would trump more conventional classroom-based programs.

"We are a little quirky, and we take pride in that," Brittingham says. "I am always leery of anything where you are sitting on your butt for eight hours."

Gordhan has already seen the benefits of the program. "I have started [to be] able to hear those second-guessing voices in my head now," she says. "And I have felt more sure of myself and stable in my approach. I know when my emotions are getting the best of me."

Formato, too, has been learning to put those doubts aside as he continues to develop the program and drum up more interest through word of mouth and repeat clients. "There are always going to be naysayers out there. But this has taught me that you have got to continue to believe in yourself."

The reward for him is that four times a year, he gets to be in a place he loves, doing what he loves to do. As he watched the last bus leave after the first full session was over in February, he let himself breathe a sigh of relief. "That was the highest high I can remember any time in my life," he says. After all that paddling, he had caught his wave.