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Podcast: Pushing Limits: Finding Growth Outside Your Comfort Zone

Written by Leslie Hemmerechts on 27 August 2023 for Graduates

At Exellys, we believe in the power of partnerships. Since our foundation in 2014, we’ve counted on training organisation Outward Bound to facilitate certain workshops and growth trajectories. Today, we’ve invited Dirk De Vilder on our podcast. Dirk is programme director and senior facilitator at Outward Bound and has been with us since the beginning. In this episode, we talk about the value of being out in nature, getting out of your comfort zone, and learning about team dynamics and feedback. All while focusing on self-reflection and individual growth.

Note: You can check out the full podcast episode in this 35-minute video or listen to the episode at the bottom of the page. You can find us on Spotify or YouTube as well. Please note that the podcast is recorded in Dutch and there are no subtitles. For the hearing impaired or those who don’t understand Dutch, we’ve included a written summary (in English) below.

Dirk, first things first. What do people need to know about you?

“Years ago, I wasn’t sure which path to choose. Should I go for a career in music, or change the world? I decided I wanted to change the world, so I studied social work. I started my career in a youth organisation, then went on to working with adults for Buurtwerk Leuven. I enjoy working with people and starting new projects. If there’s one thing that I don’t like, it’s routine. I like change and new challenges.”

And how did you end up at Outward Bound?

“Next to social work, the outdoors is my second love. Climbing, caves, being in nature, … I love it. That’s why I wanted to work for Outward Bound. We’re an international training organisation with divisions in 36 countries and 5 continents. Our focus is on guiding individuals, teams and organisations in their growth and development endeavours. We do this in an experiential, process-oriented way, typically through outdoor assignments in nature. The fact that we’re a social profit organisation is also very important for me. At Outward Bound, we try to reach a very broad group of people: disadvantaged youth, people with mental health problems, managers, young graduates, … To include everyone, we invest the profits we generate from the programmes for companies back into programmes for those who can’t afford it. That’s mainly our youth work and adventure therapy programmes.

Why do you think your format works so well?

“We want to connect the mind to the body, make people feel things. That holistic approach really works. We get people out from behind their computers, and give them assignments in nature, in a safe group. That way, they quickly learn new things about themselves. It’s a process of creating awareness about who you are and how you collaborate with people; recognition of these patterns (and critical reflection on which patterns no longer serve you, and how to change them); and exploring how to function as a colleague or a (future) leader. The fact that you learn these things outside, in nature, while having fun, is what makes it so effective and successful.”

Within Exellys, we offer three programmes which last two years each. There’s the Start Smart programme, where we guide graduates through the first steps in their career, towards a young professional level. Then there’s Grow Smart, which is all about exploring self-leadership. And Lead Smart, which is designed for people in a leadership role. We work with different partners for all those programmes, but Outward Bound really plays a crucial role in both the Start Smart and Grow Smart programmes. What is your role in the context of these training programmes?

“For Start Smart, we do a workshop of one night and one day during the Start Smart Weekend. At the very start of their trajectory, we help the graduates create a safe group among themselves. We also teach them about feedback. Exellys is all about coaching, and if you want to learn things and take a coach’s advice to heart, you have to learn to be open and honest about yourself, but also to ask for feedback. That’s what we focus on during the Start Smart weekend. What is feedback? How can you show an interest in people? How can you show appreciation? And how can you deal with confrontation?

In the Grow Smart programme, we play an even bigger part. We supervise the first year of the programme. We start with a three-day trip to our centre in Anhée. Before this trip, we ask the Grow Smarters to reflect and write a manual for themselves. What do I need to work efficiently with other people? How am I set up?

Then, during the trip, we give them several assignments that are about action and reflection. We talk about teams. How does a team function? How do I function in a team? How do I lead a team? How do I give an explanation, how do I communicate my expectations, how do I create a safe environment,…?

Then, we dive deeper into feedback. This can be a very intense and emotional part of the workshops. It’s eye-opening for people to see parts of themselves they didn’t know were there, or to realise where certain patterns come from. And finally, we draw up a personal development plan for everyone, which is monitored further by the Talent Development Manager.”

Can you think of an anecdote or story you want to share about these workshops?

“For one thing, we see a lot of introverted people partaking in these Grow Smart workshops. Sometimes, there are people who barely say anything or barely contribute anything at first. But over the course of a year, you see these people changing. Sometimes even physically. They open up, they blossom, they grow and keep growing. You see them taking steps in their career. You see them surprise themselves. Not long ago, I had a young man who thought he would never want to be a leader, but through our work together he learned that leadership really is his thing after all. Now he’s actively steering his career towards a leadership position. That’s very rewarding to see.”

🎧 Note: Listen to the podcast for more anecdotes, stories and examples.

The common thread through all these narratives, it that you get people away from their computer and office environment and make them go into nature. Why is it so important to step out of your comfort zone to gain these insights?

“When it comes to relating to other people, there are things you just can’t learn from a book. You have to get out of your head and just do it – that’s what we call inner readiness. When you put people in a situation where they can’t rely on theory, where they have to be who they are and experience things, that’s when they really learn things about themselves and how they behave in a group. Activities where you need to work together, where you have no idea what the solution is, where you find yourself blindfolded in the woods, … These are great ways to open up and become aware, recognise your patterns and explore new ways. Of course, you should never enter your panic zone. We always make sure these things happen in a safe learning atmosphere, in a safe group.”

Well, I’m glad you decided not to become a famous musician, but that you’ve devoted your life to teaching me and others these valuable insights. You may not have changed the world, but you’ve definitely had a big impact on the worlds of hundreds of Exellysts.

“Now that I’m a bit older, I no longer want to change the world. I’ve learned that it means a great deal if you can just be meaningful to someone, if you can help them to get to know themselves better, and coach them so they dare to take new steps. That’s great. On that note, I really want to give a shout out to the Talent Development Managers at Exellys. They’re super important in this whole narrative as well. We shoulder part of the responsibility for a year, but they really stick with it for the long haul. They follow up with personal coaching, intervisions, … Without them, the Outward Bound component couldn’t be as successful. Without that guidance and reflection, it doesn’t work.”

For a final question, what advice would you give to graduates and young professionals in this pivotal phase of their careers?

“In your twenties, there is so much happening in your life. You’re taking steps in your career, maybe you’re starting a family, buying a house, … You’re still learning a lot and yet you also have a lot of responsibilities already. I find that people don’t take enough time to press pause and reflect. They’re just on the rollercoaster and keep going. It can really help to look in the mirror sometimes. Ask yourself: who am I? What am I doing? Where do I want to go? What must I do to get there? Just taking a moment to reflect on the way things are, can be very valuable.”

Listen to the entire episode down below

About Exellys

Exellys is a Talent Incubator. We match ambitious companies with the finest talent. Are you ready to drive1 the innovations of tomorrow? Ready to make an impact and become a future-fit digital leader?

Whether you are a graduate or (young) professional, Exellys will unlock your full potential by guiding you to a challenging work environment that perfectly matches your personality, expectations and ambitions.

On top of that, you are enrolled in one of our very own training and coaching programs (based on your personal and professional ambition and experience). This means that, while working as an Exellys consultant, we are helping you to bridge your ambition to excellence.

Through intensive training and coaching, you’ll gain the essential skills, competencies and knowledge necessary to become the highly effective professional you aim to be. Become an Exellyst and get in touch with us today!