The Founder’s Story: A Lifelong Adventure in Action Learning
By Bill Taylor
The founder of Action Learning Associates, Dr. Richard O. (Rocky) Kimball, is an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of experiential learning and leadership development. A mountaineer and endurance athlete, he also brought to ALA an adventurous outdoor spirit and an action-centered approach to learning. The values and discoveries that have inspired his professional life remain at the heart of ALA’s work today.
“Leadership is what moves the human spirit forward,” he says. “And, leaders simply dull their lives if they don’t view their leadership agenda against a larger sense of purpose and destiny.”
Rocky is co-founder of Fred Leadership Forum, an independent non-profit organization devoted to inspiring the development of principled, transformative leaders who make the world a better place. And the International Association for Experiential Education recognized him with its highest honor, the Kurt Hahn Award, for his lifelong contributions to the field of action learning.
But Rocky Kimball’s story begins a world away from all that in the high country of New Mexico.
The Santa Fe Mountain Center (1978-1988)
Newly graduated, with a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Rocky won a grant from the U. S. Department of Justice to set up a mental health center in New Mexico – an experiential “treatment center without walls”, designed to give troubled, juvenile offenders a chance to turn their lives around. The Santa Fe Mountain Center, with Rocky Kimball as its founding director, was born. It is still doing great work today.
“I was fascinated by the concept of ‘agency’, the existential idea that people are the ‘architects’ of their own lives and that they can choose their attitude and response to life even in the face of really difficult circumstances,” he says. Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, guided his personal philosophy.
Being a secondary school teacher and later a graduate student allowed him to spend the summer months as an Outward Bound instructor in the mountains of Colorado. There, he was schooled in small group development work, and he saw how group support and positive reframing enabled individuals to dream more and do more than they ever imagined possible. He also emphatically learned that emphasizing ‘potential’ is much more powerful than emphasizing ‘defects and ‘pathology’.
Kimball continues, “At the Santa Fe Mountain Center we offered offenders a fresh start, a dramatic break from dysfunctional influences. It could be alien and scary for them, but at the same time, it was deeply healing and spiritual. Over the course of a 23-day expedition, wilderness therapy reveals the power individuals have to craft a new story, a new narrative, a new beginning.“
The pioneering work at the Santa Fe Mountain Center attracted media attention, notably from The New York Times, 60 Minutes (Australia), People Magazine, and NBC’s Today Show. “We garnered significant media attention and multiple national awards”, Kimball says. “This reputation led to speaking and consulting engagements that opened new possibilities for me to make a larger, positive difference in the world.”
“Virtually everything that we had pioneered at the Santa Fe Mountain Center”, he continues, “personal power, personal development, individual and group feedback, learning from direct experience and challenge–was applicable and transferable to the world of peak performance and leadership development.”
Center for Creative Leadership (1988-1991)
“The scariest thing I ever did was leaving the Santa Fe Mountain Center,” says Rocky. In 1988, he joined the faculty of the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs. There, he helped to evolve the team development module and worked as a feedback specialist and executive coach.
“Ironically, at CCL I learned that executives are a more challenging target audience than offenders! With offenders, you have people in crisis, and they are quite clear that they need help. With executives, there’s a kind of paradox: things are working; they are successful. The challenge with executives is getting successful people to want to become even more effective—a better boss, a better team member, a better parent, a better spouse. Also, how do you make an executive realize that his or her ultimate job is to develop others–to make other people successful?”
“On the most fundamental level, all humans share three universal motivations: they want to get along, they want to get ahead, and thirdly, they seek meaning and purpose. Of the three, the most difficult, the most neglected, and the most elusive is finding meaning and personal purpose. I always start with the questions, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ These are the two most difficult questions in life.”
Action Learning Associates (1991-2008)
It was time for Kimball to take his learnings from the Santa Fe Mountain Center and the Center for Creative Leadership out into the world. “In 1991,” he says, “my wife Mary Lou moved from her work in architecture to become my business partner. And, Action Learning Associates was born.”
“We were immediately successful and began adding employees,” he adds. “One of my best early hires was Scott Miller, and one of my employment principles was to only hire people onto the team whom one day I would be happy and willing to work for. Scott fit the bill, and today, he owns the company! From time to time, I dust off the tool kit and proudly work for him and ALA.
Crucially, and in his opinion, luckily, Rocky was one of a small band of pioneering thinkers drawn to each other in an era when leadership development was in its infancy. His tutelage included many pioneers in the field of executive education. He worked side-by-side with his teachers and mentors–in particular, Jim Bolt.
“It seemed so easy,” Kimball says, “because the whole field was exploding. ALA was a truly creative environment attracting top talent, great partners, and engaging clients. We hired to ‘fit’, and in turn, developed our talent through a mentoring and apprenticeship model. When you are around people who are switched on, you can feel it. Academics might call it a ‘leadership culture’. As Professor Sumantra Ghoshal famously said, ‘It’s the smell of the place.'”
“In the early days, we focused on individual and team development. If you want teamwork, then give the team work. We designed learning labs that put people up against something they had never done or seen before. The answer or the solution emerged from the collective intelligence of the group. People were no longer confined to narrow, functional roles. The team figures it out. Individual differences are leveraged. Confidence builds. And of course, we moved to ‘action learning’ by launching heterogeneous teams to solve critical business issues while simultaneously developing themselves—leveraging strengths and mitigating weaknesses,” Kimball explains.
“We imagined, created, adopted, and curated the best ‘team learning labs’ in the field of executive development,” he continues. “We know from the field of psychological assessment that it is when you are most unguarded that you are most likely to discover the ‘real you’, rather than the ‘socialized you’. How do we perform when the stakes are high and the outcome is not clear? We characterized this principle as ‘catching yourself in the act of being yourself’. We would ‘do’, then we would hold up various mirrors to reflect and apply.”
“The labs contain the psychological components of today’s VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The participants try something they’ve never done before and practice getting results in real time in situations that are high in ambiguity and stress.”
From these early years, the client list read like a roll call of some of the most powerful corporations in the world: Hewlett Packard (the first big ALA contract), Texas Instruments, the San Miguel Corporation, Weyerhaeuser, Coca-Cola, and GE in the era of Jack Welch and the famous Work-Out process.
“We pioneered many experiential innovations that have now been mimicked and adopted by many companies,” Kimball concludes. “Scott and the current team have continued to innovate as they have developed Leaders’ Court, the Innovation Stock Market, among many other effective exercises. And, they always keep the learning both fun and purposeful.”
Heart of the Poet, Mind of the Strategist
“My mother was an English teacher with a love of poetry and literature; my dad was a military officer and strategist. So I had the right DNA,” Kimball says. “To be a good leader, I believe you need to have the heart of a poet and the mind of a strategist. Any collection of people, in order to achieve their ambitions, has to have an effective, adaptive strategy, but more importantly, they have to have a ‘soul’.”
“I am humbled by the real gift this work has given me. You can’t hold a mirror up to others and not hold one up to yourself. It has made me more reflective and reminded me to ‘reserve the right to get smarter’.”
Rocky and Mary Lou sold Action Learning Associates in 2008. They are proud of Scott Miller and the present team, who have built on the past and continued to make ALA a leading international consulting company today and into the future!