GeodeWe stood in a circle. Would-be executives who had been sent to an expensive executive-molding “experience.” Our companies spent tens of thousands of dollars hoping that we would become self-aware. Banks, manufacturers, retailers and pharmaceutical companies sent their potential future leaders. Like most middle managers, we were ambitious, gifted and flawed.

    First we had our 360° evaluations. Then we were video-taped and stress tested in bizarrely competitive scenarios where coaches monitored us behind two-way mirrors. We had every personality test imaginable. We were supposed to overcome our biased self-views and realize we were neither as wonderful nor as terrible as our parents raised us to believe.

    As we stood in our circle, a woman handed each of us a small black velvet bag. It was our expensive souvenir. A gift to open at the same time. Inside the bag was an ordinary rock. About the size of a ping-pong ball. A rough brown and tan rock with flecks of creamy white. Not the kind of rock that catches your eye while strolling along a Lake Superior beach.

    Our leader told us that this rock represented everyone we worked with. Everyone we knew. Our family members. Strangers.

    OK sure. Whatever. I was reaching the end of my patience with the enforced self-evaluations. Tired of hearing a PhD tell me that our need for <control/ security/ achievement/ recognition/ rewards> stemmed from potty training and schoolyard bullying. I looked down at my rock in the palm of my hand.

    Sure, it’s an expensive souvenir. Whatever you say.

    Then one at a time we were called into a room where a man had a hammer. So I took my rock and cracked it with the hammer. By now you must have guessed that it was a geode and inside this ordinary-looking rock were dozens of beautiful crystals. They really look like diamonds. Inside the hollow core of the rock was a mini, dazzling, Disney-worthy treasure room.

    And then suddenly my eyes started stinging. Maybe I was just exhausted. Maybe it was a connection with the one thing that could always get me: Nature. But there were real tears and I got it. Got it all. The hard-rough-ordinary exterior we all put up around the treasure we carry inside us. And I knew it was true.

    The rock really did represent everyone we worked with. Everyone we knew. Our family members. Strangers.

    It sits on my desk every day since then. 18 years. It is the only thing I truly learned in return for my company spending $20,000 to send me to the executive retreat. The most beautiful and expensive souvenir of my executive career.

    Another kind of executive development program is discussed here.