Call it the Reader's Digest version of real life in the business world. Instead of spending years making mistakes in establishing and growing your company, you can enroll in a management-simulation program to accelerate your learning. In a simulation, a small group of people -- usually owners or top managers of a company -- run a pretend company for a few days while being observed by professional trainers.

The best-known simulation is The Looking Glass, developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, in Greensboro, N.C. There are no classrooms, lectures, or theories during the one-day simulation. Instead, the trainee executives, who may or may not know one another beforehand, are assigned a position and given in-baskets planted with extensive information. The players can interact freely, organize themselves however they like, and make any decisions they choose.

A lengthy reflection and discussion period follows the simulation. The trainers give feedback on the strategic choices the role players made for the company, describing, for example, other courses of action they might have taken. The analysis is complemented by players' input on one another's personal style. That's often the most eye-opening part of a simulation experience. "It doesn't happen very often in the context of day-to-day business that you'll go up to someone and say, 'I'd like you to tell me the things I do that you find helpful and those you wish I'd change,' " says Ron Clark, a management consultant in Norwalk, Conn., who attended his first simulation five years ago. There, Clark discovered he wasn't conveying his vision clearly to the people he worked with. "Most feedback in companies is goal-related. It doesn't look at the behavior that helped you achieve those goals or got in the way of accomplishing them."

New York City-based MSP Institute, which has also developed simulation models, finds certain groups of characteristics are particularly observable -- and therefore trainable -- through simulation:

* General managerial skills: delegating, organizing, and planning.

* Group dynamics: autocratic versus participative; open to information sharing or closed; striving to achieve versus just squeaking by.

* Power: how it is seized, used, magnified.

* Strategic skills: acting as an entrepreneurial force, finding and overcoming threats, and dealing with adversity.

Remember, while simulations are designed to be like the real world, they're not a perfect imitation. What's more, the quality of and knowledge gained during any simulation depends greatly upon who the other participants are. Still, says Clark, "it's one of the few things you can do to get feedback. When you're out there on your own, you never know exactly how you're coming across." -- Ellyn E. Spragins

* * *