All too often we find ourselves working in organisations where there's a distinct lack of forward planning, decision making; there's no team approach and management teams are resistant to advice, believing that regardless of how bad things are; they're the only ones who can come up with viable solutions. Often there's a lack of fore-sight, being reactive, rather than proactive. Sound familiar?!
Well maybe your managers should be told to get on that yacht and told to sail. That might sound extreme, even daft, but it shouldn't, sailing teaches you so much about how businesses should be run and how they can become successful forward thinking and able to understand 'the team'. Sailing is one of those sports that really allows you to get to grips and understand how performance and teamwork can make a real difference to the overall success of your business. It’s a sport that gives opportunities to understand, really get beneath and think strategically about what's happening at any given point of time, and how decisions made now will affect outcomes later down the line. Being on a yacht, becomes your world, it is your work place, your living accommodation and your entertainment; it is a microcosm; where you have no choice but to focus on processes, dynamics and how working as a team accentuates decisions at microscopic level, and seeing the results at microscopic levels in the performance of the boat through the positive and negative actions of the team.
We all like to think that as a leader, a manager, a business owner, we know how to organise and run our organisations, but as much as we like to think it, it’s not always the case. We think we plan strategically, deliver effectively; have good decision-making skills, along with a productive and happy workforce that understands the concept of ‘the team’. Sounds like utopia.
In 2016 I took part in the in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Each of the the yachts in the race, measuring 70ft with a crew of up to 24 people; living and working in close proximity to one another; of course it's going to throw up it's challenges, you’re in a microcosm: living and working in an environment which is ever changing, space and privacy are a luxury, but it’s those conditions that allow you to understand the nuances of a crew and the boat and ultimately how they co-exist and operate together as a workforce. It’s this that allows you to start re-evaluate, judging yours and others performance, and how team spirit is essential in the success or failure of that crew or workforce.
What Can We Learn from Sailing
This article is about how understanding and immersing yourself on a yacht will give managers a clear understanding of how your business can achieve success and turn the tide on problems that they could be facing. Let's take our imaginary yacht is taking part in a race. It's clear from the outset that in sailing the whole objective is to going to get from A to B, this is only going to happen through the manipulation, coordination and operation of the boat, which of course means cooperation, everybody knowing what their role is, which of course means that there's a need for teamwork, but unlike other sports, with sailing; if you don't get this right you're going no where. How do you achieve all of this? Well the first thing that you need to think about is setting very clear aims and objectives; for a race crew this was done together, obviously for a business it's a case that those aims and objectives have to be communicated effectively. Like all businesses every boat on the Clipper 15/16 Race has different aims and objectives, and not necessarily to win the race, these objectives are fluid through out the Race; re-evaluated constantly with the changing circumstances at that time. The first lesson for an organisation is to make sure that they adapt to the conditions that the business finds itself in at that particular time. Planning and understanding the variables at any given point in time and adapting is the key to success and so performing an evolution (the technical term for getting things to happen on a boat) have to be done with precision, cooperation; communication; teamwork, and understanding what's actually going on; which is why sailing is so good to understand how an organisation can evolve, respond, adapt to its ever changing environment and hopefully put you ahead of the competition.
Let's start to think about it in a bit more detail. Even before stepping on to the yacht you are going to be planning your voyage by completing a passage plan. What will you take into consideration? This may seem strange, but thinking about how you're going to get there for starters; what weather you're likely to encounter; the currents and tides. And always in the mind the contingency for when things go wrong, which invariably will happen; constantly dealing with variables which are out of anybody's control during the passage. And this is exactly the same for any business. Achieving your goal on a yacht is only going to happen through manipulation, coordination and operation of the boat, which at the centre of this is the crew. Employing strategic thinking, using all the data you have and making considered and strong decisions from a neutral perspective is what is going to get you to the podium; and at the centre of that, are the crew.
Without being cliche, your crew are what's going to help you win that Race, you could be the best skipper in the world, but if you don't have your crew on your side, you're not going to win the race. So you have to think about getting the individuals on your boat to perform and operate as a team. How are you going to do that? This may seem simplistic, but teams don't just happen. Some would argue that forming a team takes time, but in the case of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, time is a luxury that the crews don't have. They're allocated 3 months before Race Start; you're mixing nationalities, age groups, gender, experience, skills; so creating the team is something that needs: transparency; working together; supporting one another; understanding the objectives; being valued, regardless of experience and being able to admit when mistakes are made and moving on from that. This is how you're going to start to develop this bond and this is where our success as a team came from.
The first thing that I noticed about our boat when I joined in New York, was the commitment and understanding of the crew, and what we were there for: everything was about winning, not just a leg or two, but the entire circumnavigation and that's what the crew worked towards over each leg, regardless of whether or not you personally were completing the full circumnavigation. The team was more important than individuals. This could only happen if the crew was on-board with this policy and this came from the developed bond of the crew over a short period of time. The aim was set and if we didn't meet the objective on a particular leg, it was going to happen on the next and that was the game plan, we set out what we'd have to do in the next race to achieve this. Central to this was a strong motivating force in the figure of a round the world crew member. He had strong leadership, great communication skills and was a natural orator. Before the start of each race, he gave a rousing speech and cemented the team spirit. It wasn't the skipper who performed this task; his skills lay in a superior instinctive knowledge of sailing. Combining those two forces was possibly the key to developing the successful crew and boat that we had.
No one leader is ever going to be perfect, but if the crew don't like you, they're not going to want to work for you. The job of the leader is to pull the crew together Some leaders are autocratic, others the polar opposite, but that behaviour of the leader is going to determine the overall success and performance of the boat. Having the ability to lead, manage and control is undoubtedly a difficult one and this was clearly seen on the Race, because although you may be a skipper, you're not necessarily a leader and this is where some of the skippers really struggled and fell down, some even leaving the Race, because they believed that yes, they were the professional on-board, but didn't form relationships and didn't really want to delegate responsibility, but ultimately that is what you've got to do. Yes they were great sailors and knew their boats inside and out, but ultimately, you've got human beings in control and running the boat and where there are human beings, there's potential for conflict.
Leading by Example
Getting on a yacht and taking part in an endurance race is a scary business and it should never be under-estimated what a challenge is it and that's why I think it's really important that your skipper leads by example and becomes part of the team. The crew should be in the position to be able to communicate with the skipper and vice versa. Some might argue that becoming part of the team means, that there's going to be no respect for that person, I would disagree, that person, if they know their job and are capable of communicating and developing positive relationships with the team will have the respect of the team.
What I liked about our Skipper and it wasn't necessarily for the right is reasons, is that he played a full role on the boat, living on coffee and cigarettes and very little sleep. Surprisingly, he wasn't particularly popular with a lot of the crew because of some of the decisions he made. What he wanted was, for the crew to trust his abilities as a sailor to get them to the end of the race, so long as the crew gave him that full commitment.
If you want to succeed you need to be a team player, working in isolation isn't going to work and this was seen from some of the other boats which had problems with relationships between the skippers and their crew. It baffles me as to why so many employers, managers see leadership as an intimidation exercise, where workers need to know their place and not step out of it. How can a business ever succeed, grow and work at its optimum, if the workforce don't have the ability to contribute and add value? Should people who lead like this be leaders, because the business surely can't succeed; you lose staff, possibly staff that you can't afford to lose; you de-motivate remaining staff and create an atmosphere where it's dog eat dog. No business can achieve in these conditions and as I have seen the business will spiral downwards until it can't stop, unless somebody comes in with the right qualities and attitude to make the necessary changes, and put in place the right strategies and as I have already mentioned, it doesn't take long for people to form a team and work together.
Roles and Responsibilities
One of the most important tasks is allocating roles on the boat, I've come to experience in the work place nepotistic behaviour, appointing people they think will be able to do the job, people that won't necessarily rock the boat, pardon the pun. If you did that on a boat, you're never going to get the best performance out of it; so putting people in the right positions according to their skills is incredibly important and that's how you win. Displaying 'control' behaviours is going to benefit nobody, putting people in positions which aren't necessarily their best isn't going to achieve the best outcomes.
Communicating with the crew is really important. If there was going to be doing a sail change, it's important to keep them informed; given time to get ready, get into position, and to discuss the plan. The same was with tacking and gybing (turning the boat into or against the wind). People got into position, people talked or made a signal and it happened. If communication is poor, reactions to slow, you immediately felt and saw the result on the boats performance, often losing vital seconds, even minutes or hours if thing badly went wrong. Business managers need to make sure that they are communicating, one to let people know what's going on, but it also allows people to develop that sense of ownership and ultimately feel part of the team and then performance and efficiency will happen.
And when it all starts going wrong that's when you're going to need the team the most. We had one occasion at around midnight, the weather was appalling and we were in the middle of the North Atlantic, we'd not long been off watch, had got into our bunks and the scream, "Everybody on deck", was shouted. One of the sheets (thick ropes) had snapped, which meant that the yankee sail was flailing in the water. This had the potential to cause all sorts of problems, not at least a flogging sheet is incredibly dangerous, their designed to withstand considerable loads, get struck by one of those and you're dead. The boat was basically out of control and this is why communication and teamwork are so important, pulling together to get the situation under control and that's the kind of response that you need in an organisation, people coming together when the chips are down and everybody has to put in that little extra effort. People knew what they were doing, they acted and performed as a team and eventually the the problem was sorted.
One of the keys to success is planning ahead and looking forward to what's likely to happen and this is what a successful sailor does; looking ahead at the weather, altering the sail plan and deciding when is the optimum time to do that sail change, which isn't going to compromise the position of the boat, nor damage the sails. Making the right decision at the right time is crucial and in sailing you notice these changes at a micro level in speed and performance of the boat. Sailing is about getting the optimum out of a boat, it's therefore crucial that you have the right sails for the right wind conditions, too windy and you're likely to shred the sail, leaving it out of action and jeopardising its use in future when it's going to really make the difference in performance, speed and ultimately your finishing position, which could be a deciding factor and the result at the end of the race. This happened on our boat a couple of times. The spinnaker sail(s) were left up too long, performance was dropping and a sail change should have happened. On another occasion the spinnaker again was left up too long, in conditions which were way beyond it's capabilities and it ripped in several places, this then meant, crew had to work continuously on it to try and salvage and make repairs that could possibly not sustain wind and that's exactly what happened. Sailing is about being on the edge, but you need to be the right side of it.
Understanding What a Team Is
This may seem quite a stupid statement to make, but it isn't. It wasn't long ago that I heard a leader say, "we are a team". That group of people couldn't be further from a team. Coming together doesn't just happen and until a leader understands all the variable, concepts, dynamics, the environment, pulling a bunch of people together and expecting them to 'be a team' won't happen. Until you've been in a team at a high level, like The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, you're never going to understand fully the concept of what a team is. Sharing the good times and bad, pulling together when things get tough and celebrating when there is success. If you want your workers to be a team, the core ingredient you need is 'value'. Not financial value, but to be valued. Valued as a peer, valued for their contribution, valued for their comments, whether positive or negative. It is the leaders remit to act as 'an adult' and be comfortable with negative comments when they come and to think, how can I make this a negative comment into a positive.
I've talked about how everything on a yacht can be seen immediately, at a microscopic level. This is where it is important for crew to be given defined roles and allowed to do that role without much interference. Having the best fulfilling a role is going to be the most efficient way of operating is going to be really important, because your role and delivery of it is going to have an impact on every other role being performed during an evolution or minor alteration to the sailing pattern.
What sailing allows you to see is there's no room for bureaucracy. If you want to win you need to make sure, only what is necessary is done. Strip back the roles and let the crew perform there job with out unnecessary procedures. Having the ability to constantly adapt is incredibly important, this is especially true with an every changing environment. It's also important to remember, what ever position a person has, they are part of that team and everybody has a role to play.