Sailing the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is an experience of a lifetime; one that teaches you plenty about yourself and sailing. Ocean racing has also provided me with great insights about building and leading high-performance teams in a business context.
In 2015, one-third of the fleet did not finish the race. Our boat was on the smaller side. We were tossed around and survived a treacherous night of seasickness and injuries, but the next day we arose determined to make it to the finish. This boat was made up entirely of volunteers – many of them with limited sailing experience – yet they not only survived but thrived in the conditions and challenges thrown at them.
Today, I often think about this team, and what made it so great; was it good luck, or was it that each person was supposed to be there? Ask any senior leader what the hardest part of the job is, and leadership, along with team dynamics, will be right up there in the top five.
That race is a constant reminder to me that people can make or break a team – and a company. The only way to succeed is in a team that can cooperate, collaborate, empower each other, bring different skills and perspectives and work for the same goal.
If you are tasked with assembling or growing a team, particularly a leadership team, ask yourself if you would be happy to sail alongside them for several days in the small confines of a racing yacht, where your success and wellbeing relies on each other.
Here are some tips on what to look for and do when hiring and growing a company:
Hire people who want to be there
The amazing thing about sailing is that people are doing it for the experience and the rush. It is a time consuming, complex sport that puts you at the complete mercy of the weather, the ocean and conditions that can risk your life.
In the Hobart race, once a yacht has sailed down the east coast to Green Cape, the skipper and the crew must advise the race committee that they are safe and happy to proceed across Bass Strait. It is a big decision; either turn back to safety or continue, having already experienced two days of rough seas and injuries.
People must want to be there – for themselves and the team.
When hiring for business growth, a great resume is meaningless if a person’s intentions are misaligned with the business. It is vital they are motivated and invested in the long-term vision of the business and that this vision is a good fit with their personal motivations.
A balance between team or organisational goals and individual values and drivers is key to success. When the chips are down, as they often are in business, team members need to be able to draw down on both individual and team resilience to get through the short-term bumps to achieve the longer-term goals.
Trust your gut on trustworthiness
Trust is the glue that binds a team together. In ocean racing, you are trusting your wellbeing and safety to your team members. If you fall overboard, you want to trust that they can get you back onboard. The same is true at work; teams that trust each other will last longer, perform better, be happier and get through challenges together.
Empower people in their roles
A racing boat has many defined positions – Skipper, Crew Boss, Trimmer, Navigator, Helm, Tactician, Mainsheet, Foredeck, Cook, Mechanic, Medic etc. Some team members, like in business, need to be able to cover multiple roles.
In such high-pressure, fast-moving circumstances, it is simply impossible for one person to oversee them all. You must trust each person to do their job, empower them to lead in their field and to come forward with any problems that need resolving collaboratively. Equally, in business, we must try to balance resources across the day to day and future operations.
It is important to be clear with people about what you need them to own and give them the freedom to do so. Micro-managing only undermines a person’s confidence and distracts leaders from the bigger picture.
Choose team players over rock stars
In sailing, the team dynamic is more important than any one person’s skill. Your success hinges entirely on the team spirit on that boat. If there are overly dominant personalities, including the skipper, the whole boat suffers.
Business is no different, and the message is simple; do not hire high performing ‘inconsiderates’.
If you employ a team of rock stars, all competing for centre stage, it is a recipe for toxic team dynamics.
Diverse teams make great teams
Not long ago, sailing was a male-dominated sport. This is changing, and it is a great thing.
A business cannot innovate or challenge ideas if everyone thinks and acts alike. Gender balance is essential and diverse teams will always come out on top.