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Teams, Leadership, Learning…and Sailing

It sounds audacious to title a blog post anything as broad as “Teams, Leadership, and Learning.”  After all, there are thousands (millions?) of pages written on each of these by some of the most brilliant and insightful people we will meet.  So, the title is a bit broad, but I don’t have a better one…and I do have something a tad more focused to say. 😊

The last few months have been full of changes for me personally and professionally, with the net effect being that I moved my life and coaching/consulting practice to Denver, Colorado so I could be closer to the mountains and skiing, one of my primary passions.  And, through a combination of planning, networking, and serendipity, I am now on faculty at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver with an ever-growing role in Daniels’s incredibly unique Executive MBA Program.  And, THAT placed me on a 29 foot sloop in San Diego Harbor with four EMBA students and a professional skipper on a beautiful Saturday in mid-October (I am in the back in the blue Vail hat)…

One of our students, Stephen Adele, has written beautifully about this in a LinkedIn post Click Here To Read.  Please check it out.  Here, I’d like to build on Stephen’s thoughts and add some of my own…

The Daniels EMBA is a beautiful coming together of the two main threads of my journey as a leadership development practitioner over the past 20 years: rigorous, theory-based classroom academics and personal, hands on, experiential learning experiences.  We have this combination in the program several times and we start with this sailing adventure. 

What happens? What is that all about? In a nutshell, we take all of our MBAs to San Diego, teach them how to sail, and then, on day three, have them race each other in teams.  Every time I tell this to a friend or colleague the first question is “uh, is that a time trial, you know, one boat at a time, or are they all on the same course at once?”  The answer is (b), they are all on the same course at once just like in an America’s Cup race.  It’s exhilarating and a little terrifying all at the same time. But, what that is worth it in life isn’t, right?

So, here are basics…on a Thursday 30 students, 6 staff and faculty, and 7 world class skippers descended on San Diego. (Let me be clear about the words “world class skippers,” by the way.  This is not hyperbole.  This group includes and is descended from the first all women America’s Cup crew in the mid-eighties. They are indeed world class sailors, teachers, and human beings.) On Thursday, day one, we put the thirty students (only 3 of whom had sailed before) into teams of 4 or 5 and began teaching them how to sail. Over the course of three days, they honed their sailing skills and their team dynamics. On Saturday, day three, they raced.  They raced as a team, 6 times through the same course, rotating roles, without assistance (during the race) of the skipper or the facilitator (me). The combinations of team, facilitator, and skipper changed every day (though the teams stayed intact). 

The first two days seemed very productive.  And, so, I had great enthusiasm on Saturday when I climbed aboard Stephen’s boat…only to have that enthusiasm evaporate over the first hour.  This team (the skipper and I agreed) wasn’t that far along, at either sailing or teamwork.  I was more than a little worried about the race later that day.  And, as it turned out, I was in for quite the lesson about team development.  It is this (600 plus words into this post) that I want to share here.

Over the next 6 hours, this team grew and developed by leaps and bounds, both as individuals and as a team.  They learned what had eluded them about the basic physics and mechanics of sailing   They learned what worked and didn’t work when they were in the seeming leadership role, i.e. at the helm.  And, most importantly, they learned how they would function effectively as a team during what is clearly a period of high stress performance expectations (which is why we do this trip).  The team learning was unique and customized to them.  How will THIS team function best to race the race? And, at the end of the day, from 4:00 to 5:00 pm, they ran 6 races, placing in the middle of 7 boats overall and winning 2 of the six races.  And, let me tell you, those two wins were beautiful, not just because they won, but because of the feeling of flow and teamliness (I got that one from Gregor Bailar (insert LinkedIn link) years ago and just love it). You could literally feel it.  Everything worked because everyone was engaged and working together.  Simply put, it was sweet. 

The whole experience left  me with a series of insights, many of which I shared with the team along the way. Here are my big ones, in the moment:

  1. We often have no idea of what is possible in terms of growth for individuals or teams until we see what conditions make it so.  From my vantage point, the conditions present here were:
    • a willingness of each member to show up as a beginner and own their own learning journey, and, as a result, to be vulnerable and in the hands of others
    • on the other side, a willingness to accept others where they are, supporting their journey emotionally and tactically
    • an openness to confront things that don’t work simply with an eye to how to do them one increment better the next time, without casting blame or making lasting assessments of individuals’ competence or commitment
    • An openness to take input (aka feedback) from peers and (seeming) experts
    • Access to experts or at least those who are solidly competent
  1. On top of pure learning, the team came together and performed well.  Why?
    • Shared performance goals. I will say no more about that because I think it stands on its own merits.
    • A focus on measured continuous improvement.  At the end of each race, the team had about 10 minutes to identify learnings and to plan for the next race (on the same course).  The first time, they came up with a laundry list of things that didn’t go that well in that first race.  I had what I believe was my only major insight of the weekend and said to them “this is a great list, but you are not a capable of implementing all them in the next 5 minutes. Pick only two sailing tactics and one team dynamics tactic and commit to do them, whatever they are, in the next race.” The team selected “tight sails and close to the wind” as their sailing tactics and (I believe) “one person speaking at a time” for their team tactic.  This approach seemed to work well throughout the rest of the regatta.  Measured, focused, committed continuous improvement.

Let me pause here before talking about leadership. At the end of this amazing day, I said something like this to the team: “you did this amazing thing, grew dramatically and performed far better than you did the day before.  You did it because of a number of things you brought individually and collectively.  My question to you is this: how do replicate that in the world of your everyday work? How do you bring these conditions to bear to the teams that you are on or that you lead?  Those who do that are going to win THAT race.”

And, this is what I say to you, my reader.  We know what the conditions and factors are.  How do we make them come alive in the world of work?

  1. Leadership. There were a lot of leadership moments on this adventure.  The one that resonated the most for me was this: There were two members of this team who seemed to be leaders in stereotype in their everyday lives: in the leadership job, in control/command, setting direction, and delivering orders.  On the boat that morning, they gravitated to a similar posture.  And, to my watching, they both learned a lot about the nuances involved.  One learned that they are not always the leader per se. There is a time when you are a team member and need to behave accordingly.  “Leader” behaviors when you aren’t the leader can be detrimental. In this case, it was the too many voices phenomenon. 

The second member learned that they could accomplish more by speaking less and listening more. Their directions in early races were often “correct,” but were also myopic.  When others had ideas, this leader couldn’t hear them.  In later races, this leader spoke less and heard the input of the team. Results were better (and, dare I say, the leader’s stress was lower).

I can’t tell you how invigorating it was to be part of this 4-day program.  And, at a higher level, I am simply delighted to be involved with Daniels’ EMBA.  This blending of rigorous academics with thoughtful, hands on experiential learning is a real winner.  I’m a fan and happy to talk with you more.  Give me a shout!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Emmaculate Kipyesang

    I couldn’t agree more. Leadership is a continuous learning and sharing of experience. Recently during the #MWF2022 Young African Leadership Program I learnt that as a leader I need to embrace my strengths but more so learn how to identify gaps and skills that is lacking by embracing teamwork hiring right and giving others a chance to lead.
    I resonate with this article sailing and team building process.
    It’s insightful of what happens in our day to day life, at work, at home in colleges and universities, with our families and friends just to mention a few. Often we tend to be so engaged in our little bubble until we forget to recognize what is around us and what more can we achieve if we work together.
    I recognize that as leaders we need to have the willingness to be vulnerable and learn from others , embrace diversity and that we are all not the same and gifted differently.

    I was very inspired and motivated thank you Stephen and Professor Cohen for sharing

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