Racing Sailboat on the Ocean

In this recording, ECC Executive Coach, Navid Nazemian, discusses resilient leadership of high-performing teams in challenging environments, drawing insights from a case study of a globe-circumventing sailboat race.

Note: The video recording of the presentation can be accessed below, followed by a paraphrased transcript.

3 Examples of Why Resilient Leadership Matters

Currently, there are over 350 definitions of leadership. One of the biggest management gurus of all time, Tom Peters, recently took an entire year off to dedicate himself to the study of leadership. He came back and McKinsey was very keen to interview him and share the insights he had gained during that year.

What he had to say was a bit of a surprise, because he said, “I am more confused than I was before.”

In my view this is one of the big gurus who has published a number of bestsellers on the topic of leadership. As you can see, it's not a straightforward topic.

Now, I would like to provide three great reasons why it's a good investment to look at resilient leadership.

1. Direct Financial Benefit/Increased Capital

Consider first a large study that surveyed over 430 portfolio managers and institutional investors. These are people who are acting on behalf of state funds, pension funds, and sometimes institutional investors, and they were asked, essentially, “What is the criteria for you to make an investment decision?”

If you aggregate the results of all 430 interviews, you essentially get to 3 different categories of characteristics as to why they would make an investment into one organization rather than another.

If we take the example of the pharma/healthcare industry, why should they invest in companies like Abbot or Rush rather than companies like Pfizer or GSK?

The first category was Performance, which is pretty straightforward. What has been the historical performance of this organization? What is the likelihood of performance in the future?

The second category was Industry/Sector. How favorable is the industry or the sector that this company is operating in? Again, it's pretty straightforward. All of us who are shareholders can look at our portfolios and see if there are certain industries that are outperforming other industries.

The third category used to evaluate an investment decision was the quality of an organization’s leadership. Some people referred to leadership quality as stability at the very top of a company, other respondents were referring to introducing new skillsets into the executive team, whereas others considered the general bench strength at the very top level.

Interestingly, if you look at the respondents’ confidence to assess these three criteria, the lowest confidence level was associated with the leadership quality criteria. Why is this criteria the most difficult to assess? Because different people have different ways to measure leadership. I call this the leadership gap.

The first reason it pays off to invest in resilient leadership is that it literally adds monetary value for your organization and for your shareholders.

2. Competitive Success Depends on Teams Functioning Optimally

It doesn't matter what category or what industry we look at, whether it's sports, Hollywood, or any other discipline that is competitive. If you look at great individual talent, the chances of an individual talent succeeding is only between 15% and 25% of the time.

The flip side of that means that the chance of a team mattering is about 75% to 85% of the time. Therefore, organizational success is largely a function of leadership.

It's not about having that one superstar employee or that one superstar player, you need to have multiple of them. More importantly, you need to make sure that all those super players with the super egos are actually able to work together in a collaborative and cooperative way.

Again, the second reason to invest in leadership development is that individual talent isn't enough.

3. Physical Well-Being is at Stake

This third reason draws on a real-life event that happened just over two years ago. It was flight number 1380 from Southwest, which had a mechanical issue in one of the engines that caused debris to break off the engine and cause damage to the plane.

A representative from the NTSB examines the damaged engine from Southwest flight 1380

I would like to play you the actual conversation that took place between the captain of this plane and the control tower that led to not only this plane and the crew that work together with it with this Captain to land this plane safely, but also, for me and for many others, a very good demonstration of resilient leadership and cohesiveness of a team to make sure that, despite the most unexpected events, you're able to see things through and save lives.

[audio plays]

I get goosebumps each time I listen to this. It's quite a thing if you think about how this pilot managed to fly this thing and land it properly. The name of the obvious hero is Tammie Jo Shults. She was one of the first female fighter pilots to serve in the US Navy, reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander during her service, and served during Operation Desert Storm. What's interesting is that back then female fighter pilots were not allowed to fly combat missions, but she was so skilled that she would train other pilots to fly them. When she retired, as it often happens with former military personnel, she became a civilian pilot. She signed up as an employee with Southwest Airlines, and worked there in a part time capacity because she wanted to attend to a family. What's ironic in many ways is that she was not meant to be on that flight on that day. Her husband is also a pilot with the same airline, and they chose to swap the shift so she could take that shift and then take the rest of the week off.

What's really fascinating about this case is that, although she was obviously a very prominent figure seen as a hero that landed the plane safely, it was essentially the entire crew and the effort of the crew that ensured the disabled aircraft was able to land.

The reason I wanted to share this example with you is because resilient leadership literally can save people's lives.

We all acknowledge that crisis is inevitable. Resilient leadership is really what's needed to not only overcome the crisis that we're in right now, but also to make sure that we come out on top.

With that, let's have a look at our actual case study, the Clipper Round the World Race.

Clipper Race Case Study: Resilient Leadership

What's fantastic about this race is that everyone who's viewing this right now could participate. All of us, if we were up for it, could sign up and be part of this race. I find that very exciting because it makes it something that we can all relate to.

The race was created by sailing legend Sir Robin Knox Johnson, who was the first person to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world. When he established the race in 1995 it was the world's longest ocean race, at 40,000 nautical miles.

The race consists of 16 individual races across eight legs. Now, it's important to distinguish what is considered the core crew of each vessel. The core crew is anyone who signs up for the race for the entire year, which is the duration of the race. On the other hand are the so-called leggers. These are people who only want to sign up for one of those eight legs, or two or three. Essentially, they’re people who may not have the time available to be in a race for an entire year or who might not want to be away from their families for that duration.

Each boat is staffed with one skipper, who is the only professional on board. Everyone else is like you and me, 40% of whom have never sailed in their life. What's fascinating about this race is the fact that everything is being calibrated: the boats are being manufactured by the same company on the same manufacturing line, unlike some of the NASCAR or Formula One races that we see where the teams with the biggest pot of money are able to buy the best car, the best technology, and the best driver. In this race all vehicles are identical.

If I assume Janet and I have about the same level of expertise, when it comes to being on a boat, then we would be divided up among the different teams to make sure that every team has got the exact same capability in the exact same skill set at the outset.

Therefore, it's not the boat that actually makes the race winner. It's the combination of how do you bring about the skill and the cohesiveness of the skill you have on board, as a skipper, to make sure that you get a bit of an advantage compared to the other teams.

Those that have participated in this race have described it to be a pressure cooker situation for up to 11 months. It's a really, really stressful (but also fulfilling) time, and provides a perfect case study for resilient leadership under constant pressure in a team setting. Those that have competed in this race have described it to be a truly life changing experience.

8 Leadership Insights

Now, what I'm going to share with you are the 8 leadership insights that were gleaned by the Ashridge University on the back-end of this race. They have done several interviews with people who participated in the race, and they had occupational psychologists doing these interviews with the crews.

1. Managing Expectations

Imagine, you're the only professional on board, you're the skipper, and you have your amateur crew on board. Every skipper will have to work with the same kind of skill level, some people will be in it because they really want to win, and they have a more competitive mindset about this. Other people are just in it because they always wanted to be on a boat and enjoy themselves.

Now, you can argue, in a lot of organizations, leaders are faced with the same issue in that not every single team member has the same ambition level. What set apart those teams that were winning more often than the rest was the skill of the skipper to be able to align the expectation levels in the team early on, and work with the different expectation levels.

If you have someone who wants to be just in it for a leg to say, “I competed in this race, and it was a wonderful experience, and now I can put this medal somewhere in my library,” that's great. Do not work with them in the most competitive way, because chances are they will not be quite as excited as someone else who's really in it to win it.

2. Prioritize Communication

It's not about what is to be communicated, it's the how that is communicated, and what the relevant communication is for each crew member.

If you got an amateur in front of you, and you're a professional skipper, you can't be working with them in the same capacity as you would if you had a professional crew serving you and wanting to win with you.

It was really, really important to prioritize communication. It sounds simplistic, but sometimes it's physically impossible to do that while you're on the ocean; maybe the ocean and the weather aren’t quite as nice to you as you would hope.

3. Integrate New Team Members Effectively

The skippers that were able to integrate the new team members effectively had a heads-up.

In any organization, nobody gets the luxury of having a stabilized and established team to lead. We always get new team members coming; other team members joining, leaving, being promoted, going to other teams and other functions, and sometimes leaving the organization.

The successful skippers were really paying attention and putting energy into making sure that each time a new “legger” was coming on board he or she was being on-boarded in the most effective way.

I've worked as a as a transition coach with senior leaders on this particular topic, and there's a lot of evidence suggesting that you can shorten the onboarding time by more than 50%, if you have a proper support network in place to help you with that transition.

4. Focus on Broader Team Needs

You have to focus on broader team needs. To me, when I read the book and the study, that was the biggest surprise.

This is what happens in a lot of HR functions all around the world.

What happens is, HR does some skills assessment, or the line does their own self-assessment with the support of HR, and then you mix and match people between the skills and what you need them to be doing.

If I take my own example, and all I can do on a boat is to be cleaning very well and very meticulously, I think I would be quite bored if all I had to do for an entire year during my work shift was to clean the boat. Arguably, that is the best use of my skill.

However, the skippers that were able to home in on individuals’ skills and add one or two specialist skill sets during quieter times, not only did they not lose performance and traction in the kind of hot phase of the race, but also could plan for eventualities.

As you can imagine, accidents and injuries do happen on races like this. If you have one person who was good in doing this, and no one else is able to do that job, and suddenly that person has an injury and has to be off-boarded, then you get a real challenge on your hands because you don't have anyone else who's trained to step up and take over from that individual.

5. Adapt to Evolving External Environments

You have to make sure to adapt to the evolving external environment.

Sounds simple.

The reality is, when the wind isn't there and the sun is shining and you're not really moving much, you must be really crystal clear on what you are going to do with the time that's available to you and your crew.

How do you keep the motivation up?

How can I start to do some prep work for a tough period that may be ahead?

How can you make sure that you use that time to build up some of the skill sets that you usually don't have time to do, because you're so much into the race and you really don't want to lose momentum compared to the other teams?”

Those leaders that were open-minded and able to do that got a head-start.

6. Develop a Support Network

This is a fascinating one. What happened in almost every other team was that the skipper thought of themselves as being the leader and therefore superior to everyone else. From a safety point of view, that's probably the right thing to do. If there's one person who knows what needs to be done, during difficult times as well, it's the skipper.

The trouble with that one man/one woman set-up is the skipper at times needs to rest. If that individual isn't around then, what is the course of action, what needs to be done? How is that all being organized and aligned?

This one particular skipper, Brandon Hall, won this race at the age of 28. It was unheard of that someone at that young age could win this race, where arguably much more experienced skippers with 20-30 years plus more experience than he had under their belt couldn't win it.

Early on, he identified during the first month of the race the two crew members who were the most skilled among the team that he had. He appointed them to be the co-skipper, both of them at the same time, so that across the three different shifts there was always someone who was the most knowledgeable, and that one individual was fully in charge.

It was not like some of the other teams. Some of them had one co-skipper, but for every important decision the co-skipper had to go down and wake up the skipper to ask them what was the course of action that needed to be done. In this particular case, Brandon made sure that the co-skippers were empowered and enabled to do what they thought was right. Bear in mind, you got a year to learn, so you can learn a lot as you go. Also, at times when he was a bit grumpy and a bit un-inspirational, the co-skippers could provide feedback to him because they were so close to him. They had no problem telling him, “Look, you have been a bit sleepless over the last couple of days, and I think, frankly, you need now to go down and get some rest because you're becoming a little impossible right now.”

That allowed the crew to also have a channel to be able to speak up when they needed to without having to fear and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I'm only in it for a leg, but this guy is a bit grumpy or not really listening or not giving me clear instructions, I don't know what to do. I wouldn't dare to speak up because I knew he's the authority person, and he's the only professional member onboard.“

7. Develop Mutual Trust

On day one, I think it's fair to assume that every member of the boat has probably close to 100% trust in the skipper, knowing that the skipper is the only professional.

If you reverse that same principle, it's probably healthy to assume that the skipper has a trust level that is very low towards every single member of the crew. Over time, he or she needs to build up that trust by observing who's capable of doing what.

What's really important is that you develop mutual trust as early as you can. By giving more and more responsibility to your team members, you identify what trust levels you can put into someone for what kind of activity.

8. Balance Your (Sleep) Energy

Lastly, a young skipper, Brandon Hall, started to prepare himself for the race 9 or 10 months ahead of time.

He went and did something brilliant.

He interviewed very well-established, qualified, and skilled skippers ahead of the race. He said, “I'm the new guy, and I would like to learn from your vast experience," and every one of these very experienced sailors looked at this young gentleman (and a little bit down) and thought, “Okay, so here comes a trainee, let me give him some ideas.”

Nobody told him this, but what he figured out on his own, with his 28 young years, was that the skippers felt that they were the only professional on board and that they had to take all the responsibility ultimately for health and safety. Because they perceived that everything lay on their shoulders, they would go in with too much of a time commitment.

Most skippers work 18 to 20 hour days.

If you imagine doing that for an entire year, I think it's fair to assume that your concentration, your energy, your passion, your enthusiasm, and your communication skills will suffer as a result.

What Brandon figured out very early on is that sleep is as important as everything else. He communicated that to his team, and nobody had an issue with that.

Two thirds into the actual race, another team close to them lost their skipper, who was injured badly and had to be transported off the boat. Brandon offered himself up to lead that other team for the remaining 3-4 legs of the race. He was confident to do that because he had developed two co-skippers who could almost do his job.

What was interesting for him is on day one, when he took over this new team, and he went downstairs to get sleep, he heard people on that boat complaining about the fact that he was actually going down to get some sleep, because they had not seen that before with the previous skipper. If they had seen it previously, it was only for a two or three hour nap.

The next morning, he had to communicate to that new team that probably the fact that the previous skipper didn't get much sleep resulted in the injury.

That was one of the reasons he wanted them to understand that sleep is not a privilege, we all need to have our sleep in order to function.

A quick summary of the insights from Ashridge:

3 Winning Team Behaviors

I also promised the three winning behaviors. Let's look at those three quickly.

The 1st being Alignment, the 2nd one Capability, and the 3rd one Autonomy.

These were the eight leadership insights that Ashridge extracted from that piece of research; they found that teams that have these behaviors established more commonly are ahead of the other team.

1. Alignment

Alignment, meaning that, of the 12 members on that boat, every single one of them knows what they are here for, what is to be achieved, and who to talk to, to get what done and what is their role responsibility in that bigger vital mission.

2. Capability

Capability as in knowing who is in charge of doing what but also upping your capability and not just resting on your laurels and only doing what you think you're great at. That's a great asset to have, but developing one (no more than two) specialist skills on top and getting opportunity and time to put that into practice as well.

3. Autonomy

Autonomy again, it's not that the skipper needs to be woken up every time there's a big, important decision to be made, unless that was felt to be the right course of action. But really, the way Brandon Hall won this race with his 28 years was to empower and enable the two co-skippers to act as if they're the skipper each time they were in the shift. So that really made sure that people didn't have to cover their backs, or double check and triple check every single course of action, but really be able to do what they needed to be doing.

That coincides funnily enough with another piece of research that I did, many, many years ago back in 2012 with Dave Ulrich. We looked at the big, publicized HR transformations and what made them successful, and we found similar results.

I don't want to leave you without giving you an actual impression of the race, so there's a two-minute video that I would like to share with you.

[go to 32:09 in the video above to see the 2-minute clip about the race]

I have been privileged as an individual and a coach to work with many, many teams over the last 20 years or so. Ashridge didn't extract this particular trait (Passionate) from their study of the race, but I can say that I have never come across a team that was successful and looked up to that wasn't passionate about everything they did.

Thank you.

Navid Nazemian is an Executive Coach with ECC, and has 25 years of experience in some of the world’s most recognized companies.

After a professional background in commercial roles, he began serving in HR leadership roles to elevate the practice of people, leadership and culture.

His client list spans a wide range of sectors including: sporting goods, conglomerates, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), pharmaceuticals and biotech, telecommunications, manufacturing and consulting.

Navid is currently based in London, United Kingdom.

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