The pass, the Hail Mary, the team captain. Sports analogies are all too common in the business world. But, for me, business and football analogies never really light my fire. Sailboat racing is one of my passions, but I never saw just how closely the team work aspect ties to business. One race, one terrifying night
and without my permission, I learned one of life’s most important lessons about teamwork.
We were 150 miles from shore in a storm with winds in excess of 100 miles per hour . The rolling waves were 12 feet above our heads. All we could see was undulating raging water-but only when lighting lit up the sky. It was deep at night on Lake Michigan. Our sailboat had been disabled in the storm. The only thing keeping all of us on board was teamwork. One of crew was pinned face down to the boat’s bottom under a large piece of metal. The rest of us were scrambling to keep the rest of us safe and on board. This was not a drill, and this was not a passing storm. I knew there was a very real chance one of us could drown if we made even the smallest mistake. If we didn’t work together, we would not survive. Lightning cracked down as the boat lurched forward, bringing us all inches away from the other side. At this moment, communication was everything.
When the storm settled and we arrived to shore, we breathed a sigh of relief and luckily, everyone was okay. To this day, it is still frightening to recall the events of that night. However, I am glad that it happened. This event changed my life and made me realize 3 important things about teamwork.
1. Acknowledge and trust your fellow teammate’s strengths
Our team boasted a variety of skill sets. Our skills ranged from physical, to analytical to mechanical. Each of us knew our craft well and trusted in our teammate’s abilities. Each person did what they did best with great situational awareness and confidence in one another.
2. Commitment to the team and the task are essential
In situations like this storm, it was very literally a sink or swim moment. If your team is committed to safely achieving the end goal, you are going to achieve success. The underlying commitment of each of the crew members was what got us to safety.
3. Choose your teammates carefully
We knew the storm was coming, we took all the necessary precautions and had a well maintained boat. Of course that matters. It was the team’s ability to work as one that made the difference. There were no egos clouding judgement, everyone was focused on the end goal. Without the right team members, I likely would not be here today.
During the sailing off season, I meet with other landlocked sailors for dinner. A few years ago, I walked into the dinner, with consternation unknowingly written all over my face. I had been having a particularly challenging stretch at work, and I wasn’t sure how to face it. I decided to seek the advice of my fellow sailors, who happened to be very seasoned business professionals.
One man, a former CEO, a rather salty old school command and control guy, laughed so hard at my predicament he almost fell off the sofa. He was very clear that while passion to win is a great thing, when money is at stake it’s every man for himself. Another man, a high level OD person from a large consulting firm, said “sounds like it’s time to have a very difficult conversation with your boss.” Their advice was very different, but eye opening.
This dry land experience led me to believe, if you’re on the right team, with the right skills, and a shared vision, then the basic tenants of playing on any team really do hold up. In the end, passion to win the right way holds true in business and in sports. Whether it be out in the middle of the ocean with roaring seas, or managing a business, the right team and the ability to communicate well can make or break your success.