When I was 12, my parents had decided that they had enough of beach holidays and wanted to do something active. So that year, for our summer holidays, my parents packed us into the car, and after just 30 mins we had arrived at our B&B at the lake of Constanze for our summer holiday. The plan was for the family to learn how to sail. The moment I stepped into a dinghy for the first time, I fell in love with sailing and it’s a passion and a hobby I’ve been pursuing (off and on) since then. For the last 15 years, thanks to a former boss who introduced me to the world of regatta sailing, I’ve been racing competitively.
Sailing has taught me a lot and I’ve been able to bring what I’ve learnt in sailing back to my work and vice versa. There are a lot of parallels, so let me talk a bit about talent development in the context of sailing.
Being part of a sailing crew is like being part of an organisation. The season starts with an annual planning process – sounds a bit boring but it’s important to know who’s in the crew for the year, what people’s availabilities are and to align on the goals for the season – what events are to be sailed. We then start looking at what roles will be filled by who on board, what are people’s experiences, what are the skills gaps we have and how do we want to work together and organise ourselves both on and off the water. The season’s plan usually also includes a training plan to ensure that after 6 months off the water, we’re all getting back into the groove and most of all, the team can work together effectively.
For me, sailing is the ultimate team sport and continuous development is key. When you sail competitively, races are won or lost on tiny margins of sometimes seconds. The crew has to work together effectively and in a highly coordinate manner .
During the race, everyone has a designated role on board (e.g. helming, navigating, trim, foredeck, pit, ,etc) which makes them responsible for specific tasks during manoeuvres or when on course (and yes, being ballast is very important even if it's very uncomfortable).
Every action I take will have an impact on someone else’s job. If I don’t release the foresail at the right moment during a tack, the boat loses too much speed, and my fellow foresail trimmer has a much harder job grinding in the sheets which will increase the time it takes to get back to full speed. If the mainsail trimmer doesn’t ease the sail during a strong gust, the helmsperson has a hard time keeping course. For the crew to work as a real team, communication is important, that means knowing what the plan is, what happens after the next mark and constantly feeding information about the weather and rest of the field back to the helmsperson and tactician so they are able to make the right decisions.
As I said, practice is key, so everyone is familiar with all the different manoeuvres that can happen and of course experience teaches us a lot, too. Often on boats we tend to specialise on a specific role, that helps us become better and quicker. However, like in organisations, it can lead to a silo effect where we might lose sight of how my actions impact others. Having the right balance of generalists and specialists is important. I strongly believe in spending time understanding other people’s jobs. On a boat, during training sessions or low key events, we may rotate positions which helps us better understand others’ perspectives - what happens at the other end of the rope that I’m pulling on. These exercises create empathy and improves teamwork as it also helps us with troubleshooting and gives us flexibility in case someone is sick, injured or has left the crew. It takes time but these investments in developing a more rounded and cohesive skill set as a crew are critical to building the overall capability and improve performance.
The other thing sailors do really well is storytelling. Every sailor I’ve ever met has an arsenal of stories about their previous sailing experiences. While these stories are always fun and entertaining, they also play a critical role in helping to pass on learning and experience to others. Every race is different because sailing takes place in a complex environment. The crew might be different on different days, the wind, sea state, weather and how the other competitors behave is always changing. In order to know what to do in any given situation requires a LOT of experience, like real life. By telling stories, we can help others learn quicker and equip them to be able to deal with new situations as they arise. Never underestimate the power of storytelling and create space in your team for stories to be shared.
Finally, sailing also requires great leadership. It’s not just about people coming together and getting on with it, creating a culture on board where people are able to be themselves, have fun while being competitive, can learn new skills, are able to admit mistakes without being blamed, are able to give and receive constructive feedback and support each other is what makes a crew effective. It also creates an environment where people want to be. This is especially important because in the end, everyone is doing this as a hobby and in their spare time, as opposed to a paycheck. As in business, the skipper / leader plays an important role here. Leadership on board a yacht is first and foremost about ensuring the health and safety of the crew and building trust within the team. But it’s also mastering split second decision making and balancing that with the longer-term strategy that's been set for the race. Leadership on a racing yacht is about being able to keep the crew motivated and engaged, especially when you’re just floating because the wind has died completely or when you do find yourself at the back of the fleet. It’s about inspiring the crew to work together to solve issues quickly or to adjust tactics when the weather changes. It’s not about having all the answers but it’s about empowering everyone on the team to do their best – sound familiar? As in business, I've sailed with great skippers and not so great ones (the shouty micro-managers can be quite common), but the great skippers who were able to build an effective crew were also the ones able to retain their crew over many seasons and see year-on-year improvements in results.