The Volvo Ocean Race teams have just hurtled from the starting point in Alicante to the end of the first leg in Cape Town. For the first time in the yacht race’s 41-year history (it began as the Whitbread Round the World race) the boats are all identical – the new Volvo Ocean 65 is what’s called a one-design. For once, the success of any boat will be down to those sailing her, and most of all to the captain.
Imagine if all success in business rested solely in the hands of CEOs and staff. What could business leaders learn from a captain in a long-distance yacht race? Plenty, in my experience: after seven rollercoaster years in marketing in the UK, my wife Emily and I had a mid-life career change, running charter yachts in the Caribbean for four years before sailing our own yacht to a new life in New Zealand.
On reflection, this is what I have gleaned from working on boats and in boardrooms.
A yacht captain assesses risk many times a day – in going in and out of port, in sending someone up the mast. Similarly, in business, you must consider the risk attached to various actions without being paralysed by it. A ship has to sail and a crew needs to trust the decisions made by the captain.
A captain takes full responsibility for his vessel in the eyes of the law, the insurers and the crew. Even if a task is performed by a crew member, the captain is liable. The same should be true of a business owner. Take responsibility, but trust in those around you to act in good faith even though it’s not their neck on the line. Yacht captains do that all the time, and it makes the bonds formed between a crew and captain that much stronger.
Yacht captains must consider their surroundings all the time, consulting weather conditions and forecasts and making decisions based on other factors. They take expert advice before deciding on a course of action, which everyone must go with and trust is the correct call. As a business owner, do you exert the same influence over your team? Do you take the time to look at your environment and consider it in your decision-making?
A personal anecdote illustrates this point. In French Polynesia, we dragged our anchor one night in a storm. We were in serious danger of wrecking our boat or someone else’s, so my wife and I started our engines and put to sea, giving ourselves space and time to consider our options. Even in a storm it can be safer out at sea where you have the space you need to make effective decisions.
A captain must ensure his vessel is ship-shape at all times, ready for sea, clean and tidy. How does your business look? Are you ready to weather the next storm? Do you think about what you portray to your customers as they experience your company and brand? Think of the yacht crew uniform, the constant polishing of the topsides, the daily maintenance checks and the general pride that the whole crew takes in its vessel. Do your staff feel the same way? Check out the staff lunchroom right after lunch to see how much pride your staff take in their workplace.
When the wind is howling and the waves are looking menacing, good communication can save lives. But the sailors among us will have seen the summer-anchoring antics of a husband-and-wife team. They’re screaming at each other and neither is listening. What might be useful is lost in the shouting.
As a charter boat crew, my wife and I learned to anchor our 70ft Catamaran silently. With guests excited about entering a new anchorage, we could not rely on voice commands, so we worked out signs. The boat hook was pointed at the buoy to provide direction, while the other hand was held up when we were five metres out from the target. Once in the right place, a closed fist signaled ‘stop now’.
As a business owner, think about how you communicate. Are you consistent in what you say to your people? Are you a shouter, or cool and calm?
A yacht captain and crew share immense highs and lows, life-threatening experiences and moments of unequalled beauty. These connections are the key to winning races. Races should not be won purely on the design of a boat but by the skill and teamwork of those who sail her. This is why the new format of the Volvo Ocean race is so great, and is what sets great companies apart.
In business, the connections you form with your team will drive your success. Work hard at these connections. Focus on individuals and the opportunities to reach them in meaningful ways. The time spent will reap dividends in the future, more than any other investment you make.