Leadership and agility lessons from the sea

I had the pleasure of spending the weekend sailing around the Solent which is something I’ve never done before. I approached this with a certain trepidation due to potential motion sickness, luckily not a problem. I was very interested to see how our group of disparate land lovers would be transformed into a salty sea dogs. Luckily it felt like a master class in leadership from our skipper Tim. Below are the lessons I had re-enforced by the trip.

Our home for the weekend

1. You can’t always choose your team mates.

The first thing I found on my sailing adventure was that although the boat appears bigger on the inside than the outside it’s still really not very big at all. It’s even smaller when 7 strangers are thrown onto a boat with only one of them knowing how to sail it. We instantly had a couple of areas of common ground. We all wanted to go sailing and we were all stuck on 36 foot yacht for the next 50 hours. In order to succeed we’d need a great leader, motivation and a safe environment in which to fail.

Learning: New teams need to be motivated and need a safe environment. A good leader can provide both of these as well as gluing the team together.

2. Your leadership style has to evolve with the team.

It was great to watch the changing leadership styles of our skipper Tim. At the start of our journey Tim gave us instruction and training and was readily on hand to avert any disasters. Often hovering just behind anyone doing anything potentially difficult. Far enough not to get in the way but close enough to step in or provide guidance.

As the weekend progressed Tim would ask us to provide solutions to problems and then we’d either try them (if it was safe) or discuss why it wouldn’t work. After a night of not sleeping, attempting to figure out how to get a yacht off it’s mooring when the wind and the tide are pushing it onto it was an interesting conundrum to tackle.

At the end of the weekend Tim would be telling us the outcome we needed and letting us get to it, which gave us the impression that we were in control. In reality there was an occasion check-up by Tim but the reliance was on the team being empowered enough to know what they could handle and ask for help when they were unsure.

Learning: New teams can benefit from more of a trainer or consultant approach when starting out. The trick is gradually convert from this to a coaching approach. Too much consultation and all decisions will be directed your way, too little early on can lead to a loss in confidence or something going badly wrong.

A quite moment off the boat before everyone woke up.

3. People who think they know what they are doing are more dangerous than those that can admit that they don’t.

One of our number had done some sailing before and unfortunately this trait proved to be our weakest link. There were several occasions where team members would be working out how to resolve a problem or complete a task and this individual would attempt to provide direction or worse just take over that task or action. This deprived the other individuals or the ability to learn and was demotivating and possibly dangerous as level of knowledge ego didn’t match the level of knowledge actual. As the weekend went on this was dealt with in two ways. Tim started assigning people leadership roles over certain tasks. For example “I want you to take control of the helm and get the crew to tack the boat in that direction”. Individuals also started to feel empowered enough to challenge the incorrect direction.

Learning: Make sure everyone is heard not just the people that think they know the answers. Manage people differently depending on their actual and ego knowledge. Empower everyone to think and act for themselves.

The novice crew

4. My learning style is to succeed or fail and learn from my mistakes but I need the opportunity to arrive at either of those outcomes.

This experience gave me some insight into my learning style. I found that I have a very practical approach to learning. Theory remains relatively abstract until I’ve experienced it for myself. I love being given the opportunity to think around a problem and come up with my own solution. Then either implement that solution or talk around why it may or may not be the best option.

Learning: Try and allow members of the team to find their learning style and communicate it.

5. Communication is key and it can be easily broken or interfered with.

If ever you want a demonstration of the degradation of information caused by hand-off then try working at one end of a boat with the wind blowing and someone communicating from the other end. As this information passed up the line it was interpreted and added too. By the time it got to the receiver the instruction no longer resembled the transmitter’s vision. Information was lost, information was added the messages was lost at sea. Luckily the intent was understood so the message could largely be ignored. It is a great demonstration of the waste of hand-off.

Learning: Avoid waste and look where possible to communicate directly about intent. Don’t detail the solution, detail the problem or outcome you need to achieve.

Oil tankers on the horizon

6. Removing risk is sometimes the key to success or at least the key to efficiency.

I’ve slipped more moorings this weekend than I’ve ever done before. Primarily because I had no idea how to slip a mooring or what it meant to slip a mooring before. The art of slipping out of port before the locals catch you, is very much one of removing the risks. Think about what you are about to do, think about what could go wrong, do what you can to stop those things going wrong, implement. Our slipping was very nearly stuck by a bowline (knot) that was left on the line (rope). It was luck that the cleat (metal thing you wrap the rope around) was large enough for the rouge knot to pass through. Otherwise we’d have been dealing with the boat heading one direction and the land refusing to budge.

Learning: Be risk aware and build that awareness into the team. Think about the problems that are likely to manifest and put thing in place to ensure they don’t.

7. There is more than one way to arrive at the same solution and you need to use the method that works for you.

We learnt how to tie bowlines, an interesting knot that we used a fair amount, as they were helpful in keeping things from drifting off. It seems to learn how to tie the thing though you have to listen to someone talking about trees and rabbits. Neither of these things make an appearance when working with a rope. We were given two completely different set of instructions to arrive at the same destination. I found that by ignoring all talk of rabbits or trees and watching someone else tie the knot I was able to learn how to tie the knot. The lesson I found here is that sometimes describing a solution to a problem won’t provide any insight, let people watch you implement the solution.

Learning: Demonstrating how you solve a problem can provide much more than giving a person a solution. One person’s rabbit is another person’s tree, ensure you are communicating in terms your audience understands.

8. Find a place where your team can fail safely and they will learn fast.

The Solent is a busy place, much busier than I had appreciated. We did however manage to find a space away from sandbanks, ferries, tankers, cruise ships and dinghy races where we could practice turning this way and that without causing ourselves or anyone else any danger. Sometimes our turns worked well, sometimes they didn’t work so well and occasionally they didn’t work at all. However we learnt from each and every one.

For anyone in the race on Saturday that we sailed through I can only apologise, although I think we added some excitement.

Learning: Playing in a legacy code base with no unit tests is a little like sailing blind through one of the busiest stretches of water on the planet. Make it safe before you start to experiment or be ready to deal with potential emergencies.

9. Do everything together will build a team, do everything together on a small boat will build a team quicker.

Actual footage from Saturday night

Ok so we were stuck together when on-board but the weekend was organised to help the individuals play together and stay together. When we moored for the evening we would eat together and drink together. We didn’t quite get to the stage where we started comparing scars or singing sea shanties but we did work as a team.

Learning: A good team will look forward to spending time together, if there is anything you can do to encourage that, then do it. Pizza evening, lunch time sandwiches or a trip the bowling can all play a really big part in making a group of individuals feel like a team.

10. You can only steer a boat by committee if the committee have a shared vision and understanding.

On the last day one of our number was left in control of the helm. Our skipper left us to attend to the important work of cooking some food. This sent the team into a bit of a frenzy of excitement. Hazards and markers were pointed out all over the place as were suggestions and directions on what to do about them. The level of communication was impressive however that communication was largely contradictory and certainly directionless. It turns out that if everyone has a different vision and a different plan on how to implement that vision then things go sour. Imagine how much fun it would be to have one person working while 5 other people attempt to manage what they’re doing. Certainly not fun for the person working and not really rewarding for the people managing. Luckily a little self-empowerment and the helms woman was able to decide what action she wanted to take or ask specific people for their opinion on what action to take.

Learning: Make sure everyone understand the team goal, set out your vision clearly. Empower individuals to find their own solution to achieving that goal. Ensure that everyone has one manager, themselves. Ensure people are not being managed by committee.

11. On a boat everything has a funny name

One thing that struck us all fairly early on is that everything has a funny name on a boat. The head is both the top of the sail and the toilet. Ropes seem to sometimes be lines and sometimes springs. The righthand side of the boat is starboard. Lots of names for things that are almost the same but need to be thought of differently because they’re doing a subtly different job. This reminded me of all the organisations that have adopted a framework like Scrum and decided that they’d stick with their old role titles. Not seeing that the new roles are subtly or completely different. If you don’t use a different name for it are you going to think about it in a different way?

Learning: Sometimes things have a different moniker for a reason. Often it’s so you don’t confuse it with your pre-determination of what that thing should be. Name it differently and think about it differently.

If you are interested in experiencing the same mix of learning and fun I can highly recommend talking to Buster Nixon at Yatchforce Yatch Chater & Events