How Lessons Learned Racing Sailboats Apply to Managing a Highly Functional Business

Growing up on an island in the North Atlantic, I spent a large amount of time in and around boats. Learning to sail, competing in local and national sailing events and teaching the sport to others taught me useful lessons in strategic thinking, self-reliance, teamwork and resilience. These same lessons have been instrumental in navigating my professional journey.

Some of the most important rules that guide me daily at the helm of a fast-growing start-up:

#1 Sail your own race

It’s always important to acknowledge and be aware of the location of your competitors and their current strategies, but much more important to pay attention to your own strategies and execution.

Clear vision, effective prioritization and decisive execution of your company’s needle-moving strategies will help you stay ahead. Blindly following your competitors will leave you at best in second place, and will prevent you from discovering and taking advantage of your most fruitful opportunities.

#2 Call your tactics smartly, and quickly

True greatness in strategy comes with the ability to survey lots of data at one time and make quick, quality decisions. Winning teams commit to strategies fast, and focus solely on execution until they have decidedly more confidence in a different strategy. As the environment changes and more data comes to light, winning teams adapt quickly to new surroundings by tweaking their current strategies or adopting new ones.

Constantly waffling in direction, making decisions slowly or not at all, or ignoring changes to the environment will quickly land you behind. Even if your strategic commitments turn out to be slightly less valuable than those of other teams, it’s often best to have committed.

#3 Have a plan, but stay flexible

Maintain a vision for leading your competitors all the way to the finish line, but validate your next move with currently available data. You may have an idea that pursuing certain tactics at some later stage will benefit you, but conditions can change.

Focus most of your energy on current tactics that will lead to the next mark of the course, while keeping the overall strategy in mind. A reasonable plan for a future leg of a race, or for future business objectives, can be to finalize your plan as you approach the end of your current leg, or current objective. The next mark of the course will always be the same, but how you choose to get there may differ from your original plan.

#4 Over-communicate with your team members

The best communication strategy is more communication, even if it borders on thinking out loud. If you think something is tacitly understood, say it anyway. If you assume you or someone else owns a task or project, verify the project’s owner. If you think of an opportunity that may help someone else on your team do their job better, tell them about it.

When teams communicate effectively, visibility increases, opportunities become clearer, and decisions are made more quickly and with more clarity. Doing your individual job well and providing consistent visibility to those around you will allow others to have the clearest picture of how their work can support yours, and vice versa. Sharing as much information as possible will consistently lead you to find the best opportunities to stay ahead of the competition.

#5 Do not fixate

Focus on the big picture and do not fixate on any one thing for too long. If you spend too much time focusing on a single component of your execution, or on a single competitor, you can easily lose sight of your larger strategy.

Each component of your execution is important and all components work to support one another in moving your team forward as quickly as possible. Never lose sight of relating each tactical focus area to the bigger picture to ensure high quality execution.

#6 Every point counts

Every tactical win has similar impact on your team’s overall success whether you are currently in the lead, or far behind. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact of incremental improvements when winning seems so far off, but always important to remember the importance and understand the real impact of your current actions.

Progressing from 15th to 14th place in one race of a series has similar impact to moving from 3rd to 2nd place, just as offering a new feature or product can produce incremental value to your business whether you are the industry leader or whether you are barely hanging on. Always look for opportunity when you are behind and never give up or get discouraged.

#7 Maintain focus

Total immersion in your current strategic objectives is critical to maintaining maximum forward progress. The moment you let up, you will lose ground to competitors.

It’s especially easy to get lazy when you’re either far ahead or far behind, and can be quite costly to your results. Remember you’re out for a race, not a pleasure cruise. Stay completely immersed in the race so that all other noise disappears. Of course, that does not mean you should not enjoy the race!

#8 Respect your teammates and competitors

Respecting those around you, including your competitors is possibly the most important rule of all. Always treat your teammates and competitors as you would expect to be treated.

My favorite quote on this subject is by Danish yachtsman and four-time Olympian Paul Elvstrom, who once said: “you haven’t won the race, if in winning the race you have lost the respect of your competitors.”

Following these simple rules will help to maximize forward progress in business, on the water, and in life in general.