The Taming of a Crew

Row, row, row your boat. The sport of crew teaches leaders true teamwork.

Course: Building High-Performance Teams — Crew Team Experiential Exercise

When: Determined by client

Instructor: John Daly, professor of communication and management

Class Size: Groups of up to 28

Where: McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin

Cost: $19,000 to $35,000

Mission: Uses rowing as a way to illustrate strong teamwork and leadership skills

For Ari Rauch, the hour had arrived to take it to the river. He and his colleagues from Texas Instruments were in Austin for a two-and-a-half-day custom program that puts the art of competition into the context of crew — the little-known college sport more prevalent in Bush 41's Connecticut than down in Bush 43 country. Having completed a few practice runs earlier that morning, they were now separated into groups of eight for a short race. Rauch, COO of TI's mobile connectivity solutions unit, sized up the competition. Compared with his all-male crew, the other two boats full of women and older people "weren't anything special," he recalls. "You need power for this kind of exercise, and we were bigger and in pretty good shape. Everyone thought we would take first place."

Everyone except for instructor John Daly. "We do this course for a lot of tech corporations, and they tend to be full of hotshots who are ready to go out and do their own thing," he says. "But they just end up throwing everybody off, and rowing only works when everyone is coordinated." He was right: Rauch's boat, deemed best to win, lost big-time. As in dead last. The videotape of the race showed why. Rauch's crew tired themselves out early, and sporadic efforts to catch up only slowed the boat down further. Meanwhile, the winning crew steadily built momentum and glided into a come-from-behind upset.

At first glance, the conceit — boat equals company, and we're all in it — is enough to make you jump ship. But a closer look reveals there's more to this course than a hackneyed phrase. Teamwork and leadership take on special significance in crew, whose business parallels don't have to be stretched far to be meaningful. The rowers face backward, relying entirely on the coxswain to lead and coordinate. Competence levels must be matched, which means getting the strong to slow down and the weak to speed up. There are also lessons on managing various crises — a lost oar, the team rowing out of sync — without losing momentum. As in any well-executed project, winning crews give off an air of effortlessness. "There's a real serenity to crew," explains Daly. "When it works, it almost doesn't feel like work at all."

Though Rauch's crew didn't achieve that, the experience has become part of company lore in the ensuing two years. Rauch uses the metaphor itself to attack problems faster. Like the promising employee hired onto his software team who hadn't been living up to expectations. The employee explained to Rauch that he had been bogged down trying to learn the necessary skills and suggested that he could do more in another role. Remembering how crew demands that rowers be placed in positions that play to their strengths, Rauch made the switch, and the result was not only a faster-moving team but also a newly motivated employee. "It's interesting to see a real-life analogy of what happens when you're wasting energy," says Rauch. "This way, it plants a seed that can grow into a long-term tree."

Want to go? Call 800-409-3932 or email execed@mccombs.utexas.edu.

Can't go? Set up your own crew. Contact USRowing (the nonprofit national governing body for rowing) at 800-314-4ROW, and it will put you in touch with a local instructor or charter.

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