Simon Walker, 32
Managing Director, Challenge Business
“I won’t do it. I’ve got a bad back.” When Simon Walker recalls his most difficult challenges as a leader, those words of resistance light up like a theater marquee. In his first command of a large sailing yacht, Walker endured every leader’s nightmare: A member of his own team called him out.
The year was 1994, and Walker was a skipper in the Spitsbergen sailing expedition, a seven-week-long journey from Plymouth, England to Svalbard, an island halfway between Norway and the North Pole. A native of Shrewsbury, England, Walker was 26 years old, just five years removed from the University of Manchester, where he had graduated with a degree in computer engineering. Some of the crew members were twice his age.
At 8 AM one day, Walker and his crew lined up on the boat’s foredeck and prepared to take in the 100-pound anchor. “There was one particular guy who probably drank a few too many beers the night before. Suddenly, he says he’s got a bad back — right in front of the entire crew,” Walker recalls. “Everyone knows his back is fine. So all eyes turn to me to see what I’m going to do. Do I confront him? Do I let him get away with it? I had a split second to decide.”
Walker decided to be “unreasonably reasonable.” He’d play the guy’s game. “The only way to hold on to my authority was to make him look stupid. I told him to trade places with this little woman, Kirsten, who was at the wheel. Now, this big hulking fellow has just lost his place to someone barely 5 feet tall. The next day, I didn’t let him take the anchor or the helm. I had him go below and make tea. ‘The lads will need a cup after their hard work,’ I told him, ‘and we don’t want to put a strain on your bad back.’ Wouldn’t you know, his back magically healed — and he went on to become one of the stars of the expedition.”
Of all the environments for testing one’s ability to build a winning team and to be a leader, one of the toughest is the deck of a racing yacht, a place where Walker has spent much of his adult life. He’s sailed across the Atlantic Ocean seven times. He’s led two expeditions to the Arctic Ocean. He won the first Teacher’s Whiskey Round Britain Challenge race in 1995. But in the world of sailing, the toughest race of all is the BT Global Challenge, a 30,000-mile marathon “the wrong way” around the planet — that is, against prevailing winds and currents. More people have traveled in space than have circumnavigated the globe the wrong way. Walker has done it twice, the first time as a first mate. The second time, at age 28, he was the youngest skipper ever to compete in the event.
Now, instead of leading a crew of 14 people, Walker heads an organization of 120. As the managing director of Plymouth-based Challenge Business, Walker is the point man for a massive undertaking: vetting the crews, selecting the skippers, lining up the sponsors, and shotgunning the logistics for sailing’s toughest races. As you read this, the 12 yachts competing in the BT Global Challenge 2000 are racing furiously down the coast of South America, bound for Buenos Aires by mid-November.
The concept behind the Global Challenge is straightforward and ultrademocratic: to give ordinary people — many of whom have no sailing experience — a chance to take on the challenge of their lives and sail around the globe. The lessons that the race imparts are rich and universal. If you want to learn what it really takes to be a leader, then spend some time navigating the challenges of this race.
The BT Global Challenge serves up a big-time test on several fronts. First, it is physically daunting. Crews must battle violent weather, mind-numbing fatigue, injuries, 100-degree heat in the tropics, and lacerating cold in the Southern Ocean. Andrea Bacon, 32, who crewed on the yacht Group 4 during the 1996-1997 BT Global Challenge, recalls that on the first night out they hit gale-force winds, and 10 members of the crew became violently seasick. “That meant that four people were left to manage the boat,” Bacon says. “They couldn’t go off watch. They had to keep working around the clock. Then we went to another extreme: We hit incredibly high temperatures as we approached the equator. The steel boat just heats up, and down below it’s like an oven. There’s no air, and you lie in your bunk just saturated in sweat. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. But every six hours, you’ve got to go back on deck and take your shift.”
Even as the race physically drains you, it tests your mental agility. Both skipper and crew must cope with equipment failure, make complex tactical decisions on the fly, and stay nimble enough to keep up with weather and ocean conditions that are forever changing. But above all, the race tests a leader’s ability to lead. Recognizing that, such companies as British Airways, Microsoft, and Xerox have joined with the UK consulting group Inspiring Performance Ltd. and Oxfordshire’s Henley Management College to study team and leadership dynamics during this year’s race.
“In the last race, we discovered that each boat’s performance had very little to do with sailing,” says Walker. “It had much more to do with the leadership that we as skippers were exhibiting, and with our ability to develop the full potential of our teams. All of the skippers were extremely good yachtsmen. All of them excelled at managing the boat. But ultimately, the race is all about managing people.”
During a midsummer sail across the San Francisco Bay, Walker looked back at the 1996-1997 BT Global Challenge, when he skippered the Toshiba Wave Warrior. He recounted some of the leadership lessons that he took from a flat-out race around the planet.
To Finish First, First You Must Finish
Nine months before the starter’s pistol fired for the 1996- 1997 challenge, race founder Sir Chay Blyth announced the crew lists for each yacht. For the 14 skippers, the race before the race — to build a fast crew — had begun. Most of the skippers took their crews to the water to log as many training miles as possible. Simon Walker headed for high ground. He led his crew to a large holiday house in Wales, where they spent two days talking about the race. His reasoning: You can’t build a team before you’ve agreed on the goal.
“I’m pretty competitive, but I can only compete through my crew,” says Walker. “So first I had to learn each crew member’s agenda. One guy wanted to win at all costs. Another guy wanted simply to make it around the world. The key was to avoid agreeing to the lowest common denominator. So I said to the guy who just wanted to have an adventure, ‘You aren’t competitive in your sailing, but you’re certainly competitive in your work life. And I think you’ll enjoy the race more if we’re sailing fast and if we’re doing things professionally.’
“But I also had to be realistic — and setting a goal like ‘win the race’ just isn’t credible,” says Walker. “So I said to the all-or-nothing guy, ‘To finish first, first we have to finish. We have to sail smart. If we go for broke, sooner or later we’ll blow up.’ “
After much discussion, the team worked out a statement of strategic intent: to build a campaign that is capable of winning the BT Global Challenge. They chose the words carefully. “To build a campaign” meant that the work started now, nine months before the race; “that is capable of winning” meant that all of their planning and preparation was devoted to one goal: to make the boat go faster.
The crew members would do more than steer quickly or trim the sails like speed demons. Sailing fast meant adding value to every task. They’d clean the head like pros, to lessen the chance that they’d all come down with a stomach virus. They’d use an Excel spreadsheet to plan out four meals a day for what would be 163 days at sea — because the way they ate through 800 kilos of food would affect the trim of the boat. The commitment to be fast even affected the way they slept. To help balance the boat, they’d switch bunks whenever the conditions dictated. Even in the mayhem of the Southern Ocean, where they sailed through six gales and three storms, the Wave Warriors “hot bunked.”
“There’s a watch change at two in the morning,” Walker explains. “So seven people who have been on deck for four hours in immense waves and windchill get to go down below. They’re covered in sleet. They’re bruised. They’re exhausted. And they’ve got four hours before they’re due back on deck. They clamber out of their dry suits. They lay out their moldy sleeping bags on the bunks on the high side of the boat, and they get in. They’ve already used up 30 minutes. After another half hour, the wind shifts, and the guys on deck need to tack the boat. That means the guys down below have to wake up, grab their sleeping bags, walk across the boat, and lay out on the other side. Now they’ve lost even more sleep.”
Watch in, watch out, for 30,000 miles, the Wave Warriors hot bunked. “If I had come up with this idea in the middle of the race, I could have been the most charismatic leader in the world, and I never would have gotten them to agree to it,” Walker continues. “It all goes back nine months, to when we sat in that house in Wales. After that, we didn’t talk about it — we did it. That was our life.”
Knowledge Dispels Fear
There’s an old mariner’s expression: “No law, no God.” Go beyond 40 degrees south latitude, and you’re in the Southern Ocean. Figuratively, you’re beyond the reach of all nations. Go past 50 degrees south, and you’re beyond the limits of civilization itself and into a world that is utterly alien. At its southernmost extreme, the 6,600-mile leg from Rio de Janeiro to New Zealand took the fleet to 60 degrees south. No law, no God — and for the crew members, big fear.
Walker and his crew sailed from Rio de Janeiro down the coast of South America, turned west at Cape Horn, and hit the ferocity of the Southern Ocean. Cape Horn is feared for its bad weather and its big seas. The reasons are geographical. Westerly winds shriek across the earth’s surface, unimpeded by any major landmass. The winds, storms, and currents combine to whip up huge seas, driving rough waves on top of massive swells. If that weren’t enough, the seabed at Cape Horn shelves dramatically from around 10,000 feet up to several hundred feet. Like waves breaking on a beach, the shallower seabed forces waves to pile up on themselves, compressing them and making them even steeper, sharper, and uglier.
Andrea Bacon of the Group 4 recalls trying to steel herself in the safety of the companionway before climbing onto the deck and into the maelstrom. “The yacht was heeling over at 35 degrees, and the effort to get up the steps was beyond belief,” she says. “Terrified and speechless, I huddled low, clipped on my safety harness, and held on to the nearest secure objects as waves crashed over my head. The one thing that I dreaded was having to let go and do something.”
Still, to survive, the crews had to sail. That meant changing sails in 60-knot winds and massive seas — as towering sheets of water surged over the yacht’s bow. Walker used several tactics for tamping fear. The first was a simple one: He gave his crew members a real-world account of what to expect. “Knowledge dispels fear,” he says. “So we talked through every scenario: what we’d encounter when we rounded Cape Horn, what we’d do if we hit an iceberg or had our rig damaged. If you told them that Cape Horn would be easy, and then they got the shit knocked out of them, they’d never trust you again, would they? Still, you stay positive. You tell them that it’s going to be tough, but we’re prepared for it, and that the boat is strong. It’s about saying what you can do, not what you can’t.”
Walker doesn’t flinch from admitting that he, too, was scared. What then? On a racing yacht at sea, a leader can only confide in his team — if he chooses to confide at all.
“If I shared all of my worries and woes with one person, he’d think that I was completely losing it. So my strategy was to choose a number of people, and share one element of my worries with each of them — but just that one element. So, for example, I’d go to Spike, our doctor, and tell him that I’m worried about Jo’s broken arm. Or I’d go to our engineer and tell him that the rig doesn’t look so good.
“No one was getting the whole picture, thank God,” laughs Walker. “But confiding in each of them was the only way for me to handle the loneliness of command, which is very, very real.”
He was right to worry about the rigging. They were deep in the Southern Ocean, halfway between Cape Horn and New Zealand, when the standing rigging failed. Someone would have to climb 60 feet up the mast and replace a steel fitting that joined the rigging to the mast — a job that entailed slackening an entire side of the rigging. It was here that Walker’s third tactic for handling fear kicked in: In a high-risk situation, a leader chooses the best person for the job. In this case, it turned out that the best person was the leader himself.
“We were out there in the Southern Ocean, feeling very insignificant in a big part of the planet,” recalls Walker. “At any minute, another storm would sweep in. We hatched a plan: Spike and I would climb up and jury-rig the fitting. As we started the climb, I told the crew that they must helm the yacht very carefully on the opposite tack, as the rigging was only holding up one side of the mast. If the helmsman made a mistake while we were up on the mast, we’d crash down over the side with the entire rig on top of us.”
If that were to happen, the crew quite possibly would have lost both its skipper and its rig to the world’s harshest seas. Why take on such a risk? “Because I was young, I was fit, but most importantly, I was a member of the team,” Walker says. “And sending me up there was the best use of the team’s resources. So I did it.”
It’s Toughest When the Going Gets Easy
The most challenging sailing was in the Southern Ocean. But the leadership challenge was comparatively easy. “It was muck and bullets — battleground leadership,” recalls Walker. “These guys were hanging on by their fingernails. As long as I was technically competent, leading was pretty straightforward.”
In terms of leading, it was toughest when the going got easy. That would be the race’s “Paradise Leg,” from Cape Town to Boston. At 7,000 miles, it is the longest leg of the race. But the crews are sailing downwind with the spinnaker up. They’re cruising through the tropics, and their biggest worry is whether to use SPF 20 or 30 sunscreen. Forget fear. Now downtime takes a toll. There’s gossip. And the skipper starts to earn his paycheck.
The crew’s morale bottomed out when the Wave Warrior hit the Doldrums, an area near the equator that is notorious for its calms and its light, shifting winds. As they approached the equator, all of the data on weather, wind, and currents pointed toward taking a westerly route. But they were in second place, about one day behind the leader, the Group 4. Gambling to make up time, Walker and his navigational gurus plotted an easterly route instead.
They turned east and, soon after, lost the bet. The wind dropped, they missed the most favorable position to cross the Doldrums, and they slipped to eleventh place. Fed up with the conditions, members of the crew began to lose faith in their strategy. One crew member complained that he had wasted three years of his life training for the race. The solution was to reset the goal. “I called the crew up on deck, and we discussed what had happened,” says Walker. ” ‘We’re in the eleventh position,’ I told them. ‘We can’t think about winning. We’re going to set ourselves new targets to beat as many boats as we can, one boat at a time.’ “
The first goal: Pass the tenth-place boat, which was five miles ahead of the Toshiba Wave Warrior, within the next 12 hours. The crew members did it. Then, they overtook the next boat and the one after that. Some 1,000 miles later, the Wave Warrior stormed into Boston in third place. “The race was all about learning: The team that learned the fastest would win,” says Walker. “My ambition was for the crew to learn so well that they wouldn’t need me. I really feel that a leader’s goal should be to make himself redundant.”
Walker believes that the crew achieved his ambition when they sailed into Boston Harbor. It was quite a challenge. After 7,000 miles at sea, the prospect of suddenly coming into land is daunting. Nevertheless, the crew raised the boat’s big red spinnaker — 4,000 square feet of sail — and raced hard. They piloted around rocks and through reefs outside the harbor, past navigation lanes, lighthouses, and buoys inside it. To alter course, they jibed. That is, they changed the sail from one side to the other — a complicated maneuver on such a large boat. When the boat was closer to the wind, the crew had to peel, or raise a new spinnaker on the inside and trip the large spinnaker away. In all, they did seven jibes and two peels sailing into Boston. Every move was flawless.
As for Walker, he stood on the deck and took photos. “I thought, What an achievement. These so-called amateurs have transformed themselves into one of the most professional crews I’ve ever sailed with.” Walker had made himself redundant.
Built to Lap
The learning never stopped, even on the last day of the race. Two miles from the finish line at Southampton, England, the Toshiba Wave Warrior had to double back around one last buoy. For the final time, the crew took the spinnaker down and raised the headsail — without a hitch.
“But then I noticed two of the guys standing on the foredeck,” says Walker. “They were pointing up at the mast, discussing something. It turns out that one of them had noticed some small thing, and they were talking about a better way to take the spinnaker down. It was absolutely incredible. Here they had done this sail change a thousand times before, and they were never going to do it again. But the culture of continuous improvement, of reviewing and revising everything, was so ingrained in them that they were still looking for a better way — even when the race was all but over.
“Some of the other boats did everything exactly the same way, from start to finish. On our boat, there wasn’t a single operation at the end of the race that we did the same way as in the beginning. You were learning, changing, and evolving all the time. If you weren’t, you were dead.”
The crew learned fast, but not fast enough. In the end, the Wave Warrior never did catch the Group 4. After 30,000 miles, the two boats finished second and first, respectively. But the Wave Warriors drubbed the rest of the fleet.
Andrea Bacon, who coauthored a book on the 1996-1997 race, says the reason that the Group 4 and the Toshiba Wave Warrior performed as well as they did had little to do with yachting and everything to do with the leadership that their skippers exhibited — the teams they built, the cultures they helped create. And it turns out that Simon Walker and Group 4 skipper Mike Golding are different leaders.
The Group 4 crew was a team of highly focused specialists — each crew member had one, and only one, clearly defined primary role. On the Toshiba Wave Warrior, crew members traded among several responsibilities. Golding was independent and very much his own boss. Walker was more collaborative and accessible.
“Mike and I barely talked during the race,” Walker recalls. “But afterward, we went out for some beers and we learned something: He aspired to be more like me, and I aspired to be more like him.
“I wanted my team to specialize in particular areas and stick with particular functions, but that wasn’t me. And Mike wanted to be more sensitive to his team and be more collaborative, but that wasn’t him. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of which style works better than the other. It all comes down to which style works best for you.”
Walker is a competitive man, and you can sense behind his big smile the disappointment over finishing second. But, while his team failed to win, it’s clear that they succeeded. “At the end of the race,” he says, “when we knew that we wouldn’t take first, one of the guys said, ‘Finishing second isn’t bad for the first lap. What are we going to do about the next one?’ And it really hit me: We’d created something with longevity. We had built something that would last.”
Bill Breen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Simon Walker by email (email@example.com), or follow the BT Global Challenge 2000 on the Web (www.btchallenge.com).
A few years ago, as a crew member of the yacht Group 4, Andrea Bacon raced against Simon Walker — and her boat beat his. Now she is the research director of Inspiring Performance Ltd., a Southampton, England-based consulting company. Working in partnership with the UK’s Henley Management College and with the support of such organizations as Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Microsoft, Inspiring Performance is studying team dynamics during this year’s round-the-world race.
It’s an event worth studying. In the BT Global Challenge, almost all things are equal. The boats are identical, the members of every crew are evenly matched by ability, and everyone is put through exactly the same training regimen. So what separates the speedsters from the laggards? According to Bacon, it all comes down to a skipper’s ability to lead and a crew’s capacity to team. Looking back at the last race, Bacon cites three lessons for leading teams to victory at sea.
Celebrate a success. “Taking the time to celebrate an achievement — whether it was passing another boat, rounding Cape Horn, or finishing the first leg — made a huge difference in people’s morale. But we could have been better at that. For example, we spent Christmas day in the Southern Ocean, and we did a radio linkup with the other boats. All of them had done something special to celebrate — one crew had written a Christmas play, another had drinks — but we did nothing. The conditions were horrible down there, and we all needed a lift. But the fact that everyone around us was celebrating, and we weren’t, made it that much harder to take.”
Never, ever hesitate. “You can’t put off a decision, especially when you’re sailing in extreme conditions. When we were in the Southern Ocean, we logged the wind speed every 10 minutes. As soon as we started to see a pattern of wind increases, we’d think about making a sail change early. It’s really dangerous to get into a big wind with too much sail up. Now, the last thing you want is a skipper who puts off a decision just to see what the wind does. Because the longer that decision is delayed, the more the fear builds up inside you that things will turn really nasty — and you will still have to change that sail.”
If you have to, fake it. As a leader, you have to keep the team’s confidence up — even when your own confidence is in the toilet. “When the boat has plowed into a gale, and the waves are thundering against the hull, the last thing you want to hear from the skipper is ‘This isn’t normal, but we’ll be fine.’ The skipper has to exude 100% confidence at all times — even if his knuckles are turning white as he grips the chart table.”
Contact Andrea Bacon by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).