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6 lessons in teamwork leaders can learn from competitive sailing

This life science entrepreneur and Harvard Business fellow expertly dissects how the skills needed to build a winning sailing team translate seamlessly to the boardroom.

6 lessons in teamwork leaders can learn from competitive sailing
[Photo: Ludomił Sawicki/Unsplash]
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As an avid competitive sailor, spending time on the water has become an important part of my life. The ever-changing conditions coupled with the adrenaline of racing provide for a fun yet challenging environment. As the faculty chair of the Blavatnik Fellowship in Life Science Entrepreneurship and a partner at Atlas Venture, I work with a variety of aspiring and accomplished entrepreneurs. My experience in these roles has highlighted similarities in what it takes to develop either a successful sailing team or a successful business venture. Here are some of my observations:

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Have a plan

Like starting a business, having a strategy before a race helps inform decisions that need to be made later. Reviewing the obstacles that may be faced allows the team to have contingency plans in place. In both situations, changes in the current conditions and competition will factor into the strategy. As your journey progresses, the new information can be used to evolve the existing plan provide a basis for making decisions.

Only one at the helm 

There ultimately needs to be one person who provides the direction and leadership to the larger effort. As CEO or helmsman, you are in charge of concentrating on moving the company or boat efficiently in the right direction. You choose the heading and are constantly watching for and evaluating risks before choosing to continue or change course.

The crew makes the team

One of the most important things a leader or owner does is to build their team. Great leadership can’t overcome poor execution on the team. On the other hand, a great crew can elevate their helmsman to new levels of skill and success.

Focus on your role 

Like the CEO or helmsman, each team member has a specific and distinctive role. To build a successful team, it’s critical to gather people that can focus on their role while trusting their teammates to do the same. If members are distracted by others’ responsibilities, they are not effective in their own role.

Communication is key

 In racing, team members need to disseminate important information quickly as well as get confirmation that the message was received. Over communicating or sharing unrelated information distracts from focus. The same is true in running companies. Knowing what people need to know and don’t is important for an effective use of time. All parties having the same understanding avoids common miscommunication pitfalls.

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Keep the destination in mind

As a life science entrepreneur, it could be developing the company to go public or for a strategic relationship.   In sailing, it is getting to the finish as fast as possible. All activities must be organized to progress the team toward the goal. Having someone on the team responsible for keeping an eye on the goal, especially when things are moving fast limits the chance of wasted effort. Sometimes taking a slower, more direct path can be the most efficient approach.

Conditions change

On a sailboat you must constantly adjust course and sail trim to match the direction and velocity of the wind. If you aren’t re-evaluating your priorities as new information comes in, chances are you aren’t going as fast as you can. Conditions encountered while building businesses are no different. As research progresses and the market evolves, you need to be ready to react and change the focus of your activities at a moment’s notice. Keeping an eye out for impending changes allows you to be proactive instead of reactive.

In both sailing and business, reward comes with plenty of risk. You can’t win by playing it safe the whole time. As you prepare, don’t let past failure or success change your focus on the next race or venture. Concentrate on building a high-functioning team focused on an evolving plan in order to succeed. Once you cross the finish line, celebrate your successes, critique your failures, and get ready for the next race.


Peter Barrett is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, a partner at Atlas Ventures, and avid sailor. He is the faculty chair of the school’s Blavatnik Fellowship in Life Science Entrepreneurship.