A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be part of some training on high performance teams through my BNI chapter. The training consisted of learning how to row an 8-person skiff, finishing with a race between 3 teams of 8. This was an amazing challenge to be a part of that tested me both physically and mentally.
As with any experience like this I learnt a lot of great lessons that can apply to anyone in business, community and family
There are four main lessons I took away from the experience that I’d like to share.
The importance of having a vision and an agreed strategy
Our vision, or desired result, was to win the race.
During our session, and prior to us going out for the race, we were encouraged to consider what it would take to be a high performing team, and how we would measure, at the end of the race, whether or not we had achieved that.
As a team we came up with some ideas and we decided it boiled down to having an agreed strategy, and to everyone doing their part towards achieving that strategy.
Our strategy, given what we had learned so far that morning, was for all of us to row in time. Simple as that. Although not so simple in practice. Actually quite difficult in practice, as it turns out, for a complete novice like me who had no previous experience with rowing anything other than a dinghy during summer sailing holidays.
Winning might suggest that we had been a high performing team under the circumstances, but not necessarily. We might have just been lucky.
And it wouldn’t necessarily mean that we weren’t high performing if we didn’t win either. If we were able to achieve our strategy of rowing in time together it would mean that we had learned and accomplished something in a small space of time and worked in synergy as a team towards our common goal. That, in itself would indicate that we had the potential to further improve over time and, with practice, get better and better.
The importance of having a great coach and leader
We had an excellent coach. A rower with the skills and years of experience that we didn’t have, so of course we listened to him and followed his advice.
We practiced what we were taught and through trial and error, and making corrections as needed, we continuously improved our capability throughout the morning. We practiced, we learned, we improved.
Our coach was also in the advantageous position of cox, sitting on the bow of the boat facing forward. As is necessarily dictated by the very nature of rowing, the rest of us were sitting with our backs facing the direction we were going.
This meant that we couldn’t actually tell if we were heading in the right direction or not, and we couldn’t necessarily tell what our team mates were doing either. Our coach was the only one who had the broad view, facing the team, and facing the bow and the direction we were going.
Consequently we had to have complete trust in him that he would point us in the right direction and with the benefit of his position he was able to guide all of us and keep us on track towards the finish line. That’s leadership right there.
The importance of everyone
We learned that each and every one of us was important to achieving our goal. If one person was out of time, if one person stopped rowing, if one person got their oar stuck in the water, if even one of us was not working well as part of the team our performance would suffer.
It was crucial for the boat to be evenly balanced and it was very easy for the boat not to be balanced with 8 people on board. If it wasn’t balanced we couldn’t get our oars out of the water to row, they would be stuck. So before we even learned how to row we learned how to keep the boat balanced.
On the expert advice of our coach we decided that of the 8 of us, 2 would not actually row but would instead be responsible solely for keeping the boat balanced. Those 2 team members didn’t even row, and yet their part in the team was perhaps the most crucial. Without them keeping the boat balanced the rest of us would have performed poorly.
The importance of focusing on your own performance
Perhaps the most interesting insight for me was this; during the race I noticed that I was almost solely focused on our own performance. On being the absolute best that we could be as a team. On performing the best that I personally could. I was aware of the other two teams but I was not really aware of our place among them until almost the end of the race when our coach mentioned it. The most important thing seemed to be doing our absolute best irrespective of what the others were doing.
We were singularly focused on following through our strategy of rowing together in time. We had agreed that doing so gave us our best chance of winning the race. Yes, we were rowing as hard and as fast as we could, but more importantly, over and above hard and fast, we were focused on rowing in time, on following through on our strategy.
We also won our little 3 boat race. This was no mean feat, the other teams were worthy competitors.
But the biggest sense of satisfaction came not from winning, although that was a bonus, but from from doing what we said we would do: completing the race knowing that we had given our best effort and worked well together as a team.
Business is just like this.
- Be clear about your vision, and agree on a strategy to get there
- Be, or follow, a great leader and/or coach. Someone who knows what to do and can see the big picture
- Include your team and ensure they’re able and willing to do their best individually and for the greater good of the team
- Practice, learn, stay on course, and focus on your own performance and that of your team
Huge thanks go to our Regional Director Mariska Mannes for including me in this valuable experience.