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Cultivating a Winning Team

August 1, 1998
Related Topics: Motivating Employees, Featured Article
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People are the most important asset, making HR the most important function—no matter what the business. Find out the unique challenges faced by this HR leader, and some strategies for handling universal HR issues.

Called the "Mt. Everest of sailing," the arduous, 31,600-mile Whitbread Round-the-World Race presses competing sailors to the edges of their skill and endurance. The race, held every three years, starts and finishes in England. Its nine legs pass south of all the continents except Antarctica, putting the contestants in the wind and sometimes iceberg-laden Southern Ocean. The 12-person crews spend as much as a month at sea, eating and drinking only what food they can carry and water they can make. They race around the clock and often never see any other humans for the entire leg.

The most recent Whitbread finished in May, with the Swedish yacht EF Language romping home with a convincing victory over the other nine entries. Six Americans served as crew on the winning 60-foot sloop, led by San Francisco skipper Paul Cayard. A six-time world champion in other sailing classes, Cayard, 39, won his first long-distance title in the Whitbread, thereby bolstering his reputation as the best sailor in the world. His $20 million campaign set a new standard for preparation and execution, much of which he attributes to effective use of both time and human resources. Cayard graduated with a business degree from San Francisco State University and currently serves as head of the AmericaOne, a $30 million syndicate attempting to win the America’s Cup sailing contest to be held in New Zealand in 2000. Here, he shares some of his views on how to get the most out of people, even under the most difficult conditions.

How did you go about recruiting for your team?
A couple of the sailors came with the boat from our Swedish sponsor. The rest I knew from my own background in America’s Cup and Olympic sailing. Some of them had raced around the world before, but not all. It was important to me to select crewmembers who I knew would work well over an extended period of time and who could handle the stress.

What kind of skills and qualities did you look for in the individuals?
They had to be more than just great sailors. Each of them had an additional area of responsibility that ensured we could keep functioning 24 hours a day for up to a month at a time.

We had an on-board water maker and generators to fix and maintain. Someone had to organize the food to make sure we had enough calories to perform well, but not add too much weight to the boat, which would slow us down. We had a navigator who kept us in the right weather patterns. And we had two medically trained crew-members who had to handle such injuries as a puncture wound, a fractured arm and broken teeth.

How does the context of being at sea impact the way you train the crew?
Self-sufficiency is the biggest factor. So is the psychological component. Those of us who are married were sad to leave our families behind. During the race, we were all living within a 60-foot shoebox. After winning the first leg to South Africa, our morale was pretty high, which helped.

What particular challenges does one have to anticipate?
Unlike day-to-day life onshore, we had no distractions. We missed our loved ones for the first few days of each leg, but then we just focused on winning. We also knew that we would only be at sea for a finite period of time. Winners in any endeavor are the ones who can set aside distractions and focus on their goals. Toward the end of the race, when it be-came apparent that we could win, we began to lose focus a bit. As the skipper, I had to remind everyone that it wasn’t our style to slack off. It may have been idealistic on my part, but I pushed for maintaining our intensity.

How did you sustain motivation and morale?
It’s a constant job, and I had to be sensitive to the mood of the crew and adjust my behavior to give them what they needed. I tried to show rather than tell them the level of intensity that I expected. Sometimes, I would trim the sails and do some of the grunt work, which I felt was more effective than yelling at them.

How does teamwork play itself out in this context?
All 12 people onboard were critical, and they all had to respect and appreciate what everyone else was doing. Again, the skipper has to create the environment for that. If one person was doing a job that I felt was going unnoticed by the others, I would commend him in front of the group. I tried to acknowledge everyone and explain all of their roles. It’s a subtle skill, one that you gain through experience. Good leaders pick up on what’s important and what’s not, and impart those differences to the team.

What was the most difficult part of the preparation and race for the team?
Most of my crew had never sailed in the Southern Ocean before, so our biggest challenge was learning how to sail in those conditions, including freezing temperatures, strong winds and big seas. The second leg of the race was our first experience and we didn’t do well at all. Once something went wrong, more trouble snowballed behind it. After we finished that leg, we had a crew meeting at which we detailed how all of us could improve our game. Fortunately, we didn’t pay too large a price while we ascended the learning curve. When we went back into the Southern Ocean on the fifth leg, we won by a huge margin.

What was the most important ad-justment you had to make?
After the second leg, I realized that most of the foul-ups occur at night. Everything’s harder when it’s dark and when you’re tired. So I made the decision that I would stay up every night and be on deck to lend a hand in the fire drills. The other sailors on watch felt more confident with me there, and I brought my experience to help out. I believe that made a big difference for the rest of the race.

How do you think your crew views your management style?
I drove them hard—maybe too hard. We didn’t take as much time off as some of the other crews and we were more regimented. Iknew that might backfire, but Imaintained my philosophy that we were going to go 100 percent all the way. Even on the last leg, when we had an unassailable lead, we kept racing hard. That’s my style.

What lessons have you learned along the way?
Patience is the biggest virtue, especially when you’re at sea. Everything doesn’t happen in ten minutes like it might in a shorter race around some buoys. You can take more time to react, to watch situations come and go and educate yourself to your different options.

What other HR issues cropped up that might be similar to any other work or performance environment?
All of the time that you have in a campaign is valuable and we were always making the best use of our time. After the finish of several legs, we already had our to-do list ready for the shore crew when we docked, so they could get working on the boat to prepare for the next leg. Other crews would kick back and celebrate after each leg, but we realized that maximizing our time in port translated directly into boat speed on the next leg. That was one of the key ingredients to our success.

Workforce, August 1998, Vol.77, No. 8, pp. 27-28.

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