You are racing for the final spot in the biggest title in the sport, and the conditions are less than favourable. Suddenly, your headsail explodes. Pulling down the sail and replacing it means almost everyone onboard is there on the foredeck, pulling the sail down and stuffing it through one hatch and bringing up the spare sail through the other — all this without a guard rail around. This isn't a hypothetical situation, but what actually happened during the build up to the biggest sailing event of 1987. "All of us immediately got to work, and soon we realised that half of us were stuffing the sail down one hatch, and the other half through the other, in effect clogging the egress," says Peter Isler, who was the navigator of the boat. It was in the middle of this chaos that skipper Dennis Conner walked onto the deck. He took in the scene and walked off in disgust at how 'professional' his crew was. Later though, he did tell them, "So we had a problem in that race, but we are the best team this year, I'm sure you guys will take care of it so that we don't have this problem again".
The team recouped, realised that while everyone had been almost too quick to react to the situation; there was a complete lack of organisation. What it needed was someone to take charge and call the shots.
"And what do you know, in the next race against Team New Zealand we had the exact same problem — under far more adverse conditions," recounts Isler. "Only this time, somebody took control and we knew exactly what to do. We managed to fix the situation even before the other team got close to us," he says. The Stars and Stripes team eventually went on to win that year's America's Cup, the Holy Grail of sailboat racing. In retrospect, it possibly wouldn't have happened had Conner not trusted his team enough to completely delegate important decisions to them, which eventually affected the outcome.
This is one of the most popular sailing stories that Isler, now also a motivational speaker and corporate trainer, likes to tell his 'students'. "There are a lot of similarities between business and sailing, the constant rate of change being just one of them," says the two-time Cup winner and best-selling author of At The Helm and Sailing For Dummies.
He likens his position of the Navigator to the CFO of a company, monitoring the boat's performance by keeping track of the conditions on the racecourse and other data.
According to Isler, what sets a good sailor apart from the rest is how he reacts to a change in conditions. "Sailing is intimately connected with the wind. The wind decides how fast you can go, how many people you need on the deck...everything. And the wind is never constant," he says. The mark of a good sailor then, is someone who can learn to embrace these changes. The one who reacts the fastest and smoothest to the change in conditions eventually wins the race — it's almost like a competitive advantage. Not unlike the current business environment where the tried and tested ways of functioning are no longer enough to see you through. Thinking on your feet to adapt to the rapid changes around is the only way for many to survive.
Apart from dealing with the fickle weather, manpower management too is a crucial aspect of running a successful sailing expedition . "Irrespective of the number of people you have on board, managing everyone can be a management and organisational challenge," points out Isler. Of course, it can also be a great exercise in leadership and team building, perhaps one reason why single-day sailing courses are increasingly becoming popular corporate learning tools world over.
Little wonder then, that some of the best known CEOs are also avid sailors, including America's Cup winner and media mogul Ted Turner, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Walt Disney Company's Roy Disney. Isler in fact won his second America's Cup sailing for the BMW Oracle team, backed by Ellison.
Two things he likes to repeat at all his management sessions are that there is no single formula for a winning team, and if you want to get the best out of your people, make it fun for them. "Every winning team is different and no formula is right or wrong, it's about what works for your team. Also, there are different ways of motivating people, and if you do so in a manner that is fun for them — which doesn't necessarily mean that it's not serious — then you will see that their performance also definitely improves," he explains.
Another aspect to his appearances as a celebrity sailor Isler enjoys are the little observations he picks up from the companies and executives that he can plough back into his sailing. Citing a recent example when he visited a health foods and pharmaceutical company developing a new product, Isler realised that the research team worked better when they had inputs from the sales team who was out there selling the product rather than all the units working in silos. "Similarly, while working on the boat design for the BMW Oracle team in San Diego, we realised that it helped if the sailors were there to give their inputs to the design team," he says. "Development doesn't only happen in the mind of the researcher or design team. If you can get the sales staff or sailors involved, you'll find that you'll end up with a better product."
Be it the sheer commitment to the end goal, degree of team work required or the uncertainties that one is almost certain to encounter, Isler says that the similarities between sailing and business are many. But what sets sailing apart from other sports is that one can never stop learning, no matter how many years one has been a sailor, he says. "Also, it's like being on a 3-D chessboard, one that is constantly moving at different planes," he adds. If you manage to make your way around this successfully, you can rest assured that tackling the ever changing business world too will be a breeze.
The Economic Times, Dec 11 2009.