Executional Excellence - What can sailing around the world teach us about working as a team and moving from an idea to an outcome?

I'm a little humbled to be the cover story for Professional Marketing Forum Magazine (PM Forum). My blog this week is simply my article they have run this month on the importance of teamwork in the face of adversity. Here it is.....

It’s like a broken record. Every company talks about teamwork and how we do things. It’s usually all in corporate language and no one really knows what it all means. The reality is that success is all about working as a team and getting things done. Moving from ideas and talking about things to actually making them happen.

I’d like to share with you a story from when I recently sailed around the world with my wife and three young children aged just 2, 7 and 9. The story is about how we, as a team, dealt with a life threatening situation.

What’s that got to do with your day-to-day life in professional services world? The answer is, EVERYTHING. I spent 8 years working in Professional

Services firms (Baker Tilly and KPMG) and then another 9 years as a supplier to professional services firms (Bighand and Trovus). I’ve got a pretty good insight into how things work, or how they sometimes don’t.

What I learnt in the business world was excellent preparation for preparing for and then dealing with the challenges of sailing around the world. Especially when you have to break it down into language that a 2 year old, 7 year old and 9 year old can understand.

Working together as a team

It was May 2015. We were deep in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles from the nearest piece of land and we experienced complete power failure. No autopilot to drive the boat, no navigation equipment, no engine, no generator, no lights, no cooker, no water pumps.

We were dead in the water and had to figure out a way to get us safely to land. Remember the film Apollo 13, where the space shuttle loses all power in space and the 3 astronauts in the shuttle and the hundred or so rocket scientists had to figure out a way to get the shuttle safely home. Well our situation was like that. Apart from the fact that we didn't have 3 astronauts and 100 rocket scientists. We had my wife, our three young children and me.

Not only that but we had 30-40 mile an hour winds and huge seas and a boat that was stinking of diesel. The space we occupied in total was no bigger than your average size living room.

So how would you survive? How would you work together as a team to get through and to get a good outcome, like staying alive? Would you blame other people or would you own the situation, take responsibility and figure out a way through.

The answer to how we dealt with it and survived was planted some 5 years earlier.

When I was growing my business, Trovus, with my Co-Founder Ed some 5 years earlier, we were looking for ways to get an edge and make us work better as a team.

We went down the route of focusing on our vision, our mission and in particular our values.

I remember doing values work when I’d worked in both corporates and in professional services firms. If I’m brutally honest I thought it was a waste of time. It didn't really mean anything. We did it once a year and then forgot about it until the next year. It inspired cynicism and raised eyebrows more than anything for cohesive behaviours.

This time round, I took the time to really understand what values were all about. It was about how our values would shape our behaviours as a team, how our behaviours shaped our actions and how our actions shaped our outcomes.

We spent time in the business debating and agreeing what our values were as a team. We didn't just leave it there though. We then lived those values, every day and every week, not just once a year at appraisal time. We regularly talked about them and reinforced them. They gave us a way to focus on what was right rather than what was wrong.

Ever noticed with a small child where you say, “Don’t do that”. And then all you seem to get is more of thing that you don’t want. Values are the antidote to that. They encourage the behaviours that you want to see more of.

You talk about them regularly and focus on the behaviours that you want to see.

So, here’s the thing.

What we learnt at Trovus about the values (which was a key part in us building the business up and selling it) was something we did at home too.

That’s right. We ran a values exercise at home too. The same things that we did at work, I applied at home. We had to simplify the language a little bit, but we created a set of 6 values that we agreed were important to us. Our values were Love, Action, Go Prepared, Understanding, Learn Something and Happy.

Just as we did in Trovus, we didn't stop there. We lived them every single day. First thing in morning we had values prizes and focused on the things we’d seen that were great examples of behaviours we wanted to encourage. It became so ingrained that our children would run the values sessions for us and actively looked forward to the sessions.

So how did we respond when we lost all power and were in a life-threatening situation?

It was pretty simple really. We lived our values. We found humour in the situation. We worked as a team. We looked after each other. We made sure each person was ok. The children and how they reacted were a major part of how we survived.

There was no blame. It was perhaps one of our finest moments when we all worked together as a team. Over the next four days, my wife and I hand steered the boat, steering by the stars through huge seas and working as a team with our children navigated our way to safety on the tiny island of Niue.

There were many more lessons that we took from it.

1) Things are going to go wrong.

In business and in life, we make decisions about things we want to achieve and where we want to go.

You can pretty much guarantee that something is going to go wrong. In business, you might lose a key client, key team members, the competition gets stronger, you vote to leave the EU. It could be anything. The only thing you can guarantee is that something will go wrong. Much as it will on a boat at some point.

The only thing that makes a difference is how you react to it when it does. Do you work as a team and deal with whatever comes up or do you turn in on yourselves and blame each other. One way is a winning strategy. One way isn’t!

2) Get into Action

So many people wait for perfect. When we were going sailing, we could have done 100 more things to be better prepared. The point is you do your best take on your preparations and then you get moving. If we had waited for perfect, we’d never have got underway. There is no perfect time. There is only now. Do the best you can with what you have and then get underway.

3) Continuous Learning

One of our values was around continuous learning. Every single failure and every single success was a learning opportunity. We’d stop as a team, we’d talk and we’d reflect on what we learnt. Shared learning experiences are far more powerful because you’ll get different points of view. In our situation, we added two more additional power supply sources to avoid future power failure.

There is an African saying, “if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” In your teams both at work and at home, focus on the behaviours that you want to see and encourage them, don’t wait for perfect, always look for what you can learn from any situation and take ownership and deal with whatever comes up.

Caspar Craven is a motivational speaker and consultant on leadership. He specialises in building winning teams. www.casparcraven.com

Caspar is inspirational to be with. He has a wealth of business experience and adventure. You should hire him as a speaker, he will change your view of life and what you can achieve.
— Paul Covell - Special Interest Lecturer