While in high school, I had the fortune of being a part of a competitive rowing program. I went on to race in college and club teams over the years. Later, as CEO of the tech company I founded, I realized that I had been applying many of the lessons learned on those boats to my leadership team.
Many great business leaders have backgrounds in competitive sports. However, there are some unique aspects of rowing that transfer well to the business world. As a business and executive coach, I use these examples regularly with great success, and you can too.
1. Every action is a balancing act.
During the majority of my rowing career, I was in an eight-person shell. That's eight rowers, each with one oar (not two!), four on port and four on starboard. Because each person controlled only one oar, it was vital that we were in sync and in balance with one another. If I pulled harder or softer than my fellow rowers, the boat would veer to the left or to the right. To keep the boat going straight, everyone had to pull with equal pressure.
In business, everyone's actions need to be balanced. If the sales team brings in 100 deals one week and zero the next, delivery will be outnumbered one week and twiddling their thumbs the following. Even, regular, and consistent results are what win the race in the corporate world.
2. Coordination and timing is everything.
When you get to the end of a stroke, everyone lifts their oars to return to the catch for the next stroke. However, with all of the oars in the air, the boat becomes completely unstable and precariously tippy. If I lifted my oar too late or dropped it back in too early, I dragged the boat down to that side.
I've seen business teams create chaos by not coordinating projects, delivering on agreed upon dates, or sticking to operational procedures. Defining key milestones and interface details and then trusting everyone will hit them is what successful business delivery is all about.
3. Trust the people who have a better view.
One of the most unnerving aspects of rowing is that you have eight people pulling as hard as they can to make a difficult-to-maneuver, paper-thin, rowing shell move as fast as it can down a narrow course... backwards.
The only person who is actually looking forward is the coxswain and they only have a little, six-inch rudder to nudge the boat left or right. But as rowers, we learn to trust the cox when the call hard strokes on port or starboard to help steer the boat.
Business leaders actually have it worse. There is no course and there is no rudder. Leaders must do their best to understand the market landscape and what competitors are planning to do and then they must create a successful plan. Managers must trust that they have read the tea leaves correctly and have plotted a course free of obstacles.
4. Respect everyone's time as if it were your own.
Rowers are known for getting on the water at ungodly hours of the morning. And without this expectation, getting everyone up and to the boathouse on time could be a challenge. However, because everyone has to wait for all of the team members to arrive before the boat can get in the water, showing up late once is usually all it takes to avoid tardiness in the future. Punishments were swift and painful.
I know a business culture is in trouble when people are showing up late to meetings and team members are on their cell phones while other people are presenting and discussing. Tardiness is a slippery slope. Executives in great companies are the first to meetings and come prepared and ready to engage in work that has to be done.
5. Make many small corrections to stay the course.
Eight-person rowing shells are over 62 feet long and just 21 inches wide which make them impossible to turn. Fortunately, races are generally a fairly straight line, however, corrections frequently need to be made for wind, current, and uneven pressure. The trick is to act early and make lots of little adjustments with the rudder and the oar pressure. If you wait to long and then oversteer, the boat will lurch to one side and ruin the set.
Business is about having good metrics and foresight to see what's coming down the pike so.you can take measures to capitalize on opportunities and avoid pitfalls. Frequent reviews and minor adjustment make this process easier and more successful.
Hitting home runs and scoring touchdowns are great metaphors for company wins, but the discipline, focus, and precision of rowing captures the day-to-day demands of business in a way other sports cannot.