Lessons from the Boat: Part VI

This crew keeps a boating attitude in their workplace

Most work cultures don’t encourage people to slip out early. But what if such behavior were celebrated everywhere, as it is at SpinSheet Publishing Co., which produces the sailing magazine SpinSheet? I decided to explore this after hearing an unsolicited pitch from a staff member last fall.

“Everyone is a boater in the office,” says Mary Ewenson, publisher at the Annapolis, Md.-based company. “And they have to be committed to boating, to walking the walk. We keep a chart on the wall and track how many days each of us has spent on the water and what we did each day. I’ll write about my regattas. Lenny [Rudow, the editor of FishTalk magazine] records the fish he caught.”

The exercise grew out of a “Century Club” that the staff created for SpinSheet readers to log their days on the water. For those who reached 100 days, the season ended with a party and a Century Club burgee.

When I checked out Ewenson’s approach with two staff editors, one of them said, “I have never once received a strange look for leaving early. Mary trusts us to get our work done and knows that may not happen in a 9-to-5 framework.”

Last year, the 12-person staff averaged 55 days afloat each, which is “pretty significant,” Ewenson says, “considering we drive desks for a living.” The staff output was significant, too: three dozen magazine issues, multiple PortBook publications, an annual Start Sailing Now guide, several websites managed, plus four crew parties.

Building a Business on a Mission

Focused on the simple idea of getting people outside and on the water — sailing, fishing, cruising Chesapeake Bay — Ewenson and her team have started not one, but three regional boating magazines. She launched SpinSheet in 1995, PropTalk a few years later and FishTalk two years ago.

“We have websites and social media,” Ewenson says, “and maybe fewer people read print, but plenty still want something they can relax with away from their screens.”

By all accounts, Ewenson didn’t have a master plan to create a regional publishing juggernaut, but she thought a magazine could make a difference. “We can be influencers,” she says. “If you don’t grow up in the boating lifestyle, you may not think about it; but if exposed to boating, you’ll find it’s good for your soul.”

Motivating a Team

Ewenson says her main job is signing checks, adding, “You have to trust the people around you. If you don’t, you spend your life checking on them.”

According to another editor, Ewenson’s method is built on more than trust. “Around the office you won’t hear people use words like ‘boss’ or ‘employee’ — you’ll hear ‘teammates’ or ‘friends’ instead. She has a deep understanding of how to get people working together efficiently and is very sensitive to how people can be motivated not necessarily just to accomplish something, but to want to accomplish something.”

Ewenson knows she has to hire people who are self-starters, are good at what they do and are committed to the vision. She’s not looking for people who need a “clear, delineated position and want to punch the clock.” Rather, she wants the type who will leave early to watch their kid’s soccer game, then show up to represent the company at a Saturday event.

Nurturing Leadership, Building a Culture

Expanding a business operation requires balancing opportunity and risk, and Ewenson jokes that since starting the third magazine, there’s a rule at her house that she can’t start another new business without giving one up.

“Mary leads by example,” says one editor. “She’s the first to arrive and last to leave. She’s also a force in the community with the Annapolis Sailing Industry Association, which she founded, the many boards she’s on, such as the Eastport Yacht Club Foundation and the county’s Maritime Advisory Board, and her partnership in the Annapolis boat shows.”

“I’m super fortunate to have really talented team members who can manage me more than I manage them,” Ewenson says. “They’ll come to me sometimes and say, ‘Hey, have a look at this. We might need to put more attention over here.’ ”

How does Ewenson develop leadership in her team?

“Ask for ideas and use them,” she says. “We’ve been hosting crew parties for years to help people find boats to race on, and a team member said, ‘Hey, let’s make a wall of boats.’ We called it the Boat Gallery. I wasn’t sure it would be a success, but people hung out there throughout the event, taking photos of the boats, taking notes and meeting each other. Some of the owners hovered just in front of their boat to talk it up. At the end, we couldn’t get them to leave.”

In an email exchange with one editor, I asked about the business culture created under Ewenson’s leadership. I received this reply, which I’ll leave as the final word on the subject:

“Here’s a shocker: Motivated team members will show real loyalty. When the all-hands-on-deck call goes out, EVERYONE responds. The staff puts in an extraordinary effort, particularly on weekends during boat-show season and attending events both evenings and weekends year-round.

“The key is that everyone is driven to make sure the job gets done, deadlines get met, and a high level of professionalism and quality are maintained. The team doesn’t have to be instructed to aim for this; they want it themselves.”


John Burnham is a leadership coach, independent writer and editor. He is former editor of Sailing World, Cruising World, boats.com, YachtWorld and Boat Trader. As a competitive sailor, he has led teams to world and national titles in the International One-Design, Shields and other classes, winning the 2016 Shields Nationals. If you’d like to share leadership lessons from your boat that align with your leadership in business, or have any other comments, email john@johnsburnham.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.


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