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Ready to Tack, Set and Jibe?

A practiced sequence can win a sailboat race — or move your company ahead of the competition
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Leading a sailracing team requires emphasis on some of the same things as leading a business team. In both instances, a well-rehearsed effort can accelerate you ahead of the competition at key moments. Like the wind, market conditions change and create opportunities to maneuver and alter course in a coordinated way, even as competitors are still sorting out what’s happening or deliberating the mechanics.

I sailed in a three-day series of races in early October with my longtime co-skipper Reed Baer in our 30-foot Shields Class boat. On the first day, we had three experienced sailors aboard, but we had never practiced as a group. It turned out that while we could tack at the windward mark and set the spinnaker quickly, the tasks took all of our focus. Only after we had the spinnaker full did we realize we also needed to jibe. Precious seconds ticked by, and it cost us the lead in one race, when a boat close behind made the quick jibe and sailed by us.

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The next day, our regular crew was back on board. They brought similar skills, but we were better coordinated because we had been sailing together all summer. When we needed to tack around the mark, set the spinnaker and jibe immediately, all I had to say was, “Quick jibe at the mark.” At almost every upwind mark rounding, we made the quick jibe and earned immediate gains that enabled us to win two key races and go on the next day to win the series overall.

You can probably think of plenty of equivalents to the tack-set-jibe sequence from your business. For example, boatbuilders round the mark and set the spinnaker every year when they launch the next in a series of models. Yet builders must always be alert to the potential bigger gains to be made by making that quick jibe to produce a brand-new model to reach a new target market and move the company in a new and positive direction. All departments must work out how they will design, build, market and sell when the moment comes, planning the extra steps they’ll need to take.

Ideally, when the call is made, they’ll be ready to put the plan in motion quickly. If they are really on the ball, they may modify the product or launch plan in midflight to make it land even more effectively.

I’ve noticed that simply having a mental rehearsal as you prepare for a substantive course change can make a big difference. A coaching client of mine with a small business spent a good deal of time last year considering how to reshape his staff. He had just parted ways with a top
performer when Covid-19 suddenly made it imperative to make the rest of the changes quickly. As challenging as this situation was, he could proceed with a level of confidence because he had already plotted his new course direction and had a vision for how the business would work. He had also enlisted extra resources in case he needed them, and he could spend his time supporting key staff members coping with the inevitable disruption from a business going through major change.

In this column a few months ago, Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin wrote about embracing the opportunity to improve during the Covid-19 crisis. Two of his points stood out for me. First was the fact that a crisis always lies ahead. It’s not a question of whether it’s coming; it’s a question of when. Second, it follows that you should have a crisis plan in place for the accompanying disruption and downturn. In essence, the wind is going to shift, and when it does, be ready for the extra maneuver — tack, set, jibe.

Which teams adapt best when change happens, even if you need to write or rewrite your crisis plan on the fly? When I interviewed Regulator Marine president Joan Maxwell last spring, she spoke about the discipline of her leadership team’s consistent weekly meetings as a chance to gather information, assess the financial picture and make informed decisions. She compared how quickly the team responded to the circumstances of the pandemic to those of the Great Recession, when they weren’t meeting regularly as an executive team.

I agree with Maxwell about the importance of regular, structured meetings. In good times, these are opportunities to develop a group understanding of how the business is functioning, fine-tune ongoing work and plan strategically. Then, when you face a difficult time, you’ll be positioned to create and implement what might otherwise be time-consuming maneuvers.

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Teams with a learning attitude gain the most from the discipline of meeting regularly, just as a sports team does from practicing. I experienced a great example of this recently within a different, mostly volunteer organization — my church — which closed down in-person services for the past several months. Within our congregation, we are not the most tech-savvy folks on the planet, but we have been able to learn just enough about shooting and editing video, managing Zoom meeting services, and running a simple broadcast setup to deliver live worship with some recorded elements.

Without question, we have not executed the equivalent of a quick jibe, but we have completed the maneuver and changed our course, continuing to build our knowledge and capacity as we go. That effort has given the entire congregation hope that even though church as we know it may not be back for a long time, the church as we are creating it can be vibrant and meaningful.

In reflecting on how the Zoom tech team at our church has accomplished as much as we have, I come back to the fact that several of us committed to meeting once a week all summer, and we took the time to listen to all ideas. We worked out an initial game plan for cameras, hardware and software, then hit a roadblock that had us stymied. A couple of weeks later, one of our seemingly less-engaged committee members surprised us by suggesting a different piece of equipment based on his own research. To make a long story short, it worked beautifully for our needs, and a few weeks later we began broadcasting our services.

We should all aspire to create teams that are ready to tack, set and make the quick jibe, finishing off a coordinated sequence and surging boldly ahead of the competition. That’s not always possible, but we can keep learning and improving. 

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.

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