At the Helm in Pandemic Conditions

Whether steering a nonprofit, business or sailing team, Lou Sandoval employs a similar leadership approach.
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As a nine-time winning captain in the 289-nautical-mile Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island, Lou Sandoval has proved his methods of leading a team. He applied a similar approach at the Beneteau sailboat dealership he ran for 15 years.

Given that we share an interest in sailing, I wasn’t surprised when Sandoval answered my question about which leadership skills are important during a pandemic. He offered an analogy to a long-distance sailboat race.

“When you go on a boat journey, you set a direction and a goal,” he said. “Let’s say we’re going to Mackinac and we want to get there inside 48 hours; we want to get there safely and have fun and sail fast. That’s our goal.

“You pick the crew,” he continued. “You want to make sure you have the right team on board. You want to make sure they are in the right positions and have the needed tools to do their job. Then you want to make sure they have the know-how, so you want to train them. There are a lot of parallels between boating and business.”

In Sandoval’s playbook, establishing the right amount of communication comes next. “We speak as one voice,” he said, “either the helmsperson or the tactician. Everything else is just-in-time information. You don’t want a lot of chattiness, especially in a tight situation where miscommunication might put you in a bad situation. You want to have the right amount of communication — with clarity, frequency and fact.”

After that comes measuring how the team did. In a sailboat race, he said, the best measurement is the outcome, but analysis also includes a post-race crew debrief on “what we did well and where we can improve. I keep copious notes for boat races and for my business,” he said.

Sandoval calls this methodology “setting the course” and said, “It’s what I do every time I start an on-boarding process, whether it’s for a board or a team.”

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The Customer Experience

In 2002, when he acquired the dealership he renamed Karma Yacht Sales, Sandoval’s goal was great customer experience, which required retraining an existing team and structuring bonuses to emphasize making customers happy.

“One of my proudest achievements was getting a perfect 100 percent CSI score from Beneteau,” Sandoval said.

A high number of repeat customers and increased market share followed this recognition. Sandoval sold the dealership in 2017.

Finding Your True North

A multitasker, Sandoval sits on several national boating boards and in 2019 was elected commodore of Chicago Yacht Club — the lead volunteer post at the 1,400-member, multimillion-dollar organization. He said his approach to goal-setting at the club is to use a “mnemonic device — a pyramid — that’s been our true north as we evaluate everything we do. At the top of the pyramid is ‘do what’s best for the club’; in the middle, ‘do what’s best for our employees’; and at the bottom, ‘do what’s best for our members.’ ”

He called his members “the base” and said, “Everything you do at a yacht club depends on their satisfaction and engagement. When that’s going well, you have the ability to pay for good staff, and ultimately it all flows up to benefit and highlight the club.”

The pandemic has had three phases, he said, the first of which was, Oh crap, what’s happening? In that phase, he said, we needed facts. He credits the resulting team synergy for most of the success they have had during the pandemic.

Monitoring their financial dashboard, he said, they saw that revenues were limited to members’ monthly dues payments. Moving into the second phase, this reality highlighted the need for an austerity plan including furloughs and honest conversations with members about continuing to support the club with the assumption that “we will make it up to you.” Among other initiatives, his team began sending a steady stream of factual communications to members every 11 days.

In Chicago, where the club is on state and municipal property, as are the waterfront’s 6,500 slips, Sandoval’s true north landed him on the mayor’s task force for boating to help educate governmental agencies and shape policy. When the state and city reached a Phase 3 reopening stage, the financial case for the waterfront was already clear, the slips were opened, and his and other clubs were permitted takeout-type dining and, more recently, sit-down meals on outdoor patios.

“Now we’re in the innovation phase,” Sandoval said in late July. “We’re operating externally at about a third of max capacity, but on weekends we’re sold out. Feedback has been great, and the staff appreciate being kept safe.”

Sandoval pointed to the importance of celebrations to build camaraderie, including a fleet review a week after opening.” That was our way of celebrating we made it this far. We had 27 boats, and every boat got a bottle of champagne and commemorative flutes; I stood on the docks with my fellow flag officers and hosted a toast.”

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The club canceled its annual blockbuster race to Mackinac Island, a significant impact on marine businesses, Mackinac island merchants and the club. There was “too much uncertainty piled on ambiguity, ” he said. This year is less about competing and more about getting on the water, he added, but all CYC’s summer programs have been oversubscribed — the women’s sailing program, Thursday night race series, a club cruise to Wisconsin, the sailing school.

In Sandoval’s leadership model, you continue to assess results and look to your true north of what’s best as you plan what’s next. Part of that process, he said, is planning for the possibility of another phase, a relapse.

“My term ends Dec. 31,” he said, “and I want to hand over the helm in better shape than I found it.”

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