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Leading teams on the high seas – research


Jane Cranwell-Ward, Director of Henley Learning Partnership at Henley Management College and co-author of "Inspiring Leadership: Staying afloat in turbulent times", describes some of the lessons about leadership and teamwork that emerged from research during the BT Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race. The research was conducted by Henley Management College and Inspiring Performance.

Faced with a prolonged period of uncertainty and change, effective leadership of high performance teams becomes critical. The race provided an excellent metaphor for business and an opportunity to research leadership and high performance teams. The skippers of 12 identical yachts racing in a hostile, turbulent and changing environment won or lost the race on their skills and attributes as a leader.

Preparation and planning is critical

When acquiring a new team or setting out on a new project the first step is the preparation and planning. The high performing leaders gave careful attention to building their teams and ensuring the teams had a clear vision of the future and had identified a set of values that defined code of conduct and expected ways of behaving. Values included:
Never step over a job
Always give 100 percent effort

High performing leaders not only modelled the way but ensured that team members lived the values too. Shared goals were identified, and regularly articulated within the team. As the race progressed the goals were re-defined as necessary and broken down into short -term objectives. Assessment of the team members in terms of skill set, capability and motivation helped the leaders allocated roles to team members.

Leaders need to use the right skills and attributes at the right time to ensure high performance of the team

The research identified the skills and attributes of all the leaders and the times when different combinations were needed. A clear relationship existed between the skills and attributes used by the leaders and the performance of the teams during the race. The highly successful teams had leaders who used a combination of skills and attributes needed to drive performance short term and another set of skills and attributes that needed to sustain long-term success.

The group of skills and attributes needed to drive performance were termed “The X Factor”. Leaders need to ensure the best use is made of the resources within the team. This requires a level of specialisation of team members and ensuring the best fit between the individuals and the tasks that need to be completed. This is contrary to the views of some people who prefer people to be multi-skilled. For example the high performing teams only allowed the very best at the helm in tight racing conditions, in contrast to the lower performers who had less specialisation of roles.

Discipline was also important when values were not upheld or performance slipped. The leaders of high performing teams nipped any issues in the bud quickly unlike the lower performers who did not take corrective action and performance suffered. Finally the high performing teams were obsessive about standards of performance and were always trying to improve. The leaders of these teams carefully monitored performance and raised the standards expected of the team at regular intervals. In business these are the skills and attributes needed to complete short term projects and achieve short term goals.

A different set of skills and attributes was needed to enable performance longer term. This was referred to as “The Y Factor” and was a more engaging style. The leaders of high performance teams had a deeper sense of purpose for winning the race. They also adopted a more open approach with team members and in place of a directive style of leadership tended to involve their teams to a far greater extent in taking key decisions. This was defined as shared leadership. The highly successful teams were led by leaders able to balance the use of the X and Y factors to achieve inspiring leadership.

Good use of emotional intelligence will lead to higher performance

The leaders were operating in a turbulent and challenging environment during the race. Evidence of emotional intelligence behaviour was tracked throughout the race. Higher levels of emotional intelligence behaviour were recorded amongst the high performing leaders. The lower performers showed lower levels and experienced more stress. The high performing leaders demonstrated the ability to perform well under extreme pressure and interacted well with their teams. They listened well, were sensitive to the needs of their teams and took these into account when taking tough decisions.

Any conflict arising in the team must be addressed quickly

Conflict is inevitable and can be viewed as a positive force. Allowing teams to give vent to different ideas and opinions can result in much more effective decisions being taken. This also encourages open communication and the willingness to discuss issues that can lead to conflict. The high performing teams had regular meetings and issues were not allowed to fester. The lower performing teams had a tendency to avoid anything sensitive and conflict travelled round the world with them or in pressurised situations resulted in angry confrontation that did little to resolve the situation.

The leader needs to foster the right culture and climate in the team

The leaders and their team developed very distinctive cultures. The leadership styles adopted were critical in steering the team towards the achievement of goals and influencing the way in which the team operated, their attitudes and habits. Winning teams were able to balance the driving for performance with the need for informality and fun. To quote one leader:

“Winning is not everything, team dynamics come first.”

The high performing teams created a learning environment, encouraging openness and honesty and blame was not an option. Humour was used as a de-stressor and the teams were better at achieving a work-life balance.

In conclusion the research showed some distinctive differences in the ways the teams operated. These differences in turn impacted on the performance of the teams. The styles adopted by the leaders were critical to the success or failure of the team.


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