Stewardship: Lessons learned from rowing

What rowing taught me about high-performance teams

“I started rowing in high school on the Mississippi in my hometown of St. Paul. When I went off to university at McGill, I decided to try out for the freshman crew team. When my turn came up, I pulled harder than I ever pulled for 2,000 meters. Unfortunately, many others pulled harder than I did; I was, at best, in the middle of the pack.

Regardless, they put me in a boat with seven other recruits and we rowed a few kilometers, switching seats and running drills to test our skills and rowing technique. After an hour or two, they selected a group to come back for additional workouts that week in order to select the
final two boats for the season. When they called my name and asked me to come back, I knew my college experience was about to change.

I made the “A” boat and we went on to win the Eastern Canadian Conference Championship that Fall in London, Ontario by beating the next boat by over three boat lengths — a significant margin for a 2,000-meter race. It was an amazing end to a challenging season as we struggled to place better than third up until that moment.

Why did we win so handily after a season of mediocre results? Three things came together for us that day that drove our success. These have become my core team performance principles and have stayed with me over the years. I’ve applied them as an entrepreneur, as a CEO, and now as an executive and team coach.

Understand your role and how what you do affects your team

From the moment you sit in a racing shell, you realize what a precarious situation you are in as a team. The boat is barely wide enough for your hips and, without the oars in the water, the boat is inherently unstable and will flip in the blink of an eye. Getting eight guys to swing four-meter long oars at 36 strokes a minute and stay afloat is not easy. A successful boat needs two things: set and swing. Without these, the boat tips back and forth and jerks front and back, making it impossible to build momentum and speed.

Have a clear direction, but an easy hand on the steering

The coxswain must keep the end goal in sight, without trying to make adjustments after every stroke.

There was a ninth person in our boat, the coxswain. She was 104 pounds and carried 16 pounds of dead weight to get her to the 120-pound minimum. Her primary job was to keep us on course and steer the straightest line possible. Each boat raced in a lane marked by small floats that were 13.5 meters wide — not wide berth for a boat that is almost nine meters wide with oars extended. She was the jockey of an eight-horse team.

A good coxswain keeps the boat in the lane, but does so with an easy hand. Steering too much means zig-zagging over the course and rowing far more than 2,000 meters, which adds to time. The trick is to keep the end in sight and steer to a center point far down course, not trying to keep coming back to the center every stroke. To do this, the coxswain calls out increased pressure for a few strokes on one side of the boat or the other to correct the course rather than use the rudder, which slows down the boat.

High-performance teams always keep the end in sight and know the ultimate objectives of their work. Without a clear picture of the goal, teams thrash with process and fail to achieve proper alignment in their activities. Going in the wrong direction as fast as you can doesn’t get you any closer to the finish.

It’s not how hard you work, it’s how hard you work together.