The Volvo Ocean Race which takes place every 3 years, involves elite international sailors, in 7 teams competing for 9 months over 62,000 kilometres in a highly competitive environment.

The purpose of the research was to explore the performance and leadership dynamics of a winning team in the demanding and competitive context of around the world ocean racing. In the last edition, the winning margins were less than 1 hour in 8 out of the 9 legs, and less than 4 minutes in 2 of the legs, after nearly a month of ocean racing, over thousands of kilometres. This context, while exceptional, also bears clear comparison to the day to day business challenge of co-coordinating the efforts of diverse and talented individuals into effective teams to maximize performance within a competitive intense business environment.

The research therefore explored the similarities and differences between elite sport and mainstream business, identifying the key transferable principles from winning on the ocean to winning in the boardroom. The pressure and intensity of elite sport acts as an accelerated learning environment for team leadership challenges and responses. The other benefit of sport for many people is the common interest and shared language (as well as powerful images) which further facilitates such transferable learning.

What emerged from the research were a number of key principles that one might anticipate or expect to see in successful teams, and a number of additional challenges and complexities (and at times unresolvable dilemmas) that teams and team leaders need to be aware of and actively manage or sensibly acknowledge. In this sense, and by implication, effective team leadership is a skillful balancing act of authentic choice and practical compromise with the intention of positive consequence, summarized in the research as Leadership Agility.

Another important dimension of the research, was the team structure, interdependencies and diversity. The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team comprised of 4 intact and interdependent teams:

  1. Race Team – Skipper and 8 sailors
  2. Shore Team – Shore Manager and 11 reports
  3. Management Team – 3 Managers
  4. Team System – 23 collective members

This reflects a contemporary organization structure, with the Race Team (front line, business team), the Shore Team (shared support services), the Management Team and the Team System (business unit or region), where the intact team performances and their interdependencies had a major impact on the overall success in winning the Volvo Ocean Race. Another key team performance feature was the level of diversity across the team, with 7 nationalities, coupled with intergenerational and gender dynamics.

With regard importance – it’s widely recognized that the world is becoming increasingly complex, and competitive organizations are needing to rely more and more on the discretionary effort and innovative insightsof their people for a winning advantage, with the implication being, that exploring and establishing how best to lead and harness the individual and collective potential and productivity of teams is a critical performance issue.

The findings and results of the study

Following the detailed thematic analysis of over 100 hours of transcribed interviews with a representative sample of the team it appeared that the winning crew displayed six prevalent features. The “winning six” were – sound stakeholder support (including onshore team and sponsors), clear strategic and tactical purpose, high performance standards and technical expectations, collaborative and constructive interpersonal relationships, active learning and innovation, and finally, resilient and versatile leadership.

However, what we also found linked to each of the six` positive and actively facilitated features or conditions were a number of related challenges or complexities. Organizational theorists might call these the shadow side of team leadership. We saw them as part of the day to day reality – or delicate systemic balance – of the team leadership environment that need to be anticipated, addressed or pragmatically acknowledged. The “watchful six” were – political coalitions and influence, different perceptions and philosophies, the role and influence of mavericks, relational tensions and group conflict, the approach and response to winning and losing and finally, the vulnerability and anxiety of leading.

These have important organizational challenges for high performance teams and team leadership, and while a number of key conditions and considerations for winning were identified so were a number of challenges and complexities that reflect the reality and balance of team dynamics through the unique lens of an elite sport setting.

In summary, team leaders may wish to focus in particular on four cross cutting and interrelated themes (from the twelve winning & watchful issues identified above) to realize critical marginal gains and important performance improvements. These four themes are:

  1. Clarify wider group meaning and motivational purpose
  2. Identify a simple method of winning (or securing competitive advantage)
  3. Build good (enough) relationships
  4. Learn and adapt through open debate and direct talk

It is the collective and cumulative impact of these individual increments across a number of executives, whatever the sector, which can make a significant difference to team and subsequently organizational performance.