Sailing with Martin: A Management Example


I recently had the pleasure of sailing in a sail boat race on Puget Sound at the invitation of Martin who runs a local high tech manufacturing company. It was a beautiful fall day with sun and plenty of wind for sailing. As a precaution I dressed for rain – the normal weather for this time of year. The boat was 43′ long so it easily accommodated the onboard crew of 5.

To be competitive in a race, the crew has to efficiently respond to changing conditions such as weather, water (current, depth, tide), proximity to other “vessels” and to effectively execute ship board maneuvers necessary to keep the boat tuned (trimmed) to the optimize its sailing characteristics.

Martin, who has extensive competitive sailing experience, was the captain. Sailing is a passion for Martin and the boat is his love. What makes Martin different from other experienced sailors is his ability to manage the multiple activities of processing the external factors affecting the boat – wind, current, etc. – and the onboard operations – steering, lines, sails, etc. and then effectively communicate what he needs to his “experienced” crew to perform.

Of course this is all done in a foreign language that relies upon unusual words: leeward, sheets and stays, spar, weather, tack, jibe, luff, halyard, helm, guy, pinch, reach, backstay, about – to name a few key words. It is one thing to watch “Master and Commander” on TV and hear these terms and watch others understand what to do but another when you hear them thrown at you assuming you know what to do when the boat is under way, healed over, rail in the water, and everyone is moving fast toward their assigned job. As a novice I found myself often saying “Huh?”

Martin is in his element when the boat is under sail. He is constantly checking the trim of the boat to optimize its speed under the current heading. Is the mainsail right, could the foresail be tighter, is the helmsman falling off the wind or pinching too much, are the lines set for the next planned maneuver, what is happening to the boats ahead and what does that suggest will happen to him, what is the current depth, how fast is the current adding to or taking away hull speed, are we on course for the next turn?

Martin is constantly in motion “managing” the boat to be as successful as possible under the prevailing conditions. His boat is not the youngest in the race and does not have a lot of the hot-technology equipment that many of the other boats have but Martin makes up for reasonable handicaps using his sailing savvy and tenacious sailing skills to be competitive.

How does this experience apply to business management? The similarities with running a business are striking. As a business leader you are constantly buffeted by either known or unknown market factors that can affect your ability to navigate your business through uncertain business conditions. While you cannot control the unknowns you can address the “knowns” of your business to improve your ability to “weather” the storm successfully.

In order to do your job well you find a way to constantly get a “bearing” on where you are in terms of your sales pipeline, your ability to keep your operations “trimmed” to operate at optimum profitability, how effectively you are communicating within your organization so that all know what to do and when to do it, be aware of market conditions and familiar with how the rest of the market is performing and what changes you need to make to perform better.

I have known Martin for many years and while I do not have a detail knowledge of his business management skills I do know that his industry has undergone economic stress and he has successfully “navigated” his company through troubled waters to profitable performance. I am sure his sailing talents are at work daily in his business.

There is a lot we can learn by observing others in personal pursuits such as sailing and how we can apply those lessons or impressions to our business practices. While there may be obvious differences between businesses and industries it is amazing how common the skills and strategies are to managing successfully.

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