Building A Winning Team Culture: 6 Lessons From The World Of Rowing

Anyone who runs a business will know that it takes a lot to make it succeed.  A great product or service, clever branding, carefully planned and targeted marketing campaigns, and much more besides.  But even the best business strategy will only get you so far without a high performing team and a winning culture. We’ve defined just a few of the attributes critical to every team, and the part every leader plays in fostering a winning culture.

Let’s not kid ourselves; managing people can be the toughest part of the leadership job at times.  Across just one team, let alone an entire business, you will find so many personalities, so many working styles, so many strengths, and (because we are all human) a fair few weaknesses.  Harnessing all that into the makings of a high performance team is no small task.  Each individual in your business has the ability to shine in their own right.  There are flashes of brilliance in every one of your staff members (some, perhaps, more than others):  that’s why you hired them.  But unless you can shape and mould them into a business critical team, all you’ve got is a group of individuals whose collective capability occasionally strikes gold, more by luck than by design. And that’s not a winning formula for any business. How exactly, then, do you create a winning culture, which turns a group of talented individuals into a high performance team?

Where better to turn, for the answer to this question, than the world of top class competitive sport; specifically, rowing. We’ve defined just a few of the attributes critical to every crew (team), and the part every leader plays in fostering a winning culture.

1) The right people in the right seats 

There’s a formulaic structure to every rowing crew, and if you’ve ever looked closely it isn’t hard to spot.  The middle section of the boat is made up of what is known in rowing parlance as the ‘powerhouse’.  These are the strongest (and often biggest) crew members.  No coach in their right mind messes with this formula, because it works.  That’s the basic formula, but beyond that, every man or woman in that boat will have earned their seat through a proven and repeated trial.  Club members will be regularly pitted against one another in training to ensure a top class crew, and to aid in reserve (succession) planning. (It’s what’s called ‘healthy competition’).  And regardless of skill and ability, if this isn’t coupled with the requisite commitment and dedication to the team, they’ll soon lose out to those who can offer more than just muscle power.

The workplace is no different, really.  It’s all about making hiring (and succession planning) into more of a science than an art.  And with hiring and on-boarding assessment tools such as ours, it has never been easier to reduce the guesswork and ensure you’re placing not just the rights skills, but also the right fit into each seat in your office.  Meaning you’ve got the best chance from the outset of building a team of employees who will thrive in their roles individually and pull together in the same direction as a winning team cohesively. Hiring ‘best fit’ is at the very foundation of building a winning culture.

2) Shared purpose and goal orientation

Back in our imaginary rowing boat, we have a crew of oarsman, all at peak fitness, primed and ready to tear down each training session or race.  And a cox whose job it is to coordinate their collective efforts with precision strategy. Everyone, to a man or woman, is there to move the boat through the water faster and slicker than the next crew.  It’s all very well understanding the end goal (in this case, winning the race, but in business terms it may be about achieving a sales or profit target).  But does everyone understand the part they play in making that happen, and just as crucially, how they need to work with and around others to maximise not only their own potential, but that of the team as a whole?

In the rowing world, when any individual in the boat is asked to fall in or out (not literally, you understand!), row harder or lighter, it is crucial they understand the importance of following through on this instruction.   Failure to do so will affect the performance of the boat and, in the end, the overall outcome of the race. In the business world, when we work alone, we work in a bubble and the ripple effects of our actions or inactions are far less widely felt.  But when we work in a team we have to understand how our strengths and weaknesses dovetail with those of others.  We have to know and trust when to step aside, when to step in and when to step it up a gear.  And we have to understand how and why such decisions have an impact on the overall goal.  That’s impossible if we don’t truly understand the overall purpose of the mission and how we contribute to it, not simply as an individual, but as part of a team.

As for the leader’s role in all of this?  Communicate and then communicate some more.  Share as much as you can with your team(s) about the business strategy, and when it comes to defining individual roles and objectives, don’t just tell.  Involve and explain.  By creating context (‘if you do this, the impact on the team/business will be ….’) you create understanding.  Collaboration generally results in co-operation.   Which in turn delivers better results for everyone.

3) A sense of ‘value’

In the world of rowing, showing up (on time) is not just an expectation, it’s mission critical.  If one oarsman oversleeps, it’s game over for the whole crew.  Every man or woman in the boat is literally indispensable. More to the point, the crew member who shows up, but doesn’t pull their weight on the water will be the very definition of dead wood.

Of course, back in the corporate world, we’d like to think that you’ve got a workforce in place who are at the very least inclined to turn up for work every day in a timely fashion.  That’s a given, and it’s a basic contractual obligation.  But when your people show up, do they understand what they are there to do?  Probably.  Now delve deeper into that question and ask yourself if they understand the impact and value of their part in your business process, however small.  Have you communicated why it is important and how it helps to deliver the end goal? What things (big or small) do you do as a leader to show your appreciation for a job well done? OK, so there are few people in business who are truly indispensable.  But we all like to know that what we do counts and makes a difference.  It’s what creates a sense of pride in our work, and it’s what makes the difference between being the dead wood that turns up in order to get paid, and the motivated employee who comes in each day driven to give of their best, with an inherent desire not to let team mates down.

4) Trust 

In a coxed boat, only one person faces the direction of travel, although the race course and strategy will have been discussed and dissected by all crew members well ahead of the race itself. On the water, the crew have to implicitly trust their cox to steer them on the right course and tactically implement the race strategy.  There is no scope for doubt, and no time for each crew member to periodically peer over their shoulder to check for missed obstacles.

In the business world, trust also goes a long way.  As a leader your role is to define and communicate the strategy, and then to make sure your team are equipped and supported to deliver it.  Your team not only need to understand and believe in your vision and share your goals; they also need to trust in your ability to navigate them. That’s just for starters, when things are going perfectly to plan.  This isn’t, however, an ideal world.  Things will go wrong occasionally.  Indeed, at times, not everyone will agree with 100% of your decisions.  These are the times when trust truly counts.  Human nature dictates that we are far more likely to take a leap of faith at the bidding of someone we trust and believe in.

Trust works both ways, though.  You can’t inspire trust as a leader, unless you give trust back.  If you’ve got the right people in the right seats, with the right resources to do the job, and a clear understanding of what’s required of them, then step back and give them the space and scope to get on with it.  The best leaders empower, they don’t micro- manage.

5) Belonging and engagement

Being part of a crew does not start and end in the boat.  It extends way beyond that, from the directly related activities such as training in the gym together, through to the emotional connections created through socialising over the clubhouse bar.  Rowing to win takes a commitment, both physically and emotionally – every crew member has to dig deep and find that extra 10% in them to get to the finish line.  Nobody can do that alone 100% of the time, and when one person ‘hits the wall’ they need their crew mates to rally them through.  A sense of belonging fosters a supportive crew culture.  It engenders engagement and positivity – the ability to celebrate the wins but also to gain from the losses, rather than wallow in ‘failure’.

In the workplace, not every day is a stellar day.  So, for the typical employee, the difference between turning a bad week at the office into a reason to quit, and dusting oneself off with renewed inspiration for the week ahead?  Well, that’s called ‘engagement’, and broadly speaking, it’s the extent to which people feel an emotional connection to the organisation, and feel that there is a collective desire and commitment to achieve together. Engagement comes from believing in the purpose and the end goal, understanding how one contributes to it, feeling equipped and supported to achieve it, and trusting that (even in the face of the occasional blip) the leadership team are steering the ship in the right direction.

So, how engaged are your employees, not only with their role and with the business, but also with one another?  Do you know what motivates them and drives them?  Do you know what aspects of your organisational environment, team culture and operational structure make them feel disenchanted or cock-a-hoop?  If you aren’t sure, it’s probably time you found out.  And don’t just ask the vocal ones.  Root around in the furthest corners of your team structure and make sure you give everyone a voice, even the wallflowers.  The secret to creating an engaged team is first finding out what matters most to whom, and then doing your best (within reason) to respond and react accordingly.

6) Consistency and retention 

There’s a huge difference between the performance of a scratch crew and that of a professional crew.  One is a group, the other is a team.  In the former, everyone knows what to do, but they don’t share the conviction, passion, shared understanding and connection of the latter.  Pit one against the other, and only a fool would wager the scratch crew to win on the water.  Naturally veterans will retire, and injuries will occur, but high performing clubs plan for this and build reserve crew members whose transition into the boat becomes relatively seamless.

In business the same applies – if you’re constantly losing people, you’re battling with a scratch crew all the time.  Retention will be your number one friend, and succession planning comes a close second. Of course, if you’re doing all of the above right, your engagement levels should translate into a stable, focused and driven team.  But a certain level of attrition is natural and acceptable, so it’s important to plan one step ahead. Great leaders identify and develop the next in line for all business critical roles.  How ready are you for the unexpected, should it happen?

If you’ve never stood on a river bank and watched a high standard crew glide past, it’s worth doing.  The sound of eight blades slicing into the water with precision synchronicity echoes onto the riverbank with rhythmic timing.  And there is something incredibly impressive about eight oarsmen (only one of whom can see all seven of the others) arcing their blades above the water at exactly the same height on every stroke, creating perfect balance.  That’s teamwork at its best.  And when the crew harmonise on this level, it appears to the onlooker as if the boat glides over the water with effortless efficiency.  Of course, that’s only partly true (there’s considerable physical input from those on board!). But one thing’s for sure.  Every man or woman in that boat has to work a lot less hard when they pull together, than when they paddle to their own agenda.

If you’d like to make sure that your business is slicing through the corporate waters with precision, then you need not just a winning strategy, but a winning culture of teamwork and leadership.  Contact us to discuss how The WinningFormula can offer a holistic assessment of how both your strategy and culture are impacting your business, resulting in a strategic report (see example report) which will tell you specifically how you can make the right kind of changes for the better.

If you are interested in using The WinningFormula, please view visit our website for further information.

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