It was unconventional that’s for sure. I actually lived in Northamptonshire right in the middle of the UK, as far away from the sea as you could get! And the first 21 years of my life were sailing free! Then on graduating from University I was sat with my father at the kitchen table and he was reading the Telegraph when an advert inviting applications for the Tall Ships Race was revealed. I said that looks interesting, and he said well if you want to do it as a present for graduating then he’d back me as long as I did all the work to apply. I did, and it showed me what I could do and I never looked back.
Post that first race on the high seas, coming home was a real anti climax. But I felt I should follow others and get a job which I did as a Media Planner/Buyer in London. But it was quickly obvious I was a square peg in a round hole, and 2 years later I left to sail again. I then sailed non-stop for 6 years, climbing the ranks on various yachts and races until I came across the Global Challenge where I took a role as a training skipper for those getting ready to do the race. That led to the Skipper selection procedure where 186 skippers vied for the 12 jobs. And somehow I made it through…
Several things. The only race that sails the wrong way around the world, against the spin of the earth which is akin to climbing the north face of everest. And the fact that anyone can do it as long as you’re between 18 and 60, and no experience is required. Which means we end up being given a diverse international amateur team, 70% who had never sailed before and who had never met each other. What greater test of Leadership and teamwork is there?
It was never in my game plan going into the race that afterwards I’d make a career out of sharing the learning. It was really due to my sponsor, BP, being curious and really wanting to know what we’d learnt to help them get ordinary people to achieve the extraordinary in a constantly changing, highly competitive environment. I was invited to put something together for an upcoming leadership conference which I did. That led to over 250 more worldwide as the lessons resonated so much for them.
The race was full of scary and challenging moments – the key was always to be on the right side of the line because getting it wrong would be unthinkable. But that’s not to say that sometimes we weren’t perilously close to disaster. I remember one time in the Southern Ocean when we got caught out by a fast moving squall with much too much sail up. It was a ‘all hands on deck moment’ and in my haste to get up on deck from my bunk I dispensed with getting my foul weather gear on. So I ended up on the wheel in 60 mph winds in a T’shirt, underpants and lifejacket whilst the rest of the crew wrestled the sails to the deck in the dark! It was so windy the tops of the surrounding waves were getting blown off resulting in constant spray lashing our faces and visibility was near zero. At those times you just hope that everyone is looking out for themselves and each other and making sure they were clipped to the boat. Because if anyone went over the side there was zero chance we were getting them back…
When I looked back across the race there was some clear things we had done that allowed us to not just survive but thrive. And those things were absolutely applicable to business teams too. But although we had leant those things, when I started working with Leaders and Teams it felt they were missing some of that knowledge. So it felt natural to want to share it, and that was bolstered by the success I had had speaking within BP.
Every company has been disrupted in one way or another, and it’s been a tumultuous and unsettling time for employees. I talk about the need to focus on 3 key elements to lay the foundations for a successful bounce back which were our Values on the team – to be SAFE, HAPPY and FAST.
So firstly make it SAFE – safe in terms of making it physically safe to continue working and collaborating, but also focusing on emotional safety by reassuring everyone that there is still a future for the business and their roles. And finally to create psychological safety, allowing everyone to be brutally honest and open about the challenges facing them and the business.
Next up is HAPPY. Making people feel included and valued, reengaging them around the organisations purpose and why that’s worth going after but also aligning that to their career goals and dreams. And creating empowerment and fulfilment through stretch assignments that help them and the company forge forwards.
And lastly the need to be FAST. Slow boats never win, not on the race course and definitely not in business. So the need to be fast at deciding future direction, fast at making the business efficient, fast at being agile in order to learn what works best for the new normal.
I still get people years after seeing me recount SAFE, HAPPY, FAST back to me and say that it really stuck in their minds and has been a guiding light. So yes I think I can confidently say that I can make change stick.
Achieving more. There’s still so much more impact I can make, and that’s what drives me day in day out.
The joy of speaking on Leadership is that it’s not just the leaders who benefit. It’s their teams that will really feel that, and that’s enormously satisfying, making such a difference to so many more than those in front of you. And I just love seeing the bells go off for people as they run their own parallel story whilst listening. And I guess I just love the intricacies and challenges of being a professional speaker, a bit like those of being a professional skipper!