Think you know how to get your team to work together? Imagine navigating a tiny boat through a sudden, violent storm at sea—with winds roaring at nearly 100 mph and waves soaring to 80 feet—to not only survive, but triumph over formidable competitors in one of the world’s toughest ocean races. It’s a feat claimed by the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler, overall winner of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart—the most treacherous and tragic race to date in the six-decade history of Australia’s iconic competition. As Dennis Perkins, an expert on thriving under daunting conditions, shows in his book INTO THE STORM it’s also a feat rich in lessons for anyone tasked with maintaining smooth, effective teamwork—and delivering winning results—in the unpredictable, turbulent waters of today’s business environment.
Inspired by the Ramblers—the Midnight Rambler’s team of one determined skipper and six dedicated amateur sailors—here are five crucial strategies for teamwork at the edge of human endurance:
1. Put team unity first. Make the team the rock star. Find committed team members who want to go all the way. “A business team that aspires to excellence may not have the same physical challenges as an ocean racing crew,” Perkins acknowledges, “but lofty goals require sacrifice, dedication, and the ability to persevere. Selecting people with the right levels of confidence and motivation is fundamental. Realistic job previews are important.”
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Remove all excuses for failure. Preparing in advance for everything the team needs to do to succeed is crucial. But so is continuing to prepare while racing toward the team’s goals and while navigating through a crisis. “Successful teams master the art of bifocal vision,” Perkins attests. “They have the ability to focus on current challenges while, at the same time, preparing for longer-term threats and opportunities.”
3. Strive for balanced optimism. Find and focus on the winning scenario. Be absolutely clear about what it means to win. For some team members, winning means being the first in their field to achieve a breakthrough result. For others, it means coming in under budget. For any team that aspires to win, the first step is to define winning. “Only then will the team have a clear shared understanding of their race,” states Perkins. “With that awareness, the team can plan a strategy for taking home their trophy.”
4. Create a culture of relentless learning and innovation. Think gung-ho—a phrase rooted in teamwork. Originally an abbreviation for Chinese industrial cooperatives, gung-ho came to be translated as “work in harmony” by some Americans—including Colonel Evans Carlson, who, during World War II, implemented the radical practice of gung-ho meetings, where everyone, regardless of rank, has a right to speak up. As Perkins notes, “The ability to talk honestly about what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work is critical to effective teamwork.”
5. Take calculated risks. Test your limits before the storm hits. The Ramblers, who had sailed together for years and knew what they were capable of as a team, deliberately pushed their limits early in the race. They broached twice, and each time recovered. As a result, they were ready to take on the storm, with confidence, when it hit. “Only by taking small risks will teams be able to assess their ability to take on big ones—and to sail into the storm when they need to,” declares Perkins.
For over twenty-five years, Dennis N.T. Perkins, Ph.D., has advised senior leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 50 corporations to nonprofit associations. His current focus is on developing leadership in organizations, especially under conditions of rapid change, economic adversity, sudden growth, and other demanding environments. He has written extensively on leadership and organizational effectiveness and is a featured keynote speaker to groups and organizations throughout the year.
Jillian Murphy graduated magna cum laude from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and completed her Masters in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of New Haven. Jillian has studied, worked and volunteered extensively in Cape Town, South Africa and coordinated the Honors Study Abroad Program for the University of Connecticut. She also has significant research experience and has worked with the Networking AIDS Community of South Africa, the African National Congress Women's League and the Department of Epidemiology and Health at Yale University.