What managers and entrepreneurs can learn from ocean racing (Forbes – MIT Leadership centre)


By Hal Gregersen 

Today’s tireless leaders face difficult challenges every day. Market fluctuations. Competitive pressures. Crisis situations like natural disasters or product failures. Complicated situations and critical circumstances demand a level head, clear vision and a team focused on surviving the temporary tumult. But what if your challenges were even more extreme? And permanent?

Imagine this: For nine months of the year, you’re along for the ride of a wave- and wind-powered adventure, totaling 39,000 miles, 11 countries and six continents. The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the toughest competitions in the world, in any sport. A 24/7 grind. Physically demanding. Mentally exhausting.

This is Jordi Neves’ world. Neves and his globally dispersed team curate, cultivate, create and share stories from the sailors, about the race and around the event itself. It’s a behemoth technology and content challenge, and one that he’s become quite adept at leading. He’s not bragging, nor is he dismissive. Quite the opposite. Neves is even-keeled and matter of fact as he shares stories with me from his almost seven years with Volvo Ocean Race, first as its technical director and now chief digital officer.

Neves’ experiences are extreme, indeed. But as we research what we call “problem-led leadership” here at the MIT Leadership Center, tackling innovation, solving edgy problems, and keeping teams focused and motivated are high demands and invaluable skills in every sector. Here are three from Neves’ leadership book.

Get out of the office to problem-solve.

Planning only gets you so far – and so much information. The need to experiment and listen, versus planning and reacting, is vital. And that doesn’t happen within the confines of an office. “Just like with any product these days, whenever you get into design, the worst place to be is in an office,” Neves explained with a chuckle.

Instead, he actively seeks out passive data. He and his team are obsessively customer-focused. Onboard and on land, they talk to as many people as possible. Probing beneath the surface, they get at the true perspectives and perceptions that shape – and reshape – their approach to storytelling. Diverse thinking leads to diverse approaches, and both up the probability that the content Neves and his team creates reaches and resonates with all audiences.

But it’s not only “outside” customers who give crucial cues when prompted in the right ways. Inside his organization, Neves drops email as soon as the race starts and relies on face-to-face or Skype communication to get the rich information he needs. It’s a simple yet bold action that speaks volumes.

“We try to listen as wide as we can, as much as we can,” Neves says. Seeking out information is key to problem-solving – and team-building.

Pay deep attention to your team.

Neves learned that the hard way. It was about eight years ago that he really started listening more to his team than hierarchy.

“It was a particularly stressful time,” he recalled. “I realized I was expecting too much and abandoning that other side – abandoning the guys down below. And the only way to come up with a solution and fix it was to spend most of my effort and time on the guys on deck.”

By posing strategic questions to his team – How can we fix this? How can we change this? – Neves discovered amazing solutions and answers. Empowering your team can have dramatic results. Strategic thinking, after all, shouldn’t just be “up there.” It should be across entire teams – and organizations.

Sweat the small stuff – but keep it simple.

When you’re running an intensive, 24/7 operation, the smallest of details can make a big difference,  especially when it comes to keeping your team’s energy high and morale even higher. For Neves, calls to his team often aren’t work related. He’s not checking in on the project status, but on the people behind the project. “Sometimes, it’s just a ‘How are you? How are you feeling? How’s your family?’” And other times, it’s just making sure his team gets the right hotel accommodations “on the road.”

“Those little details really matter, because when you’re performing at 120% for such a long time…” knowing someone – especially your boss – cares can make a world of difference.

Two Lessons from the Seas of Uncertainty

Few leaders face such open oceans of uncertainty in their day-to-day work. Thankfully. But the lessons Jordi Neves has learned while at Volvo Ocean Race aren’t just for leaders of extreme challenges; they’re widely applicable. Adopting just two seemingly simple actions will help motivate your team – and you – beyond 100% all the time.

  1. Create a space where people can raise their voices. Empowerment leads to trust. And when people feel comfortable and encouraged to speak up, great things surface. Together, you’ll attack problems. Create solutions. Ideate. Innovate. This is the safe space where the tough stuff gets tackled, and high motivation and morale become the norm rather than the exception. Put simply, leaders create a space where inquiry leads to insight and insight to action.
  2. Listen; really listen. We all give lip service to listening as a leadership and management skill. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t support the idea of active listening. But actually doing it – and doing it when you’re in a really tough situation and your overwhelming impulse is just to react– is much more difficult. When leaders really listen to their people, and their customers, powerful things happen.

Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and author ofQuestions are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life (HarperCollins, 2018).  


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