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5 communication skills leaders can learn from America’s Cup

Posted by Hannah Price | 5 min read

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Watching the America’s Cup boat race this year has been eye-opening. Not because of the exhilarating speed or extraordinary competitiveness, but because of the outstanding communication between the crew members and captains.

As these boats zip through the water at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour, skippers and tacticians work rapidly, guiding their crews to overcome ever-changing conditions and challenges. Their teamwork is remarkable. Rarely do they miss a beat.

The key to their unflappable teamwork under pressure is the communication of the captain. No longer do they bark instructions like the skippers of old. That command-and-control leadership style has given way to systematic communication that gives the team the information and motivation they need. This results in a highly agile team that nimbly tackles anything thrown at them.

As I listened to the skippers communicating with their crew, I jotted down ways in which leaders could apply this type of communication in the workplace. Here’s what I found:

What business leaders should learn from skippers

The last thing most business leaders want to do in a high-pressure, high stakes situation is relinquish control. They hate it. Instead, they usually tighten their grip on the reins and micromanage situations.

The world-renowned skippers of the America’s Cup are doing the exact opposite.

They’ve moved away from step-by-step calls - “Ready about! Sheet in.” - because today’s boats are too quick for that type of communication. Much like in business today, things happen fast. That old style of command and control simply cannot keep up.

Instead, captains are conveying intent and purpose. Their communication is all about aligning, preparing, and encouraging the team so everyone is ready to respond to the next challenge. And they’re listening to the crew. They’re hearing the feedback and replying accordingly.

 “You really get the sense for just how the conversational tone helps. There is no level of voice raising. No level of stress. When you get it all together like this, it’s pretty special.” Ken Read, commentator and previous America’s Cup skipper.

This is what we need to see more of in today’s leaders. And here are five ways to achieve it. 

5 skills leaders can learn from America's Cup

1. Clarity

A key part of team success is role clarity. Every crew member on these boats knows the full extent of their role. In business, roles tend to morph, with employees taking on new projects and tasks. Leaders should communicate regularly with employees so they’re aware of any changes and can monitor workload and processes.

At all times, every team member should know their role well, understand their part in the process, and see how it relates to the other team members. If this is a reality, even the most complex challenges can be overcome with effective sequencing and less will slip through the cracks.

2. Goal setting

Leaders should clearly define what the goals are, rather than obsessing about the path to those goals. Their teams should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and independence to achieve those goals as a nimble cohort. I think this quote sums it up nicely:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” — General George Patton

Leaders should be clear about company and project goals at all times, then allow staff to use their own specialized skills and points of view to help find success.

3. Feedback

As you listen to the captains in the America’s Cup, you can hear they’re constantly providing (or listening to) feedback. Not only is their feedback encouraging - keeping spirits high - they’re giving frequent updates and keeping everyone in the loop.

There’s no reason this shouldn’t be happening more in the workplace. Employees want to know how their work contributes to achieving overall goals, giving their work a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s important leaders make this as transparent as possible, whether through in-person conversation or with the use of communication software.

Leaders should also be recognizing and rewarding their people - according to a recent survey, 83 percent of employees who worked for a company with a recognition program stated that they were content with their jobs. Contentment and satisfaction lead to higher rates of employee engagement, which in turn leads to higher productivity and lower turnover rates. (Check out this article if you’re looking for innovative ways to reward and recognize people)

4. Independence

Know when to give your team independence and when to step in. Sometimes a leader’s direction can be helpful. Sometimes it can be frustrating. The one thing it isn’t? Sustainable.

You’ll only ever have 24 hours in your day and as your company grows, you won’t be able to manage each project as closely as you once did. The last thing you want is a company that needs to lean on one leader disproportionately.

Learn the level to which you need to be involved and encourage your team members to own their responsibilities and contribution to the team. Presumably they were hired because of their knowledge, capability, or expertise - which you may not necessarily have yourself. Allow them to bring these skills to the team effort.

5. Listening

The America’s Cup crews are phenomenal at intra-team communication. There’s a lot of chatter to keep everyone on task, but there’s even more listening. That includes the captain. It’s key that he’s listening to feedback from other crew members on changing conditions and possible dangers.

It’s the same for business. Your people each have their own speciality and they’ll know when there’s danger afoot - whether that’s the chance of a customer leaving, a big sale not going through, or low office morale. Employees should feel that they can communicate these issues with you and that they’ll be heard.

Ensure that your teams not only know the best way to reach you, but that you’re genuinely open to the communication. If your behaviour suggests their feedback is a nuisance, they’ll stop communicating with you… but that won’t make the problem go away. It will simply be left unresolved and your team will be left unsupported – or worse, they’ll leave.

In conclusion

There’s a lot to be learnt from the crews competing in the America’s Cup. They demonstrate how high-quality communication and role clarity can deliver outstanding results. I see no reason why business leaders can’t put these communication fundamentals into practice more often to improve teamwork in the workplace and achieve similarly impressive results.

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