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Sailing into a high-performing team

5 min read


How clear is your team’s “organizational constitution”? Does every team member understand and align to your team’s desired purpose, values, strategies, and goals?

If team members don’t know or don’t align to your team’s purpose, values, strategies, and goals, your team will experience inconsistent performance, team member conflict, the inability to shift to embrace a new goal, and worse.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to learn how to sail a 30-foot Shields racing sailboat. I didn’t realize then that this sailing gig would be a powerful education on the importance of team purpose, values, strategy and goals.

A buddy in Southern California joined his college sailing club. He earned his qualification to take one of the university’s Shields into the harbor and out on the Pacific Ocean.

On our first day, five of us joined Steve to begin building sailing skills, teaming skills, sailing etiquette, and much more.

The boat was powered entirely by the wind — it had no onboard or outboard motor. Each team member had specific responsibilities to manage the boom, main sail, the jib, and (periodically) the spinnaker to harness the wind power and get us safely where we needed to go.

The purpose of our “sailing team” was to cooperate and communicate to safely operate our boat in a busy harbor — and to build our sailing and teaming skills at the same time.

Our prioritized values were 1) safety, 2) excellence (individual and team), 3) teamwork, and 4) fun. By prioritizing our values, we could ensure that no team member would sacrifice safety for fun, for example. No tossing team members over the side!

Our strategies included cross-training. Each of us learned at least two different roles, each with differing responsibilities. Manning the tiller — maneuvering the rudder to steer the boat — required different skills than manning the starboard winch.

We learned the commands that Steve (as the boat’s captain) would use. “Come about” caused a great deal of (mostly) aligned activity by all of us as the boat tacked into the wind and the boom shifted quickly just inches over our ducked heads.

Another strategy was to learn how to sail and team effectively in the calm waters of the harbor before heading out into the much stronger ocean winds, waves and currents. We discussed having four to six separate harbor days to practice and align our skills. Then, we’d assess our abilities to manage in the much riskier ocean environment.

Dockside, we practiced our roles and skills until Steve felt comfortable taking us into the harbor, amongst other boats (some powered, some not).

Our first goal was to sail safely and calmly into the traffic patterns of the harbor from our dock — in light or strong winds.

Our second goal was to go beyond our specific role responsibilities and learn to read the wind, to read our sails. The yarn “tell-tales” in the sails told us whether or not we had the sail set to maximize the available winds on our course.

Our third goal was to enjoy the strength and speed of a beautifully configured sailboat — to enjoy the wind, to enjoy our teamwork, and to breathe deeply between the mad activity of tacking in strong winds.

We grew as a team because of our shared purpose and values, and common strategies and goals. Despite a few harrowing moments in harbor traffic, we evolved into the ocean-going team we hoped to become.

What do you think? How well do your team’s members understand and align to your team’s purpose, values, strategies, and goals? Share your thoughts about this post/podcast in the comments section below.

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant with his own firm and the Ken Blanchard Cos. He has authored or co-authored four books, one with Ken Blanchard. Learn about Chris’ services and subscribe to his blog posts & podcasts at

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Podcast – Listen to this post now with the player below. Subscribe via RSS or iTunes. The music heard on these podcasts is from one of my songs, “Heartfelt,” copyright © Chris Edmonds Music (ASCAP). I play all instruments on these recordings.

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