Make the Boat Go Faster

1 July 2011 Ben Hunt-Davis

Olympic rower Ben Hunt-Davis and executive coach Harriet Beveridge show how Olympic team-building techniques can be used in the corporate environment.

The term 'team-building' has become stale from overuse, conjuring up images of ghastly ice breakers on well-meaning training courses.  But teams are the glue of our organisations and we ignore team-building at our peril. Without effective collaboration we waste money, miss opportunities, lose productivity. Is your board an effective team or a collection of individuals? Are the teams across your workplace pulling together or generating friction?

Here are ten proven strategies for building peak performing teams.  They are methods which the British Rowing Men's Eight used to transform themselves from a poor crew (which crashed out of the Atlanta and Barcelona Olympics and came 7th in the 1998 World Championships) to Olympic Gold medallists at the Sydney Games in 2000. Crew member, Ben Hunt-Davis, and leading Executive Coach, Harriet Beveridge, have been using these strategies to help innumerable corporate teams over the last ten years achieve exceptional performance.

Agree a mouth-watering goal.

What goal will excite and motivate everyone in the team? What will benefit each member personally? Let the team decide the goal if possible.  For example, a successful Regional Director at a High Street Bank gets his branches to set their own goals.  His approach has seen those in the bottom quartile leapfrog into the top ten nationally. Why? Because they've bought in, they own the goal. If it's simply not practicable for the team to decide the goal, then members can identify and share 'what's in it for me'.

Make the goal concrete

A tangible, measurable goal means every ounce of effort can be directed in the same direction. Clear goals are like magnets, pulling your team together and focussing energies through current challenges towards future success.  All too often corporate team members are given vague or conflicting exhortations about priorities from high up and get overwhelmed and frustrated. What specifically does success look like? How will you all know when you get there?

Agree some golden rules


Ben and his crew agreed team rules. These ranged from the technical - make sure every chin up is a full chin up - to the attitudinal - control what can be controlled and let go of the rest. How does each team members need to behave in order to get the best out of each other? Be clear, be specific - make sure you all understand and sign up to them. Keep revisiting them in team discussions - are they still helpful or do they need revising? Are we following them and if not how can we make sure we do?

Celebrate feedback

The word 'feedback' sends most of us running for cover, but Ben and his crew actively sought it out and celebrated it.  Their attitude was, 'If you can spot something which might improve my performance then tell me right away. Don't waste a minute -so I can turn things around quickly.' Discuss as a team what will make it easier to give and receive feedback - when, where and how should it be given? Example ingredients of useful feedback typically include information which is specific, timely, focused on behaviours rather than personalities and delivered with positive intent.

Keep talking

Ben and his crew spent so much time off the water - talking - that it was noticed and criticised by others outside the team. The perception was that they weren't doing 'proper' work, when in fact they were analysing their performance, figuring out how to up their game, giving each other feedback.  Before every session they would agree what they wanted to achieve and learn in the session. After every session they would discuss what had gone well and what they needed to do differently another time.

Treat facts as facts and opinion as opinion

The Eight never shied away from facts, however painful they might be to confront, and they treated opinion as opinion.  For example, they treated feedback purely as interesting opinion - it was up to the receiver to digest it and decide what to do with it. Negative comments from outsiders were simply opinions too. The crew's job was to figure out what might be helpful to move them forwards and to let go of the unhelpful and irrelevant. All too often in the corporate world we take someone's unhelpful opinion and treat it as irrefutable fact.

Don't treat others as you want to be treated yourself

Treat them as they need to be treated.  We all have different learning styles, communication styles, motivators and preferences. In Ben's crew for example there was one member who needed nagging to eat properly, another who needed to be given time to talk things through until he understood them, another who needed help controlling his temper.  We don't need to become chameleons, surrendering our own preferences and bowing to others, we just need to have empathy and flex enough to get the best out of each other.

Build bouncebackability.

Setbacks happen to even the most prepared of teams.  When things go awry, focus on finding the silver lining in the cloud.  What could be good or useful about the setback? How can you use it?  What is a useful interpretation to give it? The more your team can tap into a resourceful state of mind the more likely it is to find a positive way forward.

Control the controllables and let go of the rest

When the crew's boat broke a few weeks before the Olympics they knew that worrying about it would only drain their energy and diminish their chances.  They focused instead on what they could do - such as putting together a fundraising plan to buy a new boat. What can your team control and influence? How much more effective could you be if you focussed more of your effort and activity on that, and let go of the things you can't do anything about?

Have strong belief.

The British eight diarised belief-building sessions in just the same way that they scheduled weights sessions or endurance training. Why? Because strong beliefs breed positive behaviours.  Why are you becoming a great team? Why can you achieve your goal? Why is it so important to you all? Share your thoughts regularly as a team, write them down, and keep referring to them. Ben and the crew reviewed their list before the Olympic Final to fire up their confidence for the race of their lives.

Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge's book, Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? Olympic-Winning Strategies for Everyday Success is out now.

Harriet Beveridge and Ben Hunt-Davis, authors of Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? Olympic-Winning Strategies for Everyday Success.