Want to build a high performing team? then it’s time to cast your ego aside and get real says record breaking skipper, Nikki Henderson


The first thing I do when I meet a new crew is gather everyone together and get each member to introduce themselves. It’s a pretty common thing for team leaders to do whether on land or sea.

For the RORC Caribbean 600 race this year, 12 of us sat together sweltering under the boom tent and spent over an hour on this introduction. Alongside the usual, “How do you like to be called?” and “What’s your sailing experience?” I asked, “What are you hoping to get out of this experience?” and “What are you feeling nervous about?”

For many, this whole process can feel like a waste of time. A life story about the challenges someone overcame to go sailing isn’t relevant, right? What we need to know is: can you trim a sail? We’re going racing. We’re not here to sail 600 miles for therapy.

But brushing off the importance of getting to know the individuals on the team is old fashioned and narrow minded. High performing teams are not made from high performance robots, and it would be naïve to think that a win over a multi-day race is simply the result of polishing up hard skills.

Giving each member of the team a dedicated time slot to talk about themselves has so many benefits. It plants the seed for an inclusive culture; everyone speaks, so this is a team in which every person is equally valued. It reinforces the value of listening, both up and down the chain of command.

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This is critical if you want your crew to catch your blind spots and speak up if they see a safety or performance related issue on the racecourse. And if you choose – as I did – to ask deeper questions than a resumé summary, it inspires openness and trust.

A trusting team doesn’t waste time second guessing or micromanaging one another. Less time-wasting on these ‘soft’ issues means faster sailing.

Saying all that, I left the meeting second guessing how I should have answered my own questions.

“Do you think I should have ‘bigged’ myself up more?” I asked Alex, my co-skipper. So many skippers reel off all their achievements to instil confidence. I missed a few important ones. Was I foolish to admit that I was feeling the nag of imposter syndrome?

Alex made an astute observation: as a skipper, ground yourself on the purpose of these meetings. The aim of that meeting was to begin building the team. It wasn’t a meeting to polish my ego. And if I’d used that meeting to elevate my sense of self-importance, I’d have risked making everyone else feel smaller. He felt that honesty and humility was apt for the occasion.

But is it that cut and dry? Is there a place for ego in sailing? Surely ego is an important part of a drive to win? Perhaps in solo sailing, but with team sailing ego is unhelpful. An inflated sense of self-importance, a feeling of being ‘higher’ than your team, impedes your own learning.

Very early sunrise and freshly brewed coffee for Nikki Henderson as she starts a watch

Ironically, by focusing on your ‘greatness’ you risk flatlining your own progression. A steep hierarchical structure on a boat can create a chasm between leader and crew. The skipper can end up relying too heavily on their own opinions. This is especially risky when combined with lack of sleep and physical exertion – risky for performance, yes, but also for safety.

A friend of mine is a leading executive in the tech industry. It’s commonly thought, she explained, that success comes from pleasing those more powerful than you, and thus you rise to the top of the ladder. But the real mark of success comes when you get there.

The real leaders are those who bring people with them up the food chain. When you need to hire a new team on short notice, have you won the support of those that you’ve led in the past? Will they choose to follow you again?

I took this to heart. We all have a choice as leaders. We can use our moment in the spotlight to promote ourselves – the team will have confidence in your skills for sure – but what of you as a leader? Much better to use your position of power to shine a light on the rest of the team.

So, in that first introduction, rather than listing off your accomplishments, join your crew at their level and admit your weaknesses as well as your strengths. You’ll gain their confidence and their trust. They’ll believe you are there for them, and in turn they’ll be there for you – motivated to work hard, and sail fast.

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