Andy Rice asks Clipper Round the World Race skipper Nikki Henderson for her top tips on bringing together an unfamiliar crew with varying experience levels
According to Nikki Henderson, good leadership is not about barking orders, it’s about fostering an atmosphere of shared responsibility and finding out what really motivates the individuals on your team. The more you seek to understand your crew, the more respect you’re likely to earn from them. Once you have that respect, you can inspire your team to create a shared vision of success.
Henderson admits that she had plenty of moments in the Clipper Race when she experienced the loneliness of the skipper, and the burden of feeling like you always need to be ready with the right answer for any given situation. But she also learned a lot about herself and the application of good leadership.
We asked her how she would approach working with a new crew for the first time in a regatta and how to build a sense of teamwork with only limited time and resources. Here are her five best tips for how to go about it…
1. Break down barriers
When you’re meeting your crew for the first time, whatever the range of skill on board, it’s important to break the ice, and break down barriers. It can be really powerful to get everyone in a circle and ask each of them a revealing question. Nothing sailing related, and not just the usual “What do you do for a living?”, but more like “What motivates you?”, or “What is this week about for you?” Something really honest.
Don’t ask them about their sailing experience, because part of the aim of this exercise is to create an atmosphere of equality, where everyone on the team is equally valued regardless of their expertise.
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2. Treat everyone the same
People come in all shapes and sizes, and with very different personalities. Whether they puff out their chest to tell you how great they are, or are shy and retiring, it’s important to place everyone on a level footing.
For example, you could come across someone who claims they’ve barely done any sailing. It could be they are very, very modest and have actually spend their childhood dinghy sailing – which could make them a great helmsman.
As skipper, you need to be listening hard, there’s a lot of information to take in. By doing this, you’re also showing what kind of leader you are: non-judgemental, team-orientated, and receptive to the thoughts and ideas of everyone on board.
3. Build a shared vision
When a new crew comes together everyone’s always going to have a slightly different idea of what they’re looking to get out of the experience. As a leader you’re trying to get them to buy into one vision. It’s a lot easier to get them to do that if they accept you as a person.
If we’re talking about racing with a crew of mixed ability, you have to set expectations realistically. How well you do will largely come down to how much training time you have together. Unless you are a known quantity in the fleet and you understand the level of competition you’re up against, it’s difficult to base your shared vision on a particular result.
If you’re going out for the first time together for day one of Cowes Week, it’s obviously unrealistic to have winning on your agenda.
4. Be better tomorrow
Aiming for a particular result on the scoreboard depends on a lot of external factors outside of your control. Instead of being obsessed about the result, focus on a process of always improving.
When you go out for day one of the competition, sail as well as you can. But it’s equally important to take away some areas of improvement you can bring to your game for the next day.
The best teams in the world always go out to do better than they did the day before. Whatever your team’s ability, a focus on incremental improvement is highly motivating.
5. Film the day
When things go wrong, don’t analyse them in the moment, you need to put mistakes to one side, look forwards and get on with the race.
The post-race debrief is the time to look at what went right and what went wrong, and even then, the whole crew should be encouraged to operate in a no-blame culture. That’s sometimes easier than done, but one thing that can really help is to have a video camera (a GoPro or similar action cam) mounted at the back of the boat, which faces forwards and runs for the whole race.
People get so focused and caught up on their own job that they don’t often get a chance to see the bigger picture. Running a movie from the back of the boat helps people understand what everyone else is doing and how each individual role contributes to the whole.
It’s a great tool for constructive feedback, and great for accelerating day-by-day improvement.
About the expert
Nikki Henderson became the youngest skipper ever to complete an around the world race when she finished 2nd in the 2017/18 Clipper Race, two days after her 25th birthday. A highly experienced professional, Nikki is competing in this summer’s 750-mile Race to Alaska, and has also skippered yachts in the RORC Caribbean 600 as well as completing two Rolex Fastnet Races.