3 Management Lessons You Can Learn From Sailing

Our CEO Agnes Butterworth has just returned from a sailing holiday in Croatia and she learnt some lessons along the way. Here’s her story.

I have just come back from a sailing holiday in Croatia. My husband and I, me being a named skipper, chartered a yacht and sailed around Croatian islands in the North Adriatic. Even though I’m far from being an expert, I love sailing as it shapes you as a person. The ever-changing sea, its power and unpredictability test your patience, ability, self-control and resilience. When you’re out there, it’s just you, your crew and the elements. I do see many parallels between sailing and management. Whether it’s a business, team, or a department you manage, it’s always you, your team and the ‘elements’.

Here are some management lessons I have learned from skippering a sailing yacht.

1. Perspective

It always amazes me how different things look at sea depending on how far you are from them. You may see a lighthouse from afar and you’re perfectly convinced that it’s on the shore. Yet as you get closer, you realise it’s actually on an island 200 yards from the coast.

As a manager, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in how you see things, and how you feel about them. Strong-minded people have a tendency (I’m guilty of it myself) to see only their own perspective and forget that others might see things differently. They might be looking at the lighthouse from the shore, or they might be far away at sea and not even know it exists yet. Whatever situation you are in, it’s worth the effort to get to know other people’s perspectives as only then can we see the full picture and make a better-informed decision.

2. Re-evaluate your plan

I love planning. The majority of our holidays involve some sort of a road or sea trip, and I always make sure we have a good, well-researched plan in place. I prepared a perfect route for our Croatian sailing adventure – nice views, decent open water passages, beautifully positioned marinas and lovely towns to explore in the evenings. The first two days went according to plan, I was very pleased with my plan. On the third day, we decided to change it as we absolutely fell in love with the lovely town of Cres and wanted to stay there for another night.

The plan was to make up the distance in the next few days, only to wake up the following morning to find out that gale force winds were forecast for the last two days of our holiday. Oh no I thought, what about all the marinas and towns we were to visit, all the amazing coves and bays we were to anchor in on the way? I was unhappy and I wanted to risk sticking to the plan and worrying about the consequences later.

We were actually going to do it until we left the safety of the marina and found the sea was already choppy, the winds were so strong we needed to reef the sails and the waves were massive. It was only a snapshot of what was yet to come. It took us seconds to change the plan. We decided to go across the choppy sea on a 10-hour passage back to our home marina. By the end of the day we were exhausted, hated the sea, but we were also happy as it was the right decision to make. The following day’s thunderstorms and gale force winds confirmed it.

I find in business you need to be adaptable and always be prepared to review and change the plan, if need be. We took on a number of Trainee Consultants last year. When we were making revenue plans and setting targets early this year, we took a certain number of fully-trained Consultants into account. We then realised that two of them weren’t going to make it. Instead of sticking with the plan and trying to bring the same revenue with a now reduced workforce, we adapted by decreasing the revenue targets and focusing on maximising profitability. These decisions are never easy to make, especially for us optimists, but it’s important to review our plans and choose the best route available.

3. Engage the whole team

One of the mornings my husband decided he could do it all himself – prepare the boat for the sea and cast off. I was still downstairs sorting something out when I felt the boat moving. Initially I thought, oh well if a man makes a decision to do something by himself, who am I to intervene. A few moments later I could hear and feel something just wasn’t working, the engine didn’t seem to be engaged and the bow of the boat was steering in the wrong direction. I heard my husband shouting for help. I jumped out of the cabin and when I arrived on the deck the situation was pretty desperate. We did eventually manage to get the engine to work by restarting it and by pushing our boat off of other boats, we left the marina. Afterwards I thought, should everyone have been engaged and in good communication from the start, we would have saved ourselves the embarrassment and stress.

Whether it’s your crew or team it’s absolutely vital to have everyone engaged, committed and on board. Driven and ambitious people very often want to do it all themselves as they believe they’ll do the best job, and again I’ve been there before. But there is only so much you can do on your own. You can achieve so much more and it will be more enjoyable when you have a good team around you where every single one of them is engaged.

These are my thoughts after my recent holiday. When you go away this year, have a think about what you can learn from your personal life’s adventures and let me know.


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