Business Strategy

5 Lessons Sailboat Racing Taught Me About Business

business lessons sailboat racing

Sailboat racing is an intense mental challenge requiring a strong competitive spirit and physical agility.

It is also a male-dominated sport. Having worked in a manufacturing company serving male-dominated industries for 30 years, I see many parallels between racing and business, not least of which is that both require an investment of time and money to be successful and that those investments carry no guarantee of success.

After a 20-year long hiatus following college sailing, I re-entered the sport crewing for others about 10 years ago. Each year I’ve upped the ante with more races and increasingly competitive venues and boats. I keep playing the ‘game’ because, like in business, there is always an opportunity to improve and each race presents its own unique challenge.

Here are a few of the lessons that I’ve learned that apply just as much on the water as they do on dry land:

  1. Move On

The goal of starting in a sailboat race is to be as close to the line as possible, without being over, which is much harder than it sounds. Like in business, you may not get out of the gates positioned exactly as you’d like, and racing has taught me to embrace the motto “Move On.” You can’t change the past, only the future. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on them while you’re in the race or they will serve as a distraction from your ultimate goal.

Also read: Dealing With Analysis Paralysis: Princess Bride Problem Solving

  1. Don’t Take it Personally

Out of 50 boats, I was the only female skipper on the water at the Melges 24 nationals. Occasionally, I have felt as though other sailors were attempting to intimidate me because I was a woman. But according to my male teammates, these guys are attempting to intimidate everyone, not just me.

I’ve reflected on this sentiment as it relates to my entire career working in male-dominated industries and I find it to be true in that arena as well. Sometimes, the men are trying to intimidate you as a woman, but sometimes, they are treating me the way they would treat anyone else. In fact, many of my fellow Committee of 200 (C200) members, who are amongst the most successful businesswomen in the world, also share this view. Why does this matter? I think it matters because seeing negative intention due to gender in every interaction can create a layer of unproductive thoughts and negative energy that may cause relationships to break down unnecessarily.

  1. Excellent Teamwork Takes Practice

Respect is the hallmark of a great team. We have five people on our boat who range from very good to great in terms of skills and knowledge. But what elevates our performance is the time and effort we put into working together to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In sailing, and in business, it is an absolute treat to collaborate with people who want to contribute – bringing ideas, experience and having the desire to be good, get better and to win. No matter what the playing field, exceptional performance comes from passion, drive, and a team’s willingness to work together.

Also read: 4 Overlooked Steps That Will Strengthen Any Team

  1. Always Assume the Plan Will Change

Before every race, we come up with a plan. It may be a simple, or it may be complicated. But the wind shifts, our competition makes a move we don’t anticipate – or our team makes a mistake. It can be mentally challenging to change what seemed like a great plan, but it must be done.

I see the same thing in business – strength and success lies not only in having a good plan, but recognizing when that plan is not working, or the competitive landscape has changed, and it is necessary to change course. The course correction should be thoughtful, not a knee jerk reaction. It can be a big change or a small one. However, the key point is that it must be done. Sticking with a plan that is not working will never be a winning strategy. One huge benefit of my involvement with C200 has been exposure to top level CEOs with corporate and entrepreneurial backgrounds – the corporate women always want a plan, and the entrepreneurial women always want action. In my opinion, on or off the water, the right answer is most often somewhere in the middle.

  1. If You Want to Be Good, Find a Great Coach

I’ve been extremely fortunate over the last few years to be coached by a great sailor and tactician on our boat, who has advanced my skills and knowledge immensely by providing immediate feedback. Whatever you call this person in your career – coach, mentor, friend – they are invaluable. And, what makes a great coach? Not only do they need a command of the subject matter and genuine interest in your success, but they need to dole out their wisdom in a way that you can understand and implement. On the racecourse, there have been many times when I have said, “I don’t understand!” We agree to talk about it after the race and I do the best I can in the moment. The point is that you may not always be ready for what a mentor is offering and you cannot be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand.

Also read: How a Mentor Can Help You Move Into a New Industry

Navigating open waters – literally or figuratively – comes with risks and uncertainties. As someone who has often been the only woman on deck, I encourage everyone, but especially women, to see these instead as opportunities. When asked, “do you want to steer today?” tell them YES regardless of what you are thinking or feeling. I would give the same advice to women at any stage of their career looking to advance: say yes to the next opportunity regardless of whether or not you feel prepared. Real growth comes when you step outside of your comfort zone.

About the Author

In addition to being an avid sailor, Laura Grondin is President & CEO of Virginia Industries, Inc., a privately-held industrial products company operating manufacturing and distribution facilities in the US and in China. Laura currently serves on the Board of the American Foundry Society, The Committee of 200, and YaleWomen, Inc. She has been a member of The Committee of 200 (C200), an invitation-only group of the world's top female entrepreneurs and C-Suite executives who work to foster, celebrate and advance women's leadership in business, since 2010. Join the conversation at @committeeof200.