Learning leadership as a craft

Consultant, rowing champion, leadership expert

For a decade, I rowed at high performance level. A few years after I retired from active rowing, I came full circle when, as part of the undconsorten team, I was able to support the Wilo Group, one of the world's leading premium suppliers of pumps and pump systems, in its HR transformation project. Since 2010, Wilo has been the main sponsor of the German eight (the multiple world champions and Olympic medallists from Dortmund).

Driver for high-performance teams

Parallels to corporate management

As the general public is probably hardly familiar with the role of a coxswain, let's start with a definition: the coxswain is the smallest person in the boat and has a task that is very different from that of everyone else. The coxswain does not row the boat, but steers it. In this role, he is the only person in the boat who looks ahead.

During my time as a coxswain, I learnt formative lessons about leadership. These lessons are just as relevant today as they were then. And they are relevant for everyone, even those who don't know anything about rowing.

Trust is everything - it doesn't come for free

Rowers row backwards. As the coxswain, I am their eyes. That's why it's important to build trust with the crew. If I change the race plan or ask the crew to go beyond their limits, they literally have to follow me blindly. They have to understand that there's a damn good reason for it, because as the helmswoman I can see that something is going differently than expected. But trust doesn't come automatically just because I have a microphone. As in any relationship, trust has to be earned. Attentive, consistent and calm navigation during every single training session is the key. I also did almost every training session (on the water and dry land) with them. I was on my team for every incline run or stair sprint. I earned their respect in those painful situations. During the race, in the really important moments, they trusted that I had their best interests at heart - and those of the team.

The same is true in business. Building trust is the foundation of leadership. Intuitively, most of us know this, but there is still a tendency in leadership circles to prioritise supposedly more tangible concepts like performance and sales over soft, fuzzy concepts like trust. Just like in and off the boat, trust in business is built through honesty, clarity and predictable behaviours that ultimately give your team the confidence to follow your course. Furthermore, it's no good sitting back and watching your employees struggle through peak times. Instead, be prepared to get your hands dirty and support your team during peak times.

Coach on board - but also so much more

Like a good leader in business, a competitive helmsman needs to be very versatile and flexible in his approach, tasks and skills. When I asked my team-mates to describe my role in the team, they described me as part cheerleader, part inspirational visionary, part the brains behind the brawn and part the coach in the boat - all things I aspire to as a leader.

As a coach in the boat, you are essentially responsible for improving rowing technique and ensuring that a group of eight people move together in perfect synchronisation. As the strategist of the boat, the coxswain executes the race or training plan and adapts it according to the water conditions and the progress of the other boats. The helmsman is in close contact with the crew, motivating them and pushing them to victory, using both emotional communication and sound psychology to inspire them to perform at their best.

Inspiring people to grow

Motivation is about getting the team to leave their comfort zone, channelling their collective energy and striving for more. But that's the tricky thing about motivation: there is no "magic call" that makes a boat go faster. All crews respond to different measures, and even individual team members within the same crew feel energised and motivated by different appeals. Whilst it was important for me to find ways to motivate the whole crew, I also needed to know how to motivate each individual rower. It is important to pay attention to the mood of individual team members and adapt the coaching accordingly.

Similarly, leaders should provide inspiration so that others can find greater meaning in a vision or goal. Therefore, good leaders need to find out what drives and motivates their individual team members and what holds them back. They need to know when the team as a whole is down and needs support, relief or rebuilding. They can recognise when the team is enthusiastic and know how to channel that energy towards peak performance.

The importance of clear feedback

A boat travels fastest when all eight oars hit the water at exactly the same angle and at the same time. So if someone in the boat is travelling too fast or too slow or makes a technical error, the helmsman must point this out immediately. The basic technical aids: a rudder and a GPS system (the so-called Cox box), which displays the boat's performance data, e.g. strokes per minute or boat speed, on a screen. This helps to adjust the race plan on the basis of specific data. Fractions of a second count in rowing, so small corrections in real time often make the difference between winning and losing.

Unfortunately, many rowers forget this all too often - and I'm pretty sure no one is exempt, myself included. Giving feedback (in real time) is anything but easy, especially when you don't know how someone is going to react. However, in order to help each individual team member do his or her best and to perform better as a team, feedback is essential. The key is to give it quickly - the longer you wait to give it, the less impact it will have on the desired outcome.

Problem solving as the brain in the boat

As a helmswoman, I have to constantly analyse what is happening in our boat and what is going on around us. And then I have to quickly and decisively translate that into a decision that improves the boat's speed. Not everything goes as planned, and then you have to be creative and find a solution to deal with it. For example, a shortened or extended warm-up time on race day due to unforeseen circumstances, oars colliding during the race and throwing the crew off rhythm, or seaweed getting caught in the rudder and making it impossible to steer straight. Being able to refocus and come up with a new plan that you can communicate to your crew (ideally in a confident, relaxed manner that gives the impression that this was the plan from the start) can make all the difference between winning and losing.

The business environment is also characterised by constant change and unforeseen circumstances. It can be a challenge to navigate the unknown. Managers need to be able to analyse quickly, be creative in problem solving and be confident in making difficult decisions even with incomplete information. Only leaders who are able to adapt to changing circumstances can turn volatility into opportunity.

Live video recording of a women's eight race in Dortmund, with a camera mounted on Clara's head.

Conclusion

Coxswains are perhaps the smallest and most inconspicuous members of the crew. But in my career as a coxswain, I have learnt that those who seem inconspicuous can have the biggest impact overall.

About Clara Drewes

Clara Drewes started rowing at the age of 12 at the local boat club in her hometown of Minden. She coxed junior teams in various German championships and a women's eight that competed in the 1st Rowing Bundesliga (championship in 2016 and 2017) as well as in the Rowing Champions League. During her Masters studies in London at the LSE, she was accepted onto the University of London's Elite Rowing Programme (a British Rowing Federation-recognised high-performance centre that has produced numerous athletes who have been selected for U23 and senior world championship teams or represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games).

Photographer: Alexander Pischke

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Clara Drewes
Clara Drewes
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