as a Craft
Consultant, Rowing Champion, Leadership Expert
For a decade, I have been rowing on a high performance level. A couple of years after quitting active rowing, the circle closed with me supporting Wilo Group, one of the world’s leading premium providers of pumps and pump systems, with their HR transformation project as part of the undconsorten consulting team. Since 2010, Wilo is the main sponsor of the German Men’s Eight (Team Deutschland-Achter, the multiple World Champions and Olympic medal winners located in Dortmund).
Kickstarting High Performance Teams
Parallels to corporate leadership
Since a broader public is probably not familiar with the term or the role of a coxswain or cox, let’s start with a definition: The cox is the tiniest person in the boat with a job noticeably different from everyone else’s. The cox does not row the boat, but steers it. In that role, he or she is the only athlete in the boat facing forward.
I learned lifelong lessons about leadership during my years as a coxswain. Those lessons are equally relevant now as they were then. And they apply to anyone, even those who know nothing about rowing:
1. Trust is key, and it doesn’t come for free
Trust is key
- Rowers row backwards. So as a cox, I am their eyes. Therefore, establishing trust with the crew is key. If I make a change to the race plan or ask the crew to go beyond their limits they literally have to follow me blindly. They need to understand that there is a damn good reason, because as cox I am seeing that something is going differently than expected. But trust doesn’t come automatically just because I have a microphone. As with every relationship, trust must be earned. Navigating confidently, consistently, and calmly during each and every training session is key. In addition, I did nearly every workout (on and off the water) with them. I joined my team in every hard run or set of stair climb. I earned their respect in those painful situations. So during the race, in those true moments that matter, they trusted me to have their and the team’s best interest in mind.
- The same holds in business. Building trust is the foundation for leadership. Intuitively, most of us know this, but there’s still a tendency in leadership circles to deprioritize soft, fuzzy concepts like trust over supposedly more tangible concepts like performance and revenue. Just as with coxing, trust in business is built through honesty, clarity, and behavioral predictability, eventually giving your team the confidence to follow your course. Plus, it’s no good taking a backseat and watching your staff members biting through peak times all by themselves. Instead you should be prepared to get your hands dirty and pitch in with your team during busy times.
2. Coach in the boat – but also so much more
Coach in the boat
- Like good business leaders, a competitive cox must be very versatile and flexible in terms of approach, roles, and skills. When I asked my crew mates to describe my role on the team, they call me part cheerleader, part inspirational visionary, part brain behind the brawn and part coach in the boat – all the things I strive to be as a leader.
- Essentially, as a coach in the boat you are responsible for improving rowing technique and getting a group of eight people moving together in perfect synchronicity. As the boat’s strategist, the cox executes the race or training plan and adjusts it depending on the water conditions and the way other boats are advancing. The cox is closely connected to the crew, motivating and pushing them toward victory, using both emotional communication and sound psychology to inspire peak performance.
3. Inspiring and motivating people to grow
Inspire and motivate
- The motivational side of coxing is about how you get your team to leave their comfort zone, best channel their collective energy, and push them to strive for more. But here is the tricky thing with motivation: There is no “magic call” which will make a boat move faster. All crews respond to different actions and even individual team members within the same crew feel energized and motivated from different calls. While it was important to me to find ways to motivate the whole crew, I also had to understand how to motivate each individual rower. Paying attention to every team member’s mood and then adjust the coaching accordingly is key.
- Similar to this, leaders should provide inspiration so that others can find greater meaning in a vision or purpose. But therefore, great leaders have to find out what drives and motivates their individual team members , what keeps each of them going, and what holds them back. They need to know when the team as a whole is down and requires support, relief, or a reconstruction. They can see if the team is excited and know how to channel that energy towards high performance.
4. The importance of clear, timely feedback
Clear, timely feedback
- A boat moves fastest when all eight oars are hitting the water at exactly the same angle and at exactly the same time. Consequently, if someone in the boat is too fast or too slow or is committing any technical mistake, the cox has to tell them right away. The fundamental technical tools: A rudder and a GPS system (called cox box) that displays the boat’s performance metrics, such strokes per minute or boat speed, on a screen. This helps to adjust the race plan based on concrete data. In rowing, every second matters, therefore small corrections in real time often decide between victory and defeat.
- Unfortunately, many leaders forget about this ever too often (and I’m pretty sure no one is exempt, including myself). Giving (real-time) feedback is everything but easy, especially if you don’t know how someone will react. Yet, in order to help each individual team member to perform at his or her best, and to outperform as a team collective, feedback is essential. The key is to give it quickly – the longer you wait to give the feedback, the less impact it will have on the outcome you are aiming to achieve.
5. Great problem-solving as brain in the boat
brain in the boat
- As a cox, I have to constantly analyze what is happening within our boat and what is happening around us. And then I have to translate that quickly and decisively to a call that works to improve boat speed. Not everything works out as planned and then you have to be creative and find a solution to deal with it. For example, a shortened or lengthened warmup time on race day due to unforeseen circumstances, oars clashing during race making your crew lose their rhythm or seaweed that gets caught in the rudder making it impossible to steer straight. Being able to pivot or shift gears and come up with a new plan that you can then communicate to your crew (ideally in a confidently relaxed way that comes across like this was the plan all along) will make the difference.
- Similarly, the business environment is one of constant change and unforeseen circumstances. It can be challenging to navigate the unknown. Leaders must be quick at analyzing, creative at problem-solving, and confident to take tough decisions with incomplete information. Only leaders who are apt to adapt to changing circumstances can turn volatility into an opportunity.
Coxswains might be the smallest and most inconspicuous members of the crew. But I learned during my career in coxing that those who appear small may overall have the biggest impact.
Clara Drewes started rowing when she was 12 years old at the local boat club in her home town, Minden. She coxed junior crews at various German Championships and a women’s eight competing in the 1st German Rowing League (winning the league in 2016 and 2017), as well as the Rowing Champions League. During her masters studies in London at LSE, she was admitted into the University of London’s elite rowing programme (a designated High Performance Centre by the British Rowing Federation, producing numerous athletes selected for U23 and Senior World Championship teams or to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games).
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© Photographer: Alexander Pischke