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The CEO of my first startup was a competitive rower in college. One of his teammates, who went on to compete in the Olympics, started a management training course that integrated classroom discussions with lessons on the water, rowing with a team. Our executive team attended one of his sessions. There are three lessons I took away from it that have stuck with me and feel especially important given the tough year we’ve had and the uncertainty that all companies continue to face during the pandemic.
Lesson 1: Set the right pace
In one of the first exercises, the facilitator put us all on rowing machines. He asked an HR executive to sit at the front, start rowing and set the pace for the rest of us. She spent her time at the front watching everyone else’s pace, and we struggled to get into any semblance of a cadence. The facilitator then asked me to lead. Having seen how difficult it was to follow her, I became laser-focused on making sure that my strokes per minute didn’t budge. You could have used my pacing to calibrate the atomic clock.
When my turn was up, the instructor asked the rest of the group for their observations of our two styles. The HR exec was so busy trying to watch everyone else’s pace that she failed to build a cadence we could follow. She wasn’t leading the group; she was trying to figure out where it was going. Meanwhile, I failed in the opposite direction. I had my pace dialed in but I had zero awareness of the pace and pulse of the rest of the team. Half the people in the room were dialed in, but I had lost the other half completely.
Even in “normal” times, it is a challenge to set the right pace for your team. It is hard to lead if you spend all your time looking around to see what everyone else is doing. And if you’re not paying attention at all, it’s impossible to get it right. One of the things I learned about team rowing is it doesn’t matter if half the crew can pull hard and fast. If everyone in the boat isn’t in sync, the boat won’t go very far or very fast. An optimal cadence will allow your top performers to still pull as hard as they can, but provide opportunities for everyone to contribute.
Lesson 2: Keep the boat steady
The second lesson took place in a real boat on the water. Our boat consisted of me, our CEO (the collegiate rower), the rubber-necked HR exec from the pacing exercise and one of her colleagues. Our CEO obviously knew what he was doing and I was doing my best to keep up with him, but the other two were struggling with the timing and coordination. We competed against the other boats in time trials and despite having the best rower in our boat, we weren’t making progress. Our timing was off, and the boat was rocking side to side.
The facilitator asked the CEO and me to stop rowing, and for us to hold our oars flat against the water to keep the boat balanced. He then asked the other two execs to do all the rowing. We shaved five seconds off our best time. The strongest rowers were doing nothing to move the boat forward, but when we kept the boat from rocking we were still able to move the boat faster than the four of us combined. The lesson was pretty obvious. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a manager is to hold the boat steady so everyone else can get their job done.
Lesson 3: What makes you a great individual contributor may hurt you as a manager
In my experience, most execs and founders are typically (or were) outstanding individual contributors. In rowing terms, this means they can pull harder and faster than anyone, and set a pace that is difficult for others to meet. In a management role, when things get tough, they may have an impulse to grab an oar and start pulling like hell — this is usually the worst thing they can do. Like an unbalanced boat, the company gets out of sync and the overall pace of the business slows.
There’s an adage in sales that the best sales reps are rarely the best sales managers, as the skills required to be great at the two roles are very different. The coaches, leaders and managers who are best at their jobs are the ones who can get the most from their team. Your ability as an individual to do the job is irrelevant in a management context.
Things to think about
Less than a year ago, most executives were leading a team that worked in the same office, with at least somewhat predictable and comfortable routines. Today, remote work, plus the added challenges of the pandemic — health concerns, cabin fever, home school — have completely changed our personal and professional context. The strengths and weaknesses of our teams have completely shifted in this new environment and that requires managers to take a fresh look at the optimal cadence for their team. What your team needs today is likely very different than what they needed pre-Covid.
So as a manager, what does this look like day-to-day? This is all still a work in progress, but at Skillshare, we’ve made some changes. First, we implemented more frequent “pulse check” surveys. Instead of our usual semi-annual employee engagement surveys, these are quick monthly surveys that give us more frequent data points. We’ve also added communications channels and increased the frequency of communication. I’m personally holding weekly coffee chats with four to five employees to replicate some of the serendipitous conversations we had in the office. Finally, we’ve also decided to move to a distributed working model and give up our NYC office, redeploying those expenses to employee development and improving the work-from-home environment. We are still testing new ideas, but we’ve seen positive signs so far.
I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. I know that the future is bright, but the waters remain choppy and they may be for a while. Despite the uncertainty and anxiety that 2020 has brought, leaders, managers and HR teams should just remember to keep the boat steady. With a stable base, every company can find its own pace.