2007 – Teamworking in the America's Cup
For much of the past week I have been immersed in the unreal
world of America’s Cup Sailing, or at least I would
have been, had I not been working from the end of a telephone.
The sun, the colour, the pageantry, the excitement among
those sleek-hulled racers with their rock star crews –
I could imagine it all during endless interviews on scratchy
phone lines from the four walls of a small upstairs room
on a housing estate in Woking.
It’s not my favoured way of working but it does
enable you to move from team to team without walking between
their secure compounds where passes are needed to get in
Valencia may sound more glamorous than Woking but the
reality for the top teams when away from the sea is hours
spent locked in their compounds. In fact the Emirates Team
New Zealand – what the rest of the fleet refers to
as “team tough” - has shut itself away from
the media in order to focus on its challenge.
Like businesses, the different teams – and, let’s
face it, they are businesses in their own right - have developed
characteristic cultures and strategies. Team Alenghi, the
defending boat, is surprisingly open in contrast to the
New Zealand boat that may emerge as its sole challenge for
the head-to-head America’s Cup races.
This openness has proved a useful recruitment tool although
you might question its success at retention since nearly
three years ago, before the start of the current campaign,
the team lost Russell Coutts, the most successful skipper
in the history of the race. Coutts left after a dispute
with the team boss, the Italian-born billionaire Ernesto
Bertarelli, who inherited Serono, the Swiss biotechnology
business founded by his father.
America’s Cup teams could prove to be a model for
the kind of businesses that will come to characterise a
fast moving project-centred world. Like film projects, they
tend to be centred on a nucleus of like-minded people underpinned
by finance packages. Unlike films, however, where returns
are counted in revenue, the pay-back for sponsors is measured
in media coverage and the kind of market image that can
be won by association with excellence.
Also like films, there seems to be a distinction in the
attractions for the star performers. While all teams are
to varying degrees built on finance, for some the cheque
book is more important than it is in others.
Could a Swiss team have wrested the cup from the New Zealand
holders in Auckland without luring away some of the best
New Zealand sailors on lucrative contracts? I doubt it.
Once embedded, however, the team could not have survived
as a cohesive unit without a relatively egalitarian management
structure that allowed broad levels of communication within
a flat hierarchy.
Jochen Schuemann, helmsman and sports director of Alinghi,
told me that he only joined the team after receiving assurances
it would be run on a different basis than the hierarchical
and somewhat autocratic structure he had encountered when
sailing with FAST 2000, the first Swiss attempt to capture
the America’s Cup.
Schuemann, a three-times Olympic gold medallist, says it
is important that all members of the team have the opportunity
to input their views. He has a point. You can’t expect
crews that are made up of so much individual talent –
Olympic medallists are thick on the ground in Valencia just
now – to keep quiet and toe the party line.
Handling talent like that requires sensitivity and, very
often a sense of humour that seems to be lacking in some
teams but which the Italians have in spades, although Luca
Devoti, leader of + 39 the most underfunded team in the
campaign, admits that it has been tested on occasions.
The boat that is stuck with a code number name has one
of the most talented crews in the entire competition, including
11 Olympic dinghy sailors who ensure fast starts in almost
every race. Devoti wanted to prove that raw talent and teamwork
could win through, without the need for massive funding.
Sadly, this has not been the case and the team has bumped
along between one financial crisis and another culminating
in a broken mast.
Unlike Alinghi, the team did not have 15 replacements
in the spares department. Nor, after a strict interpretation
of the rules, has it been possible to take one from another
team. The only recourse has been to make do and mend.
Devoti’s team is among the strugglers in the Louis
Vuitton race series that decides the single challenger to
face Alinghi. Realistically only three or four teams are
in with a shout. But the other teams are gaining the essential
experience and forging the kind of relationships that will
form the core of new teams in future events. In this kind
of business there is no wasted time or effort, although
it can seem so at times.
Any contracting business has been there, sweating for months,
sometimes years on a sails pitch, schmoozing potential customers,
costing estimates, building relationships, working through
technical difficulties only to be told at the end that the
potential customer has chosen to go with a rival. So often,
however, all that expensive and time consuming leg work
can be channelled in to another project.
“There is no replacement for experience,” says
Craig Monk, sailing team manager at BMW Oracle Racing, one
of the leading contenders to challenge Alinghi. He estimates
that there are no more than perhaps 100 sailors in the world
with sufficient top-level America’s Cup experience
for the teams that want to be considered serious competitors.
It’s the same with star footballers. Every team wants
the top players. But the smaller teams that cannot guarantee
the best chance of success must offer something else. Dawn
Riley, the US-born team leader in the French-based Areva
Challenge has tried to knit together a team by emphasising
family values, finding jobs where she can for partners and
relatives of crew members who very often have been recruited
in to a two to three-year campaign from thousands of miles
Salvatore Sarno has attempted to reproduce a similar atmosphere
as head of the South African Team Shosholoza, extending
opportunities for talented young South African sailors to
sail at the highest level for the first time.
Elitist principles combined with experience are all well
and good. But there has to be an entry level for this kind
of event that would be stifled without fresh blood and the
opportunity for talent to percolate through and develop.
Business must do the same.
I see talent management schemes that seem blinkered to
the need to find and stimulate excellence in a far broader
community than a relatively small pool of graduates used
as the trawling ground for the biggest companies.
Reward, experience, talent and success go together. But
there are other ways to build winning teams, often more
involved and never easy options. The marketplace needs them
See also: Teamwork
in sailing, America’s
Cup team management and organisation, Sail
race training, The America’s Cup connection &