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Donkin on Work - Teamwork

April 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 and out.

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 away.

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 all.

See also: Teamwork in sailing, America’s Cup team management and organisation, Sail race training, The America’s Cup connection & Antigua week

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved