Since the first edition of the Volvo Ocean Race in 1973, only one thing has separated the winners from the losers: the ability to collaborate.
The Volvo Ocean Race is brutal, physically and mentally. People are exposed in every way. If a team is functioning well or poorly it’s obvious to the team, it’s obvious to the world, and it’s obvious when you limp into port.
As in business, recruiting the right people with the right talents is fundamental but it’s not the whole game. Yes, you want the smartest people in their particular areas of specialty — people who can drive a boat, people who can repair a boat, people who can navigate it — but more important than the skill sets is their character. Some of the biggest failures in the past have been teams of stars who couldn’t function together. And it doesn’t take much to lose: just two hours in the middle of the night, at less than 100%, can cost you a winning place in a three-week leg.
In the end, the team that wins is not necessarily the best team at the start, it’s the one that goes up the learning curve faster than the others and makes the fewest mistakes.
Diversity is usually an advantage, and not always diversity in skills. For example, in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, before I became CEO, I managed Dongfeng Race Team, our first Chinese team. We had a squad of 12 sailors, six of whom were Chinese who had never even sailed on a boat overnight. They were rookies but they brought something special: a determination to not let their country down. Their commitment fed the rest of us as well. Despite a broken mast on the New Zealand-to-Brazil leg, along with a comeback to win the following leg, and plenty of other mistakes and penalties, we took third place overall.
Women will be on many of the crews this time out, and I think they will make the teams stronger too. There are some great women sailing these days, and in a competitive situation, I think female sailors tend to be better at keeping things in perspective. Sometimes male testosterone may drive a team further than is reasonable, and if you push one of these high-performance boats too hard, you can break things.
And resiliency is key, especially now. When I was 22, on my first Ocean Race in 1989, we had 16 crew members. Now, we have 7-9 crew members — and we sail 50% faster. The crews today are very polyvalent. Often, you’ve got sailors who’ve raced on their own across the Atlantic and they’re capable of doing all the jobs on the boat. We even have many sailors who are engineers — there’s a lot of software crunching going on.
As I work behind the scenes with HCL and our other partners, preparing the infrastructure needed to support this 45,000-mile race, I keep telling my colleagues that they have not signed on for a normal job. It’s going to be a tough ten months with a lot of hard deadlines. Being part of a team in an ocean race is a very raw and intense lesson in collaboration. In its own way, I’m sure running that race will be too.
Mark Turner was the Chief Executive Officer at Volvo Ocean Race. Volvo Ocean Race is the world's toughest race covering 45,000 nautical miles across four oceans, six continents and 12 landmark host cities. HCL Tech is the Official IT Services Provider to Volvo Ocean Race supporting the 2017-18 edition of the race. To know more about the HCL-Volvo Ocean Race partnership, click here.