I started rowing in high school on the Mississippi in my hometown of St. Paul. When I went off to university at McGill, I decided to try out for the freshman crew team.
When my turn came up, I pulled harder than I ever pulled for 2,000 meters. Unfortunately, many others pulled harder than I did; I was, at best, in the middle of the pack.
Regardless, they put me in a boat with seven other recruits and we rowed a few kilometers, switching seats and running drills to test our skills and rowing technique.
After an hour or two, they selected a group to come back for additional workouts that week in order to select the final two boats for the season. When they called my name and asked me to come back, I knew my college experience was about to change.
I made the “A” boat and we went on to win the Eastern Canadian Conference Championship that Fall in London, Ontario by beating the next boat by over three boat lengths—a significant margin for a 2,000-meter race. It was an amazing end to a challenging season as we struggled to place better than third up until that moment.
Why did we win so handily after a season of mediocre results? Three things came together for us that day that drove our success. These have become my core team performance principles and have stayed with me over the years. I’ve applied them as an entrepreneur, as a CEO, and now as an executive and team coach.
Understand your role and how what you do affects your team
From the moment you sit in a racing shell, you realize what a precarious situation you are in as a team. The boat is barely wide enough for your hips and, without the oars in the water, the boat is inherently unstable and will flip in the blink of an eye.
Getting eight guys to swing four-meter long oars at 36 strokes a minute and stay afloat is not easy. A successful boat needs two things: set and swing. Without these, the boat tips back and forth and jerks front and back, making it impossible to build momentum and speed.
Here’s the thing: in an eight-person boat, each rower has one oar—four on port and four on starboard. If one side pulls harder that the other side, the boat turns and the tips. If one side’s oars are raised higher than the other side, the boat tips.
And when the boat tips, that side’s oars hit the water and jams their handles down into the gunwale and the thwarts (internal structure of the boat) resulting in bloody knuckles, or, even worse, catches their blade in the water which, in extreme cases, can pull an oar out of the locks or even launch a rower into the water if you’re going fast enough.
In order to find the set and create swing, everyone must work together to balance the boat and have exact timing. Your hands must be at exactly the right height as you slide up to the catch. Every oar has to drop into the water at the exact same time. Everyone needs to pull at equal pressure. All the blades need to come out of the water and release in unison. Any deviation disrupts the boat.
During our championship race, we entered a new level as a team where we became one with each other and the boat. There was no more thinking, just feeling the set and the swing and entering a pure flow state of performance. Great teams find this flow and this rhythm to their work and develop an intuitive understand of their role and how to make small adjustments to deliver exceptional results.
Have a clear direction, but an easy hand on the steering
There was a ninth person in our boat, the coxswain. She was 104 pounds and carried 16 pounds of dead weight to get her to the 120-pound minimum. Her primary job was to keep us on course and steer the straightest line possible. Each boat raced in a lane marked by small floats that were 13.5 meters wide—not wide berth for a boat that is almost nine meters wide with oars extended. She was the jockey of an eight-horse team.
A good coxswain keeps the boat in the lane, but does so with an easy hand. Steering too much means zig-zagging over the course and rowing far more than 2,000 meters, which adds to time. The trick is to keep the end in sight and steer to a center point far down course, not trying to keep coming back to the center every stroke. To do this, the coxswain calls out increased pressure for a few strokes on one side of the boat or the other to correct the course rather than use the rudder, which slows down the boat.
High-performance teams always keep the end in sight and know the ultimate objectives of their work. Without a clear picture of the goal, teams thrash with process and fail to achieve proper alignment in their activities. Going in the wrong direction as fast as you can doesn’t get you any closer to the finish.
It’s not how hard you work, it’s how hard you work together
The key to a fast boat is balance. Balanced weight, timing, and balanced pressure. It turns out that pulling as hard as you can, without pulling together, actually slows the boat down. Imbalanced power will veer the boat one direction and throw off the timing of the catch and the release. Uncontrolled straining at the oar can tip your weight left or right and toss the boat side to side. A successful team pulls in perfect balance and with perfect timing.
The reason I made the boat even with my sub-par ergometer time was that I had good technique and I knew how to sync with my fellow rowers. While others could pull faster times, they would thrash in the boat and couldn’t feel the rhythm of the swing. Pulling hard was not as important pulling evenly and at the right time.
Successful teams know that performance is a function of collaboration and coordination, not a sum of individual effort. Knowing how your contribution is affecting the final outcome and staying highly aware of what others are doing while staying in sync is critical to delivering results. Reacting quickly, deliberately and in a coordinated fashion allows teams to adapt to changes, handle new information, and stay on target.
Freshman year was amazing and rowing was a core part of my university experience. I went on to be president of the rowing club and I still stay in touch with my crew from that magical year over twenty years later. Rowing shaped who I am as a person and as a leader.
Bruce Eckfeldt is a former Inc 500 CEO and long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He provides executive and team coaching and management training to startups and high-growth companies.