5 Lessons Sailboat Racing Taught Me about Running a Small Business

Pro sailor Norman Davant says it all comes down to finding the best people, fostering teamwork, then stepping out of the way.
norman-davant
Working as a team is crucial to success in both sailboat racing and in the workplace. (Photo: Norman Davant)

Back when pro sailor Norman Davant got his start, if you wanted to sail, you got a job as a sail maker or mast manufacturer. That way, you’d get to go sailing on customers’ boats.

“I got into business as a way to make a living and still get to go sailing, but the sailing has really taught me a lot about how to run my business,” said Davant.

Davant was one of the founders of Quantum Sail Design Group, which started out as three independent manufacturers and is now a global brand. He is currently president of Sail California, a small boat brokerage firm based in San Francisco.

NCR Silver talked to him to learn what his experiences on the water taught him about smooth sailing in business.

Everyone’s job matters

In sailboat racing, everyone has a job. The helmsman and the tactician need to drive the boat and keep it moving fast in the right direction. Another person needs to put his weight on the rail in just the right place at the right time to balance the boat.

As a business owner, it’s important to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels valued. Even employees with small roles should be considered a crucial part of a successful team.

Related Story: Boost Employee Morale In 3 Easy Steps

“It doesn’t matter if it’s two guys on the boat or 26 people on the boat — you need everyone on the boat in order to sail it well. In business, we don’t hire people we don’t need, and everyone we hire is there to do a job that needs to be done,” said Davant.

Hire the best people, then give them space to do their job

There’s no time to micromanage people during a race — and there shouldn’t be any need to.

The same goes in business. If you believe you have to do something yourself to get it done right, you’re probably not going to get very far.

Hire the best people you can hire, then get out of the way.

“I’ve seen so many businesses fail because of micromanagement and ego, and I’ve seen so many businesses be successful because they’re not micromanaged. If you hire the right people and then let them go do their job and support them, then they’ll shine,” Davant said.

Letting employees leave their mark is key to keeping them engaged.

Work on teamwork

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(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

Teamwork isn’t a magical thing that just happens; it has to be developed. You can have all the same equipment as your competitor but if you can’t figure out how to work well together, you won’t win.

“I’ve been very successful on a racecourse with a group of individuals who on their own weren’t the best sailors. But we beat other teams handily because we had a cohesive working team. Everybody worked a little harder, everybody tried a little harder, as a group. And that just comes down to developing the team,” said Davant.

The way to develop teamwork is from the top down. Motivate the staff by giving positive feedback when appropriate (don’t be the guy at the back of the boat constantly screaming at his crew). And make sure everyone knows how their work contributes to the business’ goals.

Success breeds success

There’s little point in going out to the starting line if you don’t believe you have a chance to win the race. Likewise, why start a business unless you feel you can provide a service or product that beats the competition’s?

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been out on the racecourse and recognized that one boat I knew we would beat, the one that had lost the race before they ever left the dock. It’s the boat that looks at us and thinks, ‘We can’t beat them.’ They don’t know it, but they believe it, and they’ll fail because they don’t think they can succeed,” Davant said.

In sailing or in business, achieving success starts with believing you can do it.

It’s not over until it’s over

During a race, many variables come into play at every turn, including the wind and current.

“A sailboat race is actually whole bunch of small races. You take the good when you can get it and shrug off the bad when it happens, and at the end of the day you’ll win the final race across the finish line,” said Davant.

In business, the finish line isn’t the end of the day; it’s the end of the quarter or year, or the day you sell or retire. There will be ups and downs along the way, but with every variable comes an opportunity to get ahead.

Staying resilient is critical. “In sailing or in business, you give up before the end, you will be unable to take advantage of that one variable that could have gotten you to the finish line first.”

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