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Rowing to develop ‘Well Performing Teams’

Written by Sue Fontannaz

Sue FontannazSue Fontannaz has 25 years of social entrepreneurial experience living through the highs and lows of leading teams in the turbulent media industry in South Africa.  This included a company buy out and reporting to the board of a public company.  She has extensive team-coaching experience for public companies (DeBeers, Deloitte, Discovery, Old Mutual and Graduate Schools of Business (UCT, NMMU) and as a lecturer for final year MBA students


Insights for MBA programmes

Rowing offers a powerful lens to explore the complexity of teams, to enable teams to become well-performing: where well-being is balanced with team performance. Too often, groups are formed to work together without any thinking about how they work and learn together. This can lead to toxic team dynamics and dysfunctional teams. Psychological safety and team well-being are affected, which undermines the learning process.

Forming teams without any preparation is similar to asking 8 people to jump into a rowing boat and row down the river, with no understanding of what it takes to row together. In MBA programmes, there is often a missed opportunity of exploring the team learning process, which is one of the most powerful learning experiences on the MBA programme. Any MBA graduate can share their memories of working together in a team – friendships for life in some cases, while other cases cause both MBA students and administrators to shake their heads at the toxic mess that can arise.

Why is rowing a powerful lens for shifting perspectives?

The experience of team formation is amplified in rowing, as students struggle with finding the balance within the team to row together. It is a powerful lens for exploring what happens when we rush into working together, without considering how we work together. The rowing experience challenges the students to shift from working individually to working together as a team.

Doing something new accelerates the learning curve and allows the students to explore how they deal with not knowing. It’s about becoming comfortable in discomfort in dealing with complexity. Leading at the edge requires students to understand how they learn from challenging contexts. Rowing also offers the opportunity for embodied learning, so that students can explore how they experience learning from the cognitive, affective and relational dimension to develop effectively within a team context. It challenges the students to have crucial conversations about working together. It also challenges them to listen to both the cox and the coach while trying to make sense of the complexity.

The principles of GLIDE:

The rowing experience offers a lens to explore the principles of GLIDE – growth, leadership, (collective) instinct for learning, disciplined practice and effective energy.

1. Growth

The experience demands that the students shift from an expert mindset to becoming open to learning from a novel experience. It’s about shifting from defending status to focusing on growth and development. Having a growth mindset enables the students to learn from each other as they explore different ways of working and seeing the world. Creative conflict through crucial conversations encourages diversity of thinking, which strengthens the team.

2. Leadership

As rowing is a team sport, it highlights that there is no strength without unity – team performance has more impact than any individual’s performance. Sometimes individual effort can undermine the team. There are numerous MBA stories of one team member hi-jacking the group and doing all the work; this action undermines the learning within the group. The issue of social loafing can also be explored. The students recognise that leadership is a team sport and value the contributions from each other and understand that leadership is dynamic and will shift in response to the task required of them as a team.

3. Instinct

The power of collective instinct (the bubbling up of unconscious experience) in working out what makes the boat go faster. Using emotions (energy in motion) to harness peak performance and sharing different ideas amplifies the team learning experience. The students are encouraged to learn from each other in the preparation for the final race of the day.

4. Discipline

Sport highlights the discipline of deliberate practice (10 000 hours rule), which is sometimes neglected in the work context. Rowing illustrates how focusing on the right things can amplify team performance. MBA students often get lost in the volume of work that is required of them. By focusing on what’s important, they can develop the discipline to hone these skills in the same way that an elite athlete will practice relentlessly to master the basics well.

5. Energy

Rowing illustrates the transfer of effort to results. Similar to the ratio of the rowing stroke (effort) to the distance that the boat glides from this effort (result), they quickly understand the value of amplifying their efforts by focusing on the basics that make the difference. This gives them clarity in managing MBA workloads. It’s also about building their understanding of drive and recovery to support resilience and well-being.

The power of coaching to achieve Well Performing Teams

The rowing experience offers the MBA students the opportunity to experience rowing with and without coaching, to highlight the power of a coaching style to deliver team performance. This encourages the MBA students to develop their coaching styles within their groups. The students will also develop their reflective skills as they reflect on the rowing experience and transfer this back to working together in teams.

The rowing experience can be supported with group coaching for the MBA groups, which enables them to anchor the learning experience in their MBA learning journey. It is proposed that an initial team session is conducted to encourage the groups to explore the growth mindset and potential dysfunctions of teams. This can be followed by an evening where the groups share a communal activity of designing their own “team” pizza, followed by a screening of the 1990s film about the Oxford Mutiny.

This challenges the students to look beyond the style of the film and explore the key issues that arise. This offers the opportunity to explore conflict within teams and how to harness creative conflict in a relaxed learning environment. This preparation will ensure that the rowing experience is a positive learning experience. The rowing experience will mirror a day in the life of a rower and will offer the students the opportunity to experience racing on the river. This can be followed by three group coaching sessions so that the rowing experience is transferred to their learning environment.

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