Clipper Research

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race was conceived in 1995 by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. The first race set out in 1996 and has taken place every two years since. This research is based on the race that left Southampton, UK in July 2011 and ended one year later. It involved a 40,000 mile global circumnavigation with a fleet of ten identical, 68-ft racing yachts. The race consisted of 15 individual races across eight legs, with each leg lasting an average of 31 days and visiting 15 ports around the world.

A total of 77 semi-structured interviews were conducted with 42 people at four points in the race in order to answer the following questions:

  • What are the key leadership and team challenges that faced both skippers and crew?
  • Is it possible to identify 'winning' behaviors?
  • What are the implications within an organizational environment?

A number of challenges commonly faced by skippers and the crew were identified. While sailing was discussed, it was seldom mentioned as a challenge; it was fun, exciting, thrilling and sometime scary - but sailing could be taught, learnt, mastered and improved upon. There were clear processes for learning the technical aspects of sailing which came from demonstration, learning on the job, lessons, coaching etc. However, the greatest challenges discussed most often related to people and include:

  • Managing expectations
  • Communication
  • Integration
  • Approach
  • Focus
  • Support
  • Sleep
  • Trust

The findings also identified positive behaviors that had an impact on the overall experience of the race. These 'winning' behaviors are presented in a three-axis model of Alignment, Capability and Autonomy. Where alignment, capability and autonomy were developed in relation to each other, the crew experienced positive outcomes such as taking responsibility, putting in an 'awesome effort' to achieve the best result possible; the majority 'pulling their weight'.

Where there was over- or under-development of these factors, negative outcomes were experienced, such as friction which slowed people down, and impaired their agility, and fraction, described as 'teams-within-teams'. While this model captures the experiences of those taking part in a round the world yacht race, it is suggested that as a concept, there is potential to predict outcomes more generally.

The research findings provide a fascinating insight into the leadership and team challenges that are both far away from life in the office but also surprisingly familiar. The daily challenges faced in harsh and tumultuous conditions are what we have come to expect in a climate where change becomes repetitive in its constancy. By developing alignment, capability and autonomy, leaders, teams and individuals are able to respond with agility. This research demonstrates that when all things are equal, beyond controllable technical skill and an uncontrollable external environment; it is people that make the difference.

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