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Achieving team synergy

April 2, 2013

By Sarah Le Roy

Not too long ago, I came out of a twenty-year retirement (from the sport of rowing that is) to help out a friend. We’d been teammates on the crew team in college and she needed someone to cox a team of women for one of the world’s largest, most important, and most technically challenging rowing races—the Head of The Charles Regatta. A cox (or coxswain, the w is silent) is the person that sits in the front (or the back) of the boat and steers and communicates to the rowers. Essentially, the cox is the strategic brain, or the CEO of the boat, while the oarsmen, who, by the way are unable to see where they are going, provide the propulsion brawn. And let’s be clear—a cox never yells “stroke.” Ever.

The boat I joined was made up of a group of women who were all under 5 feet 7 inches tall, and in a sport dominated by Amazonian thoroughbreds, their lack of stature is important. Perhaps only one of them had any collegiate rowing experience, and it assuredly was not from the top boat on the crew team. Every woman on the team was over the age of fifty. And they had a cox—me—whom they’d never met, and who hadn’t set foot in a racing shell in more than twenty years. Are you getting the sense of how completely ill equipped we were to perform at any level of success against a very competitive masters field?

I could barely steer the boat let alone remember the race plan or call out warm-up exercises during our one-hour practice the day before the race. I was so hunkered down in my own fear of failure that I could barely function. I was definitely not leading. In fact, our sole practice was a grim affair that caused the whole team—including me—to contemplate whether or not I should be replaced on the spot, and it’s doubtful that any of us slept much at all that night.

The next morning dawned bright and cold and thankfully, my internal autopilot kicked on. Somehow, I remembered how to do a pre-race launch despite the tension strangling my ability to breathe. As we made our way slowly up to the start line with hundreds of other boats, I was gripped by abject fear that I wouldn’t just be a failure, but that my lack of practice might actually get someone injured. Rowing is a safe sport, that is until you crash into a bridge abutment with only a millimeter of fiberglass between you and the brick.

As an unknown team we were given the 17th spot. The starts are staggered so you essentially race against the course and the clock rather than directly against a specific boat. Jennifer, the stroke (there’s that word), faced me calmly and smiled which galvanized me into putting my game face on. Further up the boat, my most process-oriented rower asked me if I had the race plan. I answered calmly into my headset that we had everything under control—a total fabrication. The officials asked us to line up, and then something magical happened. At that moment, BANG, we had synergy. Over the course of the next twenty minutes we passed eleven other boats, and until the final bridge, we were handily winning the race. We could actually hear the screams of the announcers as we cruised past other boats as if they were standing still. I immediately threw out the race plan and simply pushed, pleaded, shouted, demanded, and drove an insane race. It was like driving a Formula One race car. We were unbelievable.

We didn’t win. We were fouled by another boat in traffic at the final bridge and nearly took out one of their oarswomen, but this ragtag group of misfits—a classic cross-functional team—achieved a superior result! Winning wasn’t even on the table when we started out, so in every way this was an unexpected and victorious outcome.

When we started, we had no chemistry, no nothing really, but, we were aligned on our goal—get there FAST. Noted thinker and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this synergy “flow” which is as good a description of what brings normal people together so they can perform at an absurdly high level. I can tell you, in that moment we became single minded—one organism, one body driving past the point of pain, or perceived limits, or fear, or any level of skepticism. It was PHENOMENAL! We laughed, cried, and when we were back on land, were rushed by people who couldn’t believe what they had seen.

And our experience in that race is the perfect example of what grit, alignment of purpose, and commitment can get you in sports or on any team—superior results. The work I do with clients is essentially to help them to unlock synergy in their group performance by decoding the context of the team, the dynamics, collective vision, and their purpose.

Every team can achieve superior performance. You just need the right fuel in the engine and to have the right key to turn it on.

Have you and your team ever experienced “flow”? Click here to learn more.

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