In college, I rowed crew for the first time. From afar, I had fallen in love with the beautiful boats and their seemingly effortless glide across the water, all the rowers pulling in sync. The boats skimmed along the river surface like a water strider, and darted just as quickly, with hardly any wake or spray. Of all the sports I’d witnessed, crew seemed so beautiful, so elegant; I was smitten by the sports’ appearance and I became a rower.
What followed was the most physically demanding experience of my life, but also one of the best. And as with most athletics, my time rowing provided lessons that reverberate to this day, especially in the context of working in teams. It’s one thing to talk about rowing in the same direction, it’s another to propel a team to collaborate in a smooth, synced, powerful rowing in unison.
Here are 5 things I learned as a rower:
1. The effortless takes unbelievable effort. That simplicity of gliding along the water surface hid hours of practice and effort to get the eight human athletes in that boat moving as one. What is unseen in a shell seamlessly soaring down a river is the hours in the gym, training on the ergs, morning practices half awake in the half light, and runs to the boathouse. For every powerful surge across the finish line, there are iced muscles and smelly wet socks and oars bloodied by blisters not yet calloused. And hours and hours and hours of practice.
2. Pull your own oar, but sync up. Rowing sweep in an eight, I was responsible for maneuvering and leveraging one twelve-foot oar. Simple enough, right? Just flatten (or “feather”) the oar when it was out of the water, so it would swing across the surface without friction, then square it up again at the catch, drop it in the water, and pull like hell for a stroke. In rowing with others, however, you have to pay attention to their movements or you’ll collide, either inside the boat or with a tangle of oar blades out in the water. All at once you have to manage your own task, but pay attention to the others so you can match your pace to theirs. Measure your own arm movements and seat slide and leg cadence with the movements of the person in front of you, memorizing his or her muscle rhythms (and clever t-shirt design you’re staring at for ages) and paralleling your oar to theirs. If you don’t, you risk catching “a crab” (when the oar blade gets caught violently in the water and jerks out of control) and possibly an oar handle to the gut and the spine-wrenching jerk of being caught off cadence from your fellow rowers.
3. Find your balance. It’s not enough to pull your oar in sync with the others in your boat. Indeed, that task is almost impossible itself if the bodies in the boat don’t find their common balance. You learn to shift your weight ever so slightly and align your center of gravity with those of your boatmates, first at a standstill, then as you are all in motion. It is wonky and awkward and cartoonish at first. And it takes time to find that common balance, sometimes with coaching from the coxswain, but more often from the rowers in the boat learning each other and wordlessly adjusting their own weight. Even the same eight rowers, if shifted around in boat seat line up, have to adjust to their new placements in the boat and relearn their own movements, motions, power, and balance to then all move as one.
4. All eyes in the boat. A frequent chastisement from our coach was to bring “all eyes in the boat.” Essentially, to not be distracted by the shoreline or a competing crew or even watching your oar blade too closely. The focus needed to be singular to the task at hand and dedicated to the objective of moving the boat together as one. There was no space for exhausting extra effort that leaves you worn out, fighting the flow of the water, sometimes miles from your dock or the finish line. Or worst yet, the mental weariness that seeps into the entire set of rowers when you are putting in all the effort and seeming to go nowhere fast. We needed to be aligned and united.
5. The moment. There’s a part of crew I have yet to find replicated in other sports I’ve tried and it’s that moment, even more than crossing the finish line first, that enthralled rowing to me. At the beginning of a sprint race, there is a moment when all eight rowers sit at the catch — the position when your body is coiled and ready, arms reaching out as far as they can with the oar blade squared and dropped into the water — and the instant of all eight rowers starting as one, levering their oars and powering through their legs and arms in rotation. When balance and effort and synchronicity and focus are all in alignment, the boat shoots forward with eightfold engine power well beyond what the eight athletes could do independently. The shell fires across the water like a surface torpedo, ideally with such swiftness and clean breaks that hardly any spray flings into the air. You can propel a boat forward without that moment. You might even find your way across a finish line without it, but something critical would be absent in that feat. It is an athletic high among highs. Anything feels possible. The boat shoots toward the finish line with a single mind. I thirst for that synchronized, powerful moment.
Off the water, those five things make a difference in the work world as well.
Behind the scenes of every achievement and milestone that might look effortless, there are teams grinding away and putting in the hours and the work together. Each person on a team is responsible for their own oar, but also for making sure they are in sync with the others as they row together toward a project deadline, a company metric, a fiscal goal. If they are working solely as individuals, out of rhythm with each other, focused only on their own task, their own oar, they are going to exert so much more effort for the same or even less progress. Teams need to find their internal balance, even as line ups and seat positions change. That learned balance comes from communication, yes, but also from reading the cues and adjusting to the silent shifts within the collective. This is always a challenge, but becomes even more of one when teams are remote. How does a team keep “all eyes in the boat” when those sets of eyes might be located in multiple states or on multiple continents? A successful remote team must find and keep their focus. Like a boat, a team will inch closer to the finish line if they are all vaguely rowing in the same direction. But do they want to limp across it, exhausted, soaked from crabs, sore from jerking one way or another in battle with each other’s efforts? Or sail across the finish in unison, powerful beyond the sum of their parts?
At Unitonomy, we’re building a platform that helps remote teams improve communication and work culture, so they can adjust their internal balance, keep their eyes in the boat, and move swiftly toward their common goals. Our platform helps get remote teams at the catch for that moment of smooth, synced, powerful rowing in unison. Your remote team may be rowing in the same direction, but are they truly rowing together? Unitonomy. Let’s work together better.
Companies are hurt most by the conversations they’re NOT having, and this problem only gets worse when teams are working remotely. With Unitonomy, our customizable virtual colleague drives and incentivizes meaningful communication in Slack and Teams, while measuring and improving collaboration across all your people, far and wide. Unitonomy is the missing tool for teams working side by side or around the globe.
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