• Service: Tax
  • Type: Business and industry issue, Video
  • Date: 10/15/2012
  • Length: 6:38 Minutes

Business lessons for navigating rough waters 

Peter Isler, Director, American Sailing Association:

Hi, I’m Peter Isler, and I’m a sailboat racer. I got into sailing when I was 13 years old, and I just followed my passion. I consider myself to have one of the most beautiful and incredible jobs on the planet, and it wasn’t a career path that anybody had before me. I forged it myself, and during the 30 - 40 years that I’ve been racing sailboats, I’ve done everything from Olympic competition, to world championships, to America’s Cups, and I’ve won two America’s Cups with Dennis Connor representing the United States on Stars and Stripes, and I’ve competed on five America’s Cup teams, most recently with Larry Ellison and the Oracle Racing Team in Spain.

What skills from sailing apply to business?

For me, one of the themes that came when KPMG came to me and said, hey, will you be part of the summit, was the message that it’s time, the CTOs have to elevate themselves and their department to become a better, a bigger part, a more active part, of what I consider the afterguard of the business, the Board level, the C-level of the business, and when I was first getting into America’s Cup sailing, which is the big leagues of the sport, I faced the same challenge. I was the navigator on board Dennis Connor’s boat, and the traditional navigator role was the guy who had all the information from the instruments, figured out where the boat was, and made sure he didn’t sail any extra distance, but really didn’t get involved unless they were asked to provide input. And so you were a resource, much like a traditional tax department, I picture. But the competition level, the new reality that we face in the America’s Cup, and my first victory down in Australia was, everything was changing. The competition was stronger, the boats were constricted more by rules, they were faster, more high tech, designs and development was being pushed to the limit, and the winds were stronger than anything we’d ever raced America’s Cup boats before. And so I evolved a whole new role for the navigator for the way you have to do it, and to where I really elevated myself to an equal member of the afterguard with Dennis, the skipper, and the tactician, Tom Whitten. And how did I do it? I did it by earning my position, earning my role. I proved to them that I had the knowledge, ability, and information, which at that time, the technology was giving me through the instruments, that could make me be a valuable contributor to winning.

Describe the role of teamwork?

Teamwork is very important in any sport or in any business where you’re operating. There’s some racing and sailing where there’s one person on a boat, but on an America’s Cup crew, we sailed with 11 down in Australia, and then we shifted to bigger boats, a crew of 18, and the ocean racing I do, I can sail with a crew of upwards of 25 people, and the ability to harness the power of the team where the sum of the individual parts are less than the power of the team as a whole, and we all pay tribute to the power of teamwork. But I’ve been involved with a number of teams and worked for a bunch of great leaders. I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, and one thing is, it can’t be contrived. A team has to have its own identity, its own philosophy, its own spirit, its own core culture.

Every team is different. There’s no one right way to do it - to put together a team. Certainly at the fundamental building blocks, it’s staffing. Dennis Connor always said, I’d rather have a guy or a girl with great attitude than one of mediocre attitude and a lot of experience. I can give them the experience. The attitude is what’s important.

So one of the things when we talk to businesses today, everybody realizes that change is ubiquitous. Change is part of our lives. We have to change. And of course in the business world, there are global changes, national changes. In the tax world, you have countries changing the rules on taxes, there’s global events that change the way that the supplies come in, etc, so the tax department faces change. It’s no surprise, and everybody says you’ve got to be ready for change. Well, how do you get ready for change? One fundamental way that I’ve learned through sailboat racing is by embracing it. By looking at change as something positive, an opportunity, rather than, ugh, we had a plan, and things have changed, and now we’ve got to change. We’ve got to change direction or change course, so the concept of embracing change hits home in sailing. If the wind is really steady, and there’s no wind shifts, all the boats, if you’re sailing an equal fleet of boats, like in the Olympics, they get to the mark at about the same place. Sure there are little advantages if you sail the boat a little better, and you have better teamwork, and you make a little bit better start, but there’s not great opportunities to make big chunks of game. But when the wind’s shifty on a sailboat race, that’s when huge gains can be made. Because of the geometry of the way we play the sport, a wind shift, you can gain 25% of the separation that you are apart from the other boat. And the great sailors, sure they make a plan and say, we think the wind, we think we know how it’s going to change, and you do as much research as you can. Sometimes your game plan is correct, and sometimes not. That’s just life. But when the change comes, they react to it, and then another change comes, and they react to it. The great sailors are quicker at identifying the change and making a higher odds reaction to it, and so the great sailors look forward to those tricky changeable days. Why? Because they’re easy to predict? No. They get it wrong just like the rest of us some of the time, but they know that there are greater opportunity there, and because of their mentality of embracing change, they’re better suited to win when the going gets tough.

Peter Isler, a two-time America’s Cup winner, will discuss how the skills and strategies used in professional sailing apply equally well in the world of business, and how being able to change course quickly and plan for the unexpected is essential in both worlds.

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