Raising the Sails

Daniels EMBA students learn about leadership and themselves on the water

By Nick Greenhalgh | Photos by Emma Sharon

With just hours of experience under their belts, an experienced group of business executives, but a novice group of sailors, took a leap of faith. The race that afternoon loomed large for this group of high achievers, and expectations weighed on them like an anchor. Then, the person at the helm lost their most comforting asset.

Their sight.

Gone was their vision, covered by a blindfold, as they navigated the San Diego Bay. In place of their eyes, the person at the helm was forced to trust their teammates and move in harmony with the wind and waves. While the group had been communicating effectively that weekend, only one designated voice would now be heard, and the helmsperson would blindly trust their recommendations.

“Tack this, jibe this. Watch the boat on the starboard, we’re getting into irons.”

As if by magic, the boat sliced through the choppy water with ease.

Was it perfect? Of course not. But for Daniels College of Business Executive MBA students that first set foot on a sailboat just 48 hours before, they passed with flying colors. They proved that trust and teamwork can overcome an individual’s vision.


Forming a first-time sailing crew

It’s an early, chilly morning at Denver International Airport and the group of 11 students is nervously milling about, sipping coffee and shaking off the cobwebs. The cohort is only about a month into an 18-month EMBA journey, so the students are still getting to know each other. They’re ready to embark on one of the hallmarks of the program at Daniels: the team-building sailing experience in San Diego. This pillar excursion has been part of the EMBA program for nearly three decades, teaching crucial leadership lessons in an unfamiliar, albeit beautiful, setting for its participants.

Sarah Cavanagh has been at the helm since the start. The legendary skipper now travels from Massachusetts to lead the trip, guiding the group of faculty, staff, students and fellow skippers through an action-packed weekend on the water. She moves from land to sea gracefully and is as decorated as it gets in the sailing community, part of the crew on the first all-women America’s Cup Team in 1995.

“How can you teach people to sail in three days?”

But it wasn’t always this simple for Cavanagh. She struggled to find skippers to help lead this trip in its infancy.

“They all said, ‘How can you teach people to sail in three days?’” she recalled with a laugh. Undeterred, Cavanagh found a crew in the late 1990s and hasn’t looked back.

Just a couple of hours after the students landed in San Diego, Cavanagh and her team of skippers lead them through the safety protocols of each boat, getting them up to speed with what they’ll need to know to sail fast and stay safe.

As EMBA faculty director Andy Cohen described it, the students move rapidly “from the tarmac to the water.” Little on this trip is done slowly—not the programming and certainly not the sailing.

Associate professor of management and Griesemer Fellow Aimee Hamilton describes the trip as an ideal mix of learning and experiences.

On a boat ironically named Incommunicado, the four-student team, faculty lead and skipper quiz each other on sailing terms, discuss safety protocols and talk about team norms for the trip. While it’s only Day 1, they’ll spend the entire weekend together, learning to sail and work together effectively as a group.

By 1 p.m., the boat departs the dock in the San Diego harbor, sails down and engine on. Each student takes time at the helm, getting a feel for smooth turns on the water before rejoining the group to debrief on their experience. After a mock overboard rescue, the group discusses its initial strengths and weaknesses, along with goals for the weekend ahead. They’re all keeping an eye on the third day of their trip, which will pit each student team against the rest of their cohort in a race.

What happens when you drop a group of people into a uniformly unfamiliar setting? They bond over the experience.

By 4 p.m., the sails were hoisted and the group was putting all of its planning into practice. The boat creaks, the sail flaps, the wind rushes across the deck and the sailors soak in the moment as a team. In a day filled with motorized travel of all types, they finally slow down and harness the power of the wind, the power of teamwork.

The students are quickly learning this trip is about much more than sailing. What happens when you drop a group of people into a uniformly unfamiliar setting? They bond over the experience and learn what it takes to work together. And they do it out of necessity.


Storming and norming
in their first real test

Day 2 starts with breakfast overlooking the harbor, as the three teams (Annapurna, Burning Sensations and Coast Busters) strategize for their day ahead.

“Today, things get more complicated and more competitive,” said faculty lead and management professor Cindi Fukami. Behind Cavanagh, Fukami is the next most experienced member of this trip. She has joined nearly 50 cohorts on the sailing excursion, observing the evolution of leadership in a quick four days.

“Leadership bubbles up from the most amazing places,” she said.

Fukami is also keeping an eye out for the stages of team development exhibited over the weekend. They are, in order: forming, storming, norming and performing. With nearly 25 years of trips under her belt, Fukami knows that each team will come together, enter conflict, create team norms and then use those to excel. Despite the negative connotation, storming isn’t a bad thing at all, she explained. It can involve conflict, but it’s also about boundary setting. You might not want it for weather while sailing, but it’s ideal for team development.

“Storming is great, because you can now access all of the resources that are available on the team,” Fukami said. “You feel psychological safety that you are now free to say what you feel about things, without worry that you’re not going to be part of the team.”

“Leadership bubbles up from the most amazing places.”

After each exercise, sailing teams assess their performance and plan their next moves.

The day is more fragmented for the sailors, with members of each team splitting off for specialist meetings with their skippers. Some talk about weather and wind positioning, while others discuss race plans and strategy. By the end of the morning, they’ve regrouped with the rest of their team to share key takeaways for the day ahead. Today, the teams will test a mock racecourse, preparing for the bright lights of the next day’s competition.

“If you can hold competition and sportsmanship in your head and your heart, that is recommended. Balance,” Cohen told the group. He also repeats a common phrase from the weekend.

“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

As the teams get their bearings on the water, a safety boat zips around the bay, dropping and adjusting buoys for the afternoon practice race. But first, the teams will face an unexpected challenge that tests their teamwork.

They’re tasked with a silent sail. No speaking. No signing. Just sailing.

“If you can hold competition and sportsmanship in your head and your heart, that is recommended. Balance.”

They’re tasked with a silent sail. No speaking. No signing. Just sailing.

The unorthodox ritual goes against the communications skills they’ve been trying to build, but it comes at an ideal time. The groups are storming: over-communicating and occasionally displaying frustration as they attempt to master a brand-new skill. Each team member must read the intentions and timing of their helmsperson, making movements in concert with their desires.

Minutes later, the drill is complete. The teams collectively let out a sigh of relief and share their feelings. The storming phase has calmed, waters have become less choppy, and the sailors feel stronger about their shared mission.

This excercise, and the entire trip, is about transformations, Hamilton said.

“What each student learns about being both a leader and a follower is transformational,” she said. “Not only does leadership rotate every day, but it becomes clear on the boat that the leader can’t do it all; they must rely on their teammates to perform.”

By that evening, each team is laughing about its blunders. There was a lost hat on one boat, chaos between crew on another and a rogue swinging beam on the third. They each retreat to bed ahead of race day, filled with nervous excitement, like a kid on Christmas Eve.

At the close of each day, the EMBA students ate dinner and took part in social activities together.


Performing on race day

The third day of the trip starts slowly, despite the anticipation building around the afternoon’s activities. Each morning, faculty and staff set the mood, emotions and goals for the day. On race day, it begins with a group reading from “Tao of Leadership,” a book focused on non-competition and the spirit of play.

As part of the presentation, EMBA student David Balyeat shares his experience so far with the rest of his cohort. He’s vulnerable, expressing thanks for the support he’s received and the grace he’s been shown thus far.

“I’ve learned a ton of lessons and a lot about myself,” he concludes.

Cohen encourages the groups to make decisions and act decisively on the water.

Then, following a charades activity that taps into emotional intelligence, the teams debrief and head to their boats. That’s the tenor of the weekend: action followed by reaction, assessment and improvement.

There’s a nervous tension palpable on Team Annapurna, just hours before the races. The sailors are quieter than usual, more calculating of every decision and every move. But, as the day opens up, so do their lines of communication.

Until the blind sail.

But, as the day opens up, so do their lines of communication.

Until the blind sail.

The blind sail tests the team’s verbal communication skills and, most importantly, their trust.

Only one member of each team was allowed to speak during the blind sail, relaying directions to the blindfolded person at the helm. (Photos by Emma Sharon)

After navigating a busy bay with no vision, the teams are more trusting and more ready than ever for their race.

Three teams fly through the water, making turns and calling out commands as they jockey for position. It’s Saturday and the racecourse is swarmed by other sailboats. It feels like each team is running a marathon in a shopping mall, avoiding others as they try to clock the best time.

Before any race begins, the teams weave in a figure eight near the starting line, waiting for the exact moment to strike. It isn’t like running on a track; each team decides where it begins the race from, trying to anticipate the starting horn from the race organizers.

Each race is close, a result of evenly prepared teams. By the end of four races, the wind has died down and the teams retreat to the shore for a congratulatory dinner. Gone is the anxiety from the morning, replaced by adulation and celebration.

Along the way, they’ve picked up crucial lessons about themselves and their classmates.

“The first two races didn’t go at all how we wanted them to, we could’ve absolutely crumbled,” said student Steven Blomgren, reflecting on his team’s day. “I truly felt like we had the opportunity [to fall apart], and instead we kept trying.”

By the fourth race, Blomgren and the other members of Burning Sensations had gelled, putting together their most complete effort of the afternoon.

“We didn’t look back in the fourth race,” he said, as his team sailed to an easy victory.

In fewer than three days, a dozen Executive MBA students have gone from zero sailing experience to competitive racing in the San Diego Bay. Along the way, they’ve picked up crucial lessons about themselves and their classmates.

“There are probably lots of other ways to bring executives together for professional development, but there is something really special about these four days and the combination of time off the water and on the water,” Hamilton said. “After so many years, Daniels, in partnership with Sarah Cavanagh, has perfected the leadership experiential.”

Dinner at the San Diego Yacht Club represents a stark difference in camaraderie from just days earlier, at the gate at Denver International Airport. The group of business professionals has become friends, sharing a lovely meal in a serene setting. The laughs are louder, the smiles bigger and the bond tighter. Another goal of this trip is achieved.



Reflecting on a hallmark experience

The final day begins as every other: tone setting and reflection paired with bacon and eggs.

As the group prepares for a free day of sailing and exploring before their departure, they’re tasked with electing cohort leaders. These two people are responsible for coordinating the group’s social contract through the remainder of the program, coordinating global trip selection, calling meetings and serving as a liaison with the Executive MBA staff and faculty.

In a weekend full of leadership training, this was the culmination: a group of blossoming leaders coming together to elect their two captains.

As they board the plane following a whirlwind four days on the water, the group has completed what some called a “life-changing” experience. They learned that on that boat and in the boardroom that communication is paramount. Trust is essential.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

At the helm, EMBA student Seth Shively reflects on a transformational experience.

The Daniels Executive MBA program allows you to learn critical business skills and take on the complex, evolving issues leaders face in today’s business environment, all in a cohort of your peers and a program designed for executive learners.

Learn More