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.
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.
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.
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.