Sailing and managerial education, a long-lasting association. Not only to borrow effective sayings and metaphors from the world of sailing, but because the same challenging spirit and the importance of teamwork enhancing individual skills can be experienced in both fields. For years SDA Bocconi has been building a “partnership” with sports initiatives such as the MBA’s Cup, an international sailing regatta open to crews from different business schools. It once more confirmed its focus on the world of sailing, to mark UN Oceans Day 2021, by inviting two world-class sailors before a virtual audience of Full-time MBA and other Masters participants. Max Sirena and Vasco Vascotto are respectively skipper and crew member of Luna Rossa, the legendary Italian yacht that made it to the finals of this year’s America’s Cup.
This iconic international sailing competition conjures up a blend of technical skill, training, concentration, division of roles, team strength, leadership, aspiration and challenge. “To participate in the America’s Cup, which lasts 8 weeks, we work for over three years, up to 12-14 hours a day in busy periods, and most of the time “in the dark”, that is to say measuring ourselves and our simulations, especially this year with the restrictions caused by the pandemic,” said Sirena, who has won the cup twice. Therefore, there are few other situations where team building is so key to achieving results: “Our team is a large family of over 120 people – designers, suppliers, staff and crew – and each of us plays an essential role,” the skipper continued. “Everybody has to keep focused and supportive, especially in difficult times. For this we need to be mentally stable and flexible.”
At such levels of professional and personal involvement, the point is being able to manage times of both maximum strain for the team and much needed “relaxation” and evaluation of outcomes for the best. Is this easily done? “Underlying motivation is certainly not the problem – if you are not motivated you don’t participate in an America’s Cup or any other international competition”, answered Vascotto, former skipper of Mascalzone Latino at the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007. “The challenge comes when things are not going the way you would like them to go. You need to be ready to lose some races: that’s when you learn to hold on, rally your group and even use defeat to strengthen team spirit.”
The more you learn about the dynamics of the America’s Cup the more parallels emerge with life and with the management of corporate organizations. One of these is about investing in the future: “Training a new generation of sailors is an investment rather than an expense,” Sirena highlighted. “Cross-generational work is not easy because young people are often a challenge for us seniors, they think ‘out of the box’. But they are the ones who bring the new energy needed to go ahead.” Women will also be increasingly present in the future of competitive sailing: “At the moment in PR, marketing and communication. In the last campaign we had a female designer too. But I would like to have a woman on my crew soon, there are roles where physical strength is not essential.”
Another important point, at sea and in companies, is managing uncertainty. “You have a goal in mind, but you do not know exactly how to achieve it. There are so many variables and unforeseen events, you always have to have plan B, and sometimes you realize that they are better than plan A.” This does not mean you shouldn’t do your best with the resources and support that are available: “The New Zealanders have a much higher budget than ours. Together with rugby, sailing is the national sport there and their yacht is funded by taxpayers. But the success of Luna Rossa,” the team leader underlined, “is helping the passion for sailing spread even in Italy, the realm of soccer. We should dispel the myth that sailing is a sport for the rich. My family, for instance, is an ordinary family, financially speaking.” And he concluded: “Their yacht might be faster, but I think our crew is the best in the world.”
If the backdrop to the conversation is the sea, there must be a reference to its ecosystem and to the topic of sustainability in general, to which the two skippers are particularly sensitive as Ambassadors of the One Ocean Foundation and its Charta Smeralda, the code of ethics for sharing principles and actions to protect the oceans. Vascotto is clear: “We have no other choice for our future: we need to respect the sea.” “We have to start with ourselves, accepting to change our comfortable lives,” Sirena echoed. “As people and consumers, we can be the engine driving change. This means re-educating ourselves.” Which is also a lesson in corporate management.
SDA Bocconi School of Management.