August 4, 2016

Does Your Company Have ‘Swing’?


After becoming CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella sent out a company-wide memo that referenced Boys in the Boat, a book about the 1936 University of Washington men’s rowing team’s Olympic quest. Nadella quoted the following passage from the book:

“There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. … It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.”

So, what exactly is “swing,” and why should companies strive to find it? As George Pocock, the great philosopher of rowing, said of swing: “Therein lies the secret of successful crews: Their swing makes the work of propelling the shell a delight.”

Swing allows regular people to achieve extraordinary results. Companies that have swing achieve results that are greater than the sum of the individuals on the project, and companies without swing never move beyond the sum of these individual efforts.

Could your company benefit from better swing? Here’s how rowing can help:

1. Rowing Breaks Down Barriers

The odds are likely that very few people at your company have rowed before, so when you put everyone together is a rowing shell, they’re on an equal playing field and similarly outside of their respective comfort zones. Learning to row is like learning to ride a bike: challenging at first, but once you’ve figured out how to do it, your crew will hit their stride together. This creates a tangible experience of swing. As the group learns to complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses in the boat, it will be clear that the more people swing together, the faster they will all make the boat go.

2. Rowing Fosters Multilevel Communication

Synchronization is vital to rowing, but in order for it to happen, every member of the boat has to be aware of communication on multiple levels. When you are in a rowing shell, you can see only the back of the person directly in front of you. Everyone else in the boat is out of sight, but you can feel them move. As a result, you experience the swing very tangibly as a cohesive unit as the boat surges through the water after each stroke. Rowers instantly learn to pay careful attention to the person in front of them in addition to feeling the motion of the entire crew.

BoatAdding to this nonverbal communication, every shell has one very verbal person – the coxswain – whose main responsibility is to lead the actions of the crew with verbal cues. Like a great team leader, the coxswain keeps the rowers focused on their collective goal, especially when conditions become unstable or challenging.

3. Rowing Creates Tangible Results

When you watch a rowing shell glide down a stretch of water, it looks effortless and beautiful, but it is no small feat to move a 65-foot-long hull from point A to point B. Rowing requires a team of individuals to come together and work in perfect unison. The boat will only reach its potential when every team member is pushed to their personal limit and, at the same time, working toward a common goal. When the boat starts to swing, your team will cross the finish line first. Unlike other-team building sports, when you hit that stride in a rowing shell, your success can be easily measured – in meters, in time, and in swing together.

Does your company needs to find its own swing? It may be time to get out of the boardroom and get into the water.

Jeff Nelson is the business engagement manager of Community Rowing Inc.

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Jeff Nelson is the business engagement manager of Community Rowing Inc., a nonprofit rowing organization that excels in offering team-building and executive training programs to help companies find their swing.