Why Rowers Do It Better: What Sculling Has Taught Me About Coaching CEOs

Why Rowers Do It Better: What Sculling Has Taught Me About Coaching CEOs

I didn’t know anything about rowing until a year ago when I tried sculling for the first time.

After reading The Boys in the Boat, I was inspired to sign up for an “experience rowing” class at the famed George Pocock Rowing Center in Seattle.

In a matter of months I was up before the dawn, rowing several early mornings a week, finding the physical exercise, technical challenge, and time on the water to be a spiritual experience.

Needless to say, I’m all in!

I’ve also come to recognize that my work as a wealth manager and CEO Confidant has a lot in common with rowing: both require focus, dedication, and mastery of technical skills.

In rowing, as in any company, each rower can be a masterful oarsman, operating in isolation and therefore out of sync with the rest of the boat.

The greatest historical crews row as a unit, as “one holistic symphony of motion” as Pocock calls it. This harmony is about getting in touch with the heart, being humble, and having faith in one’s fellow rowers.

This state of rowing nirvana, where the boat is graceful and powerful, is synonymous with the idea of being in the flow both as a company and as an individual. The trust and respect that is fostered in rowing easily translates to the professional relationship.

The secret to the rowing motion is the confluence of three factors: harmony, rhythm, and balance.

— George Pocock, the revered racing shell builder.

I’m of the strong belief that a business leader, especially a CEO, will only listen to and follow another leader.

The rowing coach instructs through a megaphone, putting it up to the ear to hear what the rower is saying from the scull. While I don’t interact with my clients via megaphone (we generally sit with a cup of coffee in the comfortable chairs in my office), there is a similar dynamic as my role involves assisting the CEO with finding the right balance in the boat, and that requires clear communication.

The CEO Confidant also has something in common with the coxswain, the only oarless member of the crew, who steers the shell in a straight line and sets the pace of the scull.  Guidance must come from a centered perspective as the goal is to keep the CEO’s shell on course and clear of obstacles.

The CEO Confidant steers the conversation, setting the pace for the exploration of ideal outcomes. Guiding the business leader to find answers maximizes the efficiency of their oar pulling water.

The Confidant also provides balance and encouragement when the water gets choppy. CEO’s don’t suffer fools lightly, and the Confidant must navigate strong emotions and opinions to keep the shell from capsizing.

I’ve found there are three components for fostering the kind of communication that helps us work together with ease toward recognizing the goals, values and dreams of the CEO. These tips could be helpful to others navigating leadership positions:

  1. Ask empowering questions:

Ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions designed to create clarity, evoke a search for answers and curiosity about new possibilities.

Questions like:

  • How can you reframe that to move on?
  • What’s really bothering you about this?
  • How does that fit into your plan?

Individuals often have one frame of reference and focus, and analytical thinking tops the list for most CEO’s. The CEO Confidant not only uses the analytical mind, but also the intuitive mind and emotional awareness to make a holographic picture of circumstances. Holographic thinking is a valuable and intriguing skill that involves using a broad set of data input to solve problems and lead the CEO in gaining deeper awareness.

Questions that reflect holographic thinking are:

  • What do you think about that?
  • How do you feel?
  • What is your instinct telling you?

Through asking literally thousands of questions using holographic techniques to business leaders over the years, I’ve found staying in a curious posture about the person and their issues yields valuable clues to what they desire and where they want to go. Detached involvement is one of the most powerful skills that a CEO Confidant can possess. The goal is to be so self-aware that you don’t project your own feelings onto the CEO.

2. Listen intuitively:

  • Listen with complete presence.
  • Focus on what the CEO is and is not saying.
  • Look for the true meaning and essence behind what is said.
  • Acknowledge and validate what you are hearing.

There is an old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.” In rowing, being grounded in the shell by keeping your center of gravity low in your legs and seat is vital to staying in tune with the entire boat. Detaching from the tendency to grip the oars tighter and over-emphasize upper body strength leads to a relaxed and balanced state which allows the rowing stroke to be powerful and smooth. Otherwise, the shell is lists from side to side, and can flip over. Trust me, I know!

It was a huge turning point in my rowing development when I learned to stay singularly focused while in a state of controlled relaxation. Similarly, coming into conversation in a relaxed, centered and open state allows me to be fully engaged emotionally while remaining non-judgmental and objective.

3. Rock the Boat: Engage in fierce conversations.

Engage in direct communications with the sole goal of creating positive impact for the CEO.

It takes courage to challenge the CEO’s assumptions and perceptions but many coaches won’t “rock the boat” because of the need for approval and the fear of risking the relationship. Detached but skillful involvement fosters the CEO’s agenda exclusively.  And conversely, if emotionally triggered by the conversation, another rowing stroke will follow and a chance to rebalance will emerge.

Onward Facing Backwards!

Sculling is, as they say, OFB! Because you face backward when rowing, you must rely on your peripheral vision to stay on course.

With harmony, rhythm, and balance, the Confidant supports the CEO in exploring core values and life purpose, bringing more of who they are and where they truly want to go to the surface, working in “one holistic symphony of motion” to foster ideal outcomes in their lives.

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