You’ve seen them on the inspirational posters in classrooms, gyms and break rooms: “There is no I in Team” and “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.” These usually elicit a subconscious eye roll when we see and hear them, but there is a reason these clichés exist. But why do we see these athletic posters in an office break room?  It’s simple: when it comes to achieving success together, athletic teams and small office teams employ the same strategies.

On November 2 and 3, the Head of the Hooch, the nation’s second largest regatta, was taking place in Chattanooga. All weekend long, incredible teamwork was demonstrated both on and off the water in all configurations of boats.  Probably the most fascinating of them all were the Eights and the Quads, each for how the rowers adapt to the varying needs and leadership styles necessary for a successful row. Knowing how these teams work together for a common goal helped me make some connections.

I’ve been an avid rower for over 25 years and I still love to row in events like the Head of the Hooch, but my day job is just as exciting.  I’m part of an incredible team at CO.LAB, where every day we work to support an ecosystem of entrepreneurs navigate the choppy and, at times, frigid waters of growing a business. Much like a rowing team, each member of a startup is essential. This is what led me to draw these similarities between big boat rowing and startup teams.

Here are 3 things a startup team can learn about being successful from big boat rowing:


  • Trust the Leader.  

There are two kinds of boats in big boat rowing: the coxed and uncoxed boats. In the Eight configuration, there is one person responsible for steering the boat and making the calls— essentially leading the team.  The coxswain controls a rudder and is mic’d up with a speaker system that runs the length of the boat. As a member of the crew, the expectation is that you don’t speak unless the coxswain addresses you and that you do what the coxswain tells you until you cross the finish line. When you start making calls or addressing issues to the crew as a rower, it confuses the race plan. There isn’t time to discuss a change. As a rower, you are responsible for executing a rehearsed race plan, yet need to be ready to deal with any quick changes that the coxswain deems necessary for safety and/or success.

When today’s modern office team is able to seamlessly communicate through the process, it’s clear that a plan has been discussed and you have an effective leader. Sometimes you have to just trust the plan and keep moving forward. The end of the race is when the team will communicate with each other— critique and discuss the course, the execution of the race plan, effectiveness of the crew’s response, etc.  This is when each member has a clear voice that is respected and listened to. From this discussion, the team takes away lessons learned for the next race or practice pieces.

In order for leaders to empower teams to perform from one race, or project, to the next, it is critical that they provide an opportunity for the team to provide feedback and share openly. Just not in the middle of the race.  


  • Everyone has a responsibility and your team is depending on you. 

In a four-rower coxless boat, a “straight four” or a “quad”, there is no little Napoleon barking out commands. Each rower has his/her responsibility for each row and is just as essential as the others. The Stroke seat sets the pace through the entire row. Again, this is usually discussed during the race plan and the crew is counting on the Stroke to keep to this pace. The only time the pace is broken and the Stroke yells out a command, it is to make a move on another boat. The Bow seat watches the boat’s course and steers the boat either with a foot steering mechanism or by shouting commands for the team to pull harder on port or starboard. The Bow’s responsibility is ensuring the safety of the crew and choosing the fastest course in a race. When the Bow speaks, it is important to respond immediately.  The two middle seats, lovingly referred to as The Engine Room, must have the ability to adapt quickly to the Bow’s and Stroke’s commands, but be reliable to just keep pulling through it all.

The message here is that with or without a clearly defined leader, teams must understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses in order to work together. Everyone needs to be observant and empathetic and must respond immediately when needed.


  • There Truly is no “I” in Team.  

A large part of a boat’s success in a race is how well the crew responds to its leadership, whether it’s a single leader or a few people with defined roles. Regardless of the organization of the team, the crew that understands, respects, gives selflessly to the team, and can learn from critique becomes a winning team, regardless of whether the team earned some hardware or not. The ultimate goal is that the whole team crosses the finish line at the same time, regardless of individual position and responsibility in the boat. The whole team wins or loses. It doesn’t get more real than that, folks.

Next time you’re planning a team project, take a moment to think about the bigger picture of it all and remember that your team is united in its wins and losses. Consider the roles and responsibilities that are necessary for the execution of your next project. How are you going to contribute to the win?


About the Author

Megan Hanewald is an Office Manager and Executive Assistant to the CEO at The Company Lab, CO.LAB, in Chattanooga, TN.  In addition to 20+ years working with corporate executives, she is a championship rower and rowing coach. Megan also can be found motivating spinning classes on Echelon’s training channel.