“The afternoon slot of any workshop usually suffers from the post-lunch slump. But if anyone had plans to join the sleepy sloths outside in the zoo, they would have been rudely awoken by Conrad Humphreys and his salty stories of the sea.
Conrad, still only in his mid thirties, is a triple round-the-world yachtsman and the youngest skipper to ever win the prestigious BT Global Challenge, which he did at aged 28 in 2000. A surprising choice as a source of learning for a group of environmental scientists and engineers perhaps, but an inspirational choice, we soon discovered. Because, like Defra, competitive sailing involves responding to a rapidly changing environment, where you need to create a knowledge sharing environment to inspire and manage effective team working. As well as being an expert yachtsman, Conrad’s experiences on the high seas has given him incredible insight into team building, performance management and motivation – skills that he sums up as ‘creating a culture for success’ and which the audience agreed were vital for raising Defra’s game.
To help us learn more about these vital skills, Conrad took us on his voyages around the world, introducing us to his team mates, the places they visited, the troubles they met and the ways they worked together to win. We met the former mathematician put in charge of food, who produced a spreadsheet calculating menu plans of the limited food on board based around a combination of precise calorie counts and people’s preferences. And we heard about the horrific storm that injured two members of a competing team.
So what were the secrets to Conrad’s success? Far from giving us an alpha-male style lecture about drive and the ambition to win, Conrad talked about building a vision, sharing values, involving people in decisions, devolving leadership and creating an environment where people want to be. “If people really believe in something they’ll go to extraordinary lengths,” he explained. Getting his team used to feeling like winners was important too. “Winning is addictive, so you need to make it a habit by getting your team to picture what it would be like to succeed and to have small wins so they understand what it feels like.”
Perhaps the most important thought came in one of Conrad’s asides – important as it put into words something that many of us immediately identified with. A culture for success is one where “we never step over a job.”
Melanie Smallman, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Conference 01.12.09