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How Being a Competitive Rower Shaped My Leadership Style

For me, college life was filled with the typical things — courses, exams, friends — but what I immediately remember most is being on the water as a rower: how much I loved the athleticism, the intensity of competition, the simple joy of being with my teammates. 

A cross-country runner by training, it was really just happenstance — and very good luck — that I was encouraged to try out for the rowing team at McGill and made it, the year after Canada dominated at the Barcelona Olympics. But it was a formative experience — even more than I understood it to be at the time. It’s the reason my leadership style today is calm, collaborative and competitive. Now as CEO, I routinely draw on the lessons I learned from my time on the water to be a good leader, teammate and partner. 

Here are several of those lessons I’ve relied on the most throughout my leadership journey.

Pull your weight

Anyone who’s ever rowed will tell you: on a boat, there’s literally nowhere to hide. It’s perfectly obvious to all who’s not pulling their weight. If you’re not each doing your part, pulling with equal effort in a balanced way, you can slow the boat down substantially and even go in circles. It goes without saying: this is not how races are won.

It truly honed my bullshit meter. Today I have very little patience for people who bluster and bluff — and great respect for people who prioritize their teams, work hard in service to a greater goal, and try their best. I strive to do the same as a teammate and leader myself.

Don’t worry about perceptions

When I was a sophomore, I went out for varsity rowing — and the coxswain at the time said matter-of-fact

ly and notunkindly, “Oh, you won’t make it.” Well, I did end up making the team and, eventually, became captain. It was good prep for future professional situations, when I was tapped for leadership positions and it came as something of a surprise for people who expected someone different. 

It taught me that it’s a waste of time to worry about what other people think. I’m here to do a job and do it well. The first priority can’t ever be pleasing everyone or reshaping yourself to suit their expectations and preferences. Be clear on what you need to get done and crush it. The rest always follows.

Be purposeful about creating teams

In rowing, you really push to create the best possible combination of talent in the eight spots you have on the boat. Each season, there are new people working their way in, replacing departed seniors and others who may not be on the team anymore — not dissimilar, in a way, to how we address attrition and talent requirements in professional settings. 

This isn’t about ensuring your friends or the people who look like you end up in the boat. That’s the way to have fun — but it’s not fair and it’s not a winning formula. The focus has to be on finding people who can help you get to the goal, whether that’s winning a tournament or launching a product successfully in the market.

Fear will hold you back

In sport, you’re either afraid of failure or pain. Yet both are quite useful teachers in their own way. The first time you go out, you never win. But you get useful information: “Oh, okay, I came in about halfway in the pack.” I’ve experienced that many times as an athlete. That so-called failure gives you insights into where you are and what you need to do to make progress. 

Sometimes the harder part is learning to be resilient through pain. As you push the limits of your body, you can — as an athlete — back away because your body is sending you signals that you’re in pain. But as you get more experienced, you’ll know when it’s serious and when you’re just being tentative. In fact, most of the time, if you’re afraid to try and keep at it, you will not get there. In figure skating, you might fall and smack yourself 100 times, but pushing through is what gets you to greatness. You will, however, learn to live with being uncomfortable before that happens.

I think about that quite a bit. I once had a direct report come to me in tears. She had been making some mistakes. “I’ve never made mistakes like this before,” she said. I responded, “That’s because you’ve been working very comfortably. Now you’re growing and it’s uncomfortable. But I expect you’ll make more mistakes and then you’ll fix them. So I’m good; I know you’re pushing boundaries, and you have my support to keep going.”

Don’t let the fear of failure or discomfort hold you back from growth. Remember that in well-run organizations, it’s not possible to make a bad mistake because there are checks and balances designed to keep impacts minimal.

The passion is the point

Rowing is hard. You’re one of just four or eight in the boat. The wind, the current, the condition of your teammates, how people are feeling that day, etc., can be factors that impede performance. But the X factor is alway passion — if you have real love for what you do, it can propel you past all the obstacles.

I see that at work every day. If people are passionate, it is evident in how you carry yourself, how you speak about the product, how you encourage the teams that work for you, how you recruit talent. My first request of my team is this: “Tell me what you love.” It’s so I can reorient people toward their passions. I had a marketing generalist tell me he loved to write — so that’s what I focused him on. Now he’s in charge of building and managing that company’s  community program and he’s doing so well. 

Not many people will tell you what they like and don’t like (this is especially true early in their career). But as a leader, if you can encourage honesty, you can identify and harness passion (and, frankly, also transition people away from areas they’re not well suited for).

Were you an athlete in your early days? How has it shaped your professional outlook?

 

About the Author: 

Michelle Pampin is the CEO of Welkin Health, a Care Management platform focused on improving health outcomes for people living with chronic diseases. Michelle is an accomplished leader, with a track record of advancing high-growth Silicon Valley software companies. Michelle speaks three languages: Spanish, French and Portuguese. When she’s not busy leading Welkin, she is busy staying active with her Samoyed, Avi. 

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