Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Sailing sets business students on course for success

What’s business got to do with sailing? 

Plenty, at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business

Students in the school’s executive master’s in business administration (EMBA) program are learning how to better navigate the wavy waters of business by sailing in the waters off the coast of San Diego.

Just one month into their EMBA studies, students board 32–foot sailboats every fall and spring to learn tools they use in business. The sailing class has been a part of the MBA program for about 10 years. 

“You put four people on a boat and tell them to make it go in a certain direction and they’ll learn something about teamwork,” says Dennis Cooke, operations manager of executive and professional programs for Daniels.  

And they’re learning more than just teamwork. “It also teaches trust, communication and leadership styles,” Cooke adds.

“You can’t make a sailboat go, let alone perform well, without a coordinated team effort,” says Lisa Grassfield, assistant director of the EMBA program. “The same holds true in business. Winds change, the unforeseen happens, leaders need to lead, followers need to follow.” 

“The objective in business may be achieving organizational effectiveness, encouraging values-based leadership, or sustainability and corporate social responsibility,” Grassfield adds. “There are some excellent analogies between the team-sail experience and business success.”   

She also says that having the students sail early in the program gives them the opportunity to get to know each other in “an environment that’s somewhat unknown to most of them. It’s an intense, highly collaborative learning environment with a lot of teamwork.”

Students come back from the 3-day trip (which includes daily on-land classroom sessions) “much better prepared” to work together during the remaining 18 months of the EMBA program, she says. 

“Students often look back and say that the sailing trip was a pivotal point in their program,” Grassfield says. “It’s a foundation for the personal and professional growth they’ll experience while in the program.”

Kelsey Johnson (EMBA ’05) says sailing helped her identify some of her personal strengths and weaknesses as a leader and test those skills in a team environment. 

“Before the trip I felt that I was good at motivating people, and on the boat I learned that in fun and positive situations, I could keep motivation high, but when it was more stressful I had to use different tactics to get them to follow my direction,” Johnson says. “The stress on the boat is so much more intense than your average workday. That really amplifies those skills and behaviors.” 

The next crew of students will set sail Oct. 18–21.

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