“Other teams envied the way we were collaborating”

Published on: 9 September 2019

She has spent her entire life sailing on the water, and yet, Carolijn Brouwer sees many parallels between her work and “normal” business life. During next week’s APG Summer Course in Rotterdam, the sailor takes along the directors of pension funds as she talks about her experiences during her sailing career. Topics such as dealing with setbacks, setting targets and leadership will be addressed.


Collaboration is the greatest resemblance with business life. You don’t have to be each other’s best friend, but you must be able to stand as one as a group”, Carolijn sets off. And this collaboration does not come naturally. You have to work on it, together. But how is this done?

“Communication is extremely important”, Carolijn continues. “We often sail under harsh conditions. And you can’t hear each other very well when the wind is blowing and the rain is pouring down. Imagine during the night, when it’s pitch dark, you are not even able to see one another. In that case, clear communication is incredibly important. Clear language, which is a challenge on its own, as there are several nationalities on the ship. The official language is English but the French, for example, are difficult to understand speaking English and that is hard to follow for our Chinese teammates.”


Working like an oiled machine
So Carolijn has worked very hard with the Chinese Dongfeng Race Team, with whom she participated in the Volvo Ocean Race, to become an oiled machine as a team. “We had to become one, but always leave room for improvisation. Out on the ocean, it has to be possible to change course. Following plan A and plan B, you sometimes have to move on to plan C due to unforeseen circumstances, such as the weather. If you know each other well and can communicate properly, you are able to respond to change in a more agile manner.”

No egos together
Looking back on her winning team, Carolijn continues: “Other teams sometimes envied the way in which we collaborated. Even though our team was very divers - seven men and two women of different nationality and age - we were a tightly-knit group. We didn’t only train our muscles on the water, we spent day and night together. We knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths. This also meant that we were able to bring out the best in each other, to give each other strength. That’s how we helped each other sail around the world. Our bond was unique. And that’s important for groups, also in business life. Make sure you create that bond together. Our captain didn’t choose us for our great sailing skills, he wanted to be surrounded by people who were strong as a person, especially during hard times. It wouldn’t work, putting nine egos on one ship.”

Leadership is another important factor when working together. “There is definitely a hierarchy on board. The captain makes all the decisive decisions, for example, when the ships capsizes and we have to get into the lifeboats. Other than that, there’s always someone in charge on deck and the rest of the crew is there to execute. But the entire process is democratic. We act in mutual consultation and the entire team is involved making a decision.”


Women at the helm
Another parallel that stands out to Carolijn: diversity in the workplace. “The sailing world is also dominated by men. I participated in the Volvo Ocean Race for the first time in 2014-2015 with a team entirely made up of women. The other seven teams were fully composed of men. My team didn’t do very well. Twelve years prior was the last time before this race that women were sailing along. We therefore lacked experience and training in terms of ocean racing. Mixed sailing was then introduced in 2017-2018. So, things are starting to move, but very slowly.


Thinking you can cope with anything
Carolijn considers it her duty, together with her French teammate Marie Riou, to fight for women in the sailing world. “You can see “women empowerment” emerge everywhere. We are trying to help young women and girls develop further in the sailing world. To earn their money professionally with this physical and quite extreme sports. When it comes to teams having to choose between a man and a woman, they often opt for a man. It’s a fact you can hardly ignore. But what we, women, would like to show is that our body allows us to get the maximum out of it. When I was as fit and strong as I could possibly be, I felt as if I could conquer the entire world. That was most important to me. I would never be as strong physically as that young Chinese man standing next to me, but in my head I was. I am trying to get that message across to the upcoming generation. I could do it, and so can they.”

And the diversity has broadened, as Carolijn has also witnessed. “The most important thing is for your team to have a mutual goal, no matter your gender, origin or age. If everyone has a unity of purpose, all differences between men and women, Dutch and Chinese, young and old just disappear. You are all working together to achieve a common objective. All of us wanted to win that Volvo Ocean Race, so we left all of those small and insignificant matters behind us.”


Taking care of your own retirement
In addition to the common goal as a team, Carolijn is also working on her own future. This subject is lacking similarity with the “normal business life”. “I will be standing in front of a room filled with directors of pension funds to give my speech, but I am actually not accumulating any pension myself! Olympic sailors are covered by the Waterschapsverbond (waterboard alliance) and will therefore build up pension. But this is not how it works in ocean racing: we always have to look for sponsors and investors and are not linked to a sector. My partner, who is also a sailor, and I invest in houses in the Netherlands and Australia which I consider my own pension accrual. But it might be an idea for pension funds to bridge this gap in the market. Because we are actually very much on our own.”

The APG Summer Course is an inspiration meeting for pension fund managers of funds that are clients of APG. During this summer school we challenge administrators and ourselves with new insights from "outside".
One of the speakers was Carolijn Brouwer; a Dutch sailor who was named the best sailor in the world in October 2018. She sees many similarities between sailing at sea and business.