The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

June 25, 2017

Learning Teamwork Aboard a Schooner

Drop your work team into a completely unfamiliar environment, where the boss has no more expertise than the receptionist, but where teamwork is critical, and what will happen?  How do leaders emerge? According to Catherine Collins of the nonprofit Sound Experience, “the ship becomes the teacher.”  You can’t hide.  All aboard the Schooner Adventuress with your work team.

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Voiceover: It’s a Northwest Lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is the Boss Show, with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Steve Motenko: Today on the Boss Show, lessons on teamwork and culture on a tall ship. Hi, I’m Steve Motenko, I’m the psychology guy. You’re listening to the show for anyone who is or has a boss. I’m a leadership coach in the Seattle area, and I work with my friend across the table developing teams of leaders in organizations.
Jim Hessler: I’m the more estimable member of the group, I’m Jim Hessler, I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development, and the … Did you already say the book?
Steve Motenko: Nope, I didn’t.
Jim Hessler: We co-authored a book called Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face and I’m glad to be here with you.
Steve Motenko: And I’m glad to be here with you, and great strategic meeting this morning with our biggest client.
Jim Hessler: We did, we knocked it out of the park with a client this morning. That was a good meeting.
Steve Motenko: We talked about how when you develop your leaders in your organization, it’s not just about developing your leaders. It ought to be about changing your culture to create a culture that’s not just more effective, but allows people to feel more fulfilled in their work and that’s what we aim for in our work. Jim, you’re about to turn 61 years old in another month.
Jim Hessler: That’s correct. Less than a month now.
Steve Motenko: Yeah. How much longer are you planning to work?
Jim Hessler: Well, people ask me that a lot these days.
Steve Motenko: Why, they think it’s time?
Jim Hessler: Maybe so, I don’t know. I have a hard time answering that question and I don’t feel pressured to answer that question. I feel like there will be a time where I will get up in the morning and it will just seem like the right time. Now, some of that depends on …
Steve Motenko: You’re just gonna quit on the spot?
Jim Hessler: Yes, screw you guys I’m outta here. I mean, the fact is that there’s some planning that needs to go into this from an exit strategy perspective, since I own the business and I have to think about the value that we built in the business and how to maximize that during the remaining years that I’m involved, but I also feel like what we do is important and what we do feeds me in many ways, and I feel really good about the help that we provide to people as they grow, and if I can do that, and continue to make some good money doing it, I’d be glad to do it into my 70s. I just don’t know yet, I don’t feel like I need to answer that question.
Steve Motenko: So, if you do end up doing it into your 70s, you’re joining a growing cohort of Americans who are working longer into their older years.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, because for many, many people it’s not fun to be retired, or completely retired. I think there’s an in between there.
Steve Motenko: And there are other reasons as well, but I came across some intriguing statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the other day that said that, I mean, we all know that people tend to be working longer than they used to, but 25 years ago, only one out of every six Americans aged 65 to 74 were working at all, part time or full time, and now, instead of one out of every six, it’s one of every three, according, again, to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so that number has doubled in a single generation.
Jim Hessler: I think a lot of that’s gotta be financial in nature, because I think people don’t have pensions the way they used to have pensions. My wife and I both have a pension that we can look forward to, so that’s fairly rare I think, for both members of a married couple to have that. We’ve got some financial reasons why we could retire, probably more successfully than a lot of other people, but for me, more importantly, is just how’s it gonna feel to not do this work anymore, ’cause I love it.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and be a less, you know, noted the financial reason, especially I think in the wake of the recession, a lot of people lost a lot of what they thought they had saved for retirement.
Jim Hessler: Absolutely.
Steve Motenko: Another kind of obvious reason that people are working longer is the improving health of older Americans.
Jim Hessler: Absolutely, we live a lot longer than we used to. When social security was established in the 1930s, the average life expectancy of a man in the United States was about 63 years old, so more than half of men didn’t even reach the retirement age of social security at 65.
Steve Motenko: Right, which is kind of hard to imagine that recently.
Jim Hessler: ‘Cause now we’re living till average 73 I think it is, something like that. Women, it’s I think 79, something like that.
Steve Motenko: And speaking of women, that’s another reason that people are working longer, because there are more women in the workforce than there used to be, and they tend to choose to stay longer. The other side of the equation is also kind of interesting, that younger Americans, the percentage of 20 to 24 year olds in the workplace is actually declining.
Jim Hessler: Yeah. Waiting longer to start their careers.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, by more than 10% over the past 20 years, so just interesting statistics in the workplace for what that’s worth to you… Catherine Collins grew up sailing Cape Cod waters, and after getting an MBA, and a couple of decades of experience in non-profit leadership, including a stint with Outward Bound, and another in microfinance, really intriguing endeavors to me, Catherine’s now ED of Sound Experience, which she’ll tell you about in a moment. Catherine, welcome to the Boss Show.
Catherine Colli: Thanks so much, Steve.
Steve Motenko: So, Sound Experience, what is it?
Catherine Colli: Sound Experience is a non-profit, a small non-profit, about 800,000 in operating every year, and we own and operate the historic schooner Adventuress. It’s a 104 year old national historic landmark sailing ship, one of only two on the West Coast still in active operation, and she is a Puget Sound icon.
Steve Motenko: Wow, and so the Adventuress, and so why the heck do we have you on the show? Well, first of all, tell us about the Adventuress itself.
Jim Hessler: What makes it a schooner? Two masts?
Catherine Colli: What makes it a schooner is two masts, indeed, indeed. Not to be confused with a ketch or a yawl, but she is an education vessel that sails Puget Sound all over, from Olympia up to the San Juan islands, through Bellingham, Seattle, spends about 50% of her time in King County, and the work that we do is mostly with young people, with some adults in public sales, and also an occasional team-building enterprise with businesses in the area.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and that’s the part we want to focus on in this interview, because most young people are not gainfully employed in the workplace because of some silly little laws, but the adults, so you get teams on board, right? When you get workplace teams on board, what’s the experience like for them?
Catherine Colli: What we promise is a three hour to six hour multifaceted experience, where teams come on board, and we have a group of about 12 live-aboard educators, that work with teams. There’s not a giant leap between what we do with youth and what we do with adults, and part of it is because adults don’t really know anything about Puget Sound. They don’t know about the environment, and so what we do is, we use the tools … We have a saying on this ship, a tagline, it’s “Ship as teacher,” and indeed, when you get involved on Adventuress, what you do is you’re taking the helm, you’re raising the sails, you’re working together, you can’t hide yourself on a ship, and so you’re really having to face each other one on one and in teams, to make the ship run.
Steve Motenko: There’s so much there to explore. Say a little bit more about, you know, “You can’t hide yourself on a ship.” Why not? Why can’t I just sit and let everybody else do what’s … Everybody else wants to be involved in what’s going on with raising the masts or whatever it is.
Jim Hessler: Raising the masts?
Steve Motenko: Raising the masts.
Catherine Colli: The masts stay firmly in place.
Steve Motenko: Are they building the masts?
Jim Hessler: That’s really hard to do.
Catherine Colli: Yeah, the masts stay firmly in place. We want them to stay in place.
Steve Motenko: It’s probably wise, yeah. Raising the sails, sorry, jeez! Just jump right down my throat. Why can’t you hide? If I’m feeling insecure about it, why can’t I just hide?
Catherine Colli: The length on deck of the schooner Adventuress is 102ft. That is not that big a space. While we sleep 24 aboard, and we can take 45 day passengers, what you’re doing is, you’ve only got two main areas below decks, you’ve got one deck, you can see everybody, you can see everything going on, and you want to do your part. Part of being on Adventuress is not only do you want to be a part of it, but the whole nature of sailing a vessel like Adventuress, first of all, the historic nature of it, it’s a really special experience, and I think you want to be a part of it, so part of that self-drive is, I think, what makes people shine. It doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna make mistakes, but there’s people there to help you, and I think the experience overall, even for a very short time, can be powerful when you’re working with teams.
Steve Motenko: Your educators, are they educated about leadership? Are they trained in leadership lessons, and how to foster effective leadership in the context of teamwork on the boat?
Catherine Colli: I will say, each of them, they’re often quite young, but what I will say about them is that while they may not all come with formal training on leadership, they do come with other educational experiences, and being aboard Adventuress is a journey for each of them.
Steve Motenko: The boat creates its own kind of culture, and it occurs to me that that could be aligned with, or not aligned with the culture that a workplace team brings onto the boat, so riff on that for us.
Catherine Colli: Sure. The culture that exists on the schooner Adventuress is reflective of our organizational culture. There’s some things that really define it, and one of the things is continuous learning. After every single sail on Adventuress, we debrief it. Sometimes it’ll be a short debrief, thumbs up, thumbs down, safety issues, things like that, but every public sale, every sail with schools, every program that we have with adults or with young people, we debrief it, we talk about it, we learn from it, and every single person, everyone from the captain, to the mate, to the engineer, to every educator aboard is in a learning role, and I think we also really experiment and we’re like, “Oh, we don’t know how to do that, let’s give that a shot, see how that works.”
There’s also a hierarchy, but it’s a hierarchy that is important in safety situations, and in situations as to who has the last word. There’s also a continuous loop of discussion around, “What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How do we create behavior change in young people who come and learn about Puget Sound and go home and then, you know, explore their own life and what they’re gonna do?”
Steve Motenko: When you get workplace teams on board, do you debrief with them?
Catherine Colli: We do debrief with them. It depends on what the workplace wants, so every culture that does come to us, every single one’s different, as you can imagine, and every single one is definitely different than ours. One of the things we do is, we attract people, and companies and organizations that have some similar elements. We have a really inclusive culture, we’re a culture of integrity, a culture of, we believe, strong ethics, a culture of learning. A culture where things aren’t necessarily wrong to bring up or to discuss, and then really, we’re working on self-awareness on the boat.
Steve Motenko: Do you try to convey those principles to the teams, for example, again, workplace teams that come on the boat, or is that just something that stays within your culture, and you hope that it somehow transmits indirectly?
Catherine Colli: It’s kind of funny. Whenever anybody’s interested in coming to do an experience with us, we share with them our strategic plan, and there’s some values in that strategic plan about caring for the environment where we live, it’s about learning environments where we’re all in a process of learning, it’s about all are included, that people are all welcome, wherever you’re from.
Jim Hessler: Do the members of your organization actually live aboard?
Catherine Colli: We actually have lots of members, we have hundreds and hundreds of members throughout Puget Sound, but our crew members live aboard, yes. We have a live-aboard crew from March through October every single day.
Steve Motenko: If I bring my workplace team onto the Adventuress, what will you notice? What shows up in teams when they come on board? What are you intrigued by in terms of style, or teamwork’s culture, et cetera?
Catherine Colli: I’m generally the one that works with the company initially, and so I try to look at what they’re going for, and every single company’s different. What I’m intrigued is how little the colleagues really know each other on a personal basis, so we do an awful lot of circling up initially, opportunity for people to share something silly about each other, and really honoring whatever culture comes to us, and finding ways to share ours.
Steve Motenko: By and large, you find that the people who come on board, the teams that come on board, don’t have a level of personal connection that maybe you would want them to, or for example, that your team has?
Catherine Colli: Well, our team works together every single day, multiple times a day, all day long, so yes indeed, our crew members get to know each other. I mean, you’re sleeping next to them on a bunk.
Steve Motenko: Catherine, when people board the schooner, they come on board with their job titles and their place in the org chart. How does that pecking order transfer to the schooner? What do you notice happening in the teams that come on board?
Catherine Colli: We work, often, with teams that are maybe smaller companies, some of the smaller companies, so you’ll have usually a president of the company, or maybe someone who’s clearly a leadership role, and other people that work on his or her team, and what I’ve noticed is that for quite some time, when people come aboard, they keep yielding to that person, and it’s really interesting, so you know who’s in charge right away.
Steve Motenko: Regardless of what that person knows about sailing.
Catherine Colli: ‘Cause generally, they don’t know anything, which is not a bad thing, it’s just that they’re all starting at the same place usually. Sometimes, they might know a little bit, but no one knows how to sail a schooner, so when they come on board, sailing’s a different thing. They might have their own yacht even, but when they come on board, they don’t know what that particular line does on that particular spar, and so it’s really interesting to watch that melt away, and to watch them get pretty humble, which is always a great thing for leaders to feel some sense of humility, to be a little bit present.
Steve Motenko: Can’t agree more.
Jim Hessler: To be in an environment where they’re not the expert, right?
Catherine Colli: That’s right, and you know what? Showing a little bit of vulnerability is not a bad thing either, and of course, often a leader will go into that thinking, “Well, I’m gonna feel comfortable here, and it’s not gonna challenge my role here,” and they don’t even know this, they’re probably not even thinking about that, but they want their other folks who they work with to have that experience going sailing. What it is that happens, they all start to note together, start to learn together, it’s fun to watch.
Jim Hessler: I think when you’re exploring leadership, it’s always interesting to look for metaphors, so how is sailing a ship like leading a business? And so, just a couple of things come to mind. Everybody has a role, everybody has their battle stations or whatever you want to call it. If the storm blows up, everybody knows what to do. There’s certain, almost ritualized ways of communicating on a ship that I think are very useful. You can call across the ship and everybody knows what to do based on a simple command.
There’s rules, but there’s also a lot of flexibility, right? There’s rules that have to be followed, but there’s also flexibility around those rules, and teamwork, there’s just a lot of metaphors for running a … We had a guy, we know a guy who runs drag races, and there’s a lot of metaphors in how to get the car ready to run as a metaphor for running a business.
Catherine Colli: I have a couple of examples of that. One, we do a call and response. Every time we call out, we hear back. So, “Ready to raise the main sail!” “Ready to raise the mainsail!” Right?
Jim Hessler: That way you know the person has heard.
Catherine Colli: That way you know, and how many times have we sent an …
Jim Hessler: And agreed, right?
Catherine Colli: And agreed. And how many times have you sent an email wondering if anybody even got it, and so what does call and response look like in a business environment?
Steve Motenko: Right, and when is it important, and why?
Catherine Colli: Right, and don’t leave the person hanging out there. Why would you do that? So you get to practice that, and in fact, we’ve had great discussions after being aboard Adventuress with teams, where they’ve talked about call and response as one of those examples. Another example is your environment, especially in Puget Sound, is continually changing. We’re out there, and it’s blowing 20, and then it falls down to about 10, and then it starts to pick up again and a squall comes through, “Put on your rain gear!” It’s like, you can basically look at every single thing aboard as a metaphor for what happens in the workplace, ’cause of course every single day, stuff comes up. I run a small business, even if it is a non-profit, so I experience those things in the workplace every day.
Jim Hessler: In your case, you have to respond to the changing conditions, or you might sink.
Steve Motenko: Right, which is another metaphor.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, absolutely.
Steve Motenko: Yeah. So, if you have an idea for a Boss Show topic, we would love to hear from you. Email us at, and we’ll do our best to accommodate your needs, that’s what we’re here for. We’re talking with Catherine Collins of Sound Experience, and we’re talking about what you or your workplace team can learn from a sailing adventure, so Catherine, first of all, before we forget, if, for our listeners who might be interested in getting a really intriguing team experience, how do they find you?
Catherine Colli: Sure, well, first check us out online, www.soundexp,org, and you can also email me at, and I’d love to talk to you.
Steve Motenko: Great. Tell us the story.
Catherine Colli: One thing my captains do when they call me for any reason whatsoever, when I get a call from the ship, from March to October, I’m available all the time. 24/7, I keep the phone next to my head at night while I’m sleeping.
Jim Hessler: That’s why they pay you the big bucks, right?
Catherine Colli: That’s right, the big bucks, as it were, from a non-profit. And so, when they call me, they say, “All is well.” It’s the first thing they say. There have been times, of course, in a marine environment, with things happening as they do. I’ve been here a dozen years now, and stuff have happened over time once in a while. There was one time where we very publicly went aground gently. The boat started to lean over, 2008, and helicopters arrived immediately, so this is where we instituted afterwards the “All is well,” when you call Catherine, ’cause for a while, I would have little mini heart attacks every time the ship would call me after that incident. It turned out …
Steve Motenko: “All is well” doesn’t mean all is well, it really means there’s no life-threatening emergency in this moment.
Catherine Colli: Exactly. I did have a captain once who bumped into something up in the San Juan Islands. It wasn’t a big deal, but after this fact …
Steve Motenko: Bruised a whale or something.
Catherine Colli: No, no, definitely did not hit a marine mammal, but you know, all was well, but I get a call from him, and he says, “Hi Catherine, all is well. Wait, all is not well.” And then I said, “Are helicopters overhead?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Then we’re gonna get through this. This is fine.” And it was. Turned out to be fine. I guess it’s a great metaphor when you talk about emergencies in the workplace. What is an emergency? What’s an urgent response necessary? Being prepared for that. We do a lot of preparation, we do a lot of drills, and all of those things are really important to handling urgent situations when they come up.
Jim Hessler: We have a human tendency to make things more dramatic than they need to be. We talk to our clients about this all the time, about the language we use, and I love that, “All is well,” it’s like almost we should start every conversation with that statement, because if nobody’s dying, basically we can handle anything else that happens.
Steve Motenko: And at the very end of this episode, you will hear us say, as you’ve heard us say at the end of every episode before, “Don’t forget rule number six,” we never tell anybody what rule number six is, but …
Jim Hessler: It’s related to the conversation we’re having now.
Steve Motenko: Yes, this concept. We’ve got about 30 seconds, briefly, hierarchies. How are they important on a ship?
Catherine Colli: So, you can be in a mate position one day, and captain the next. You can be an educator one day, and the program coordinator the next, and what that does is it really helps shift people up where they can see what it’s like to be in that role versus another role, and then you really have a lot of compassion for each other if you’re changing roles.
Steve Motenko: It’s great to hear. Again, another perfect metaphor for the workplace.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, the leader putting themselves in the other people’s shoes, and also other people getting the opportunity to be in the leader’s shoes, and I think it breaks down a lot of conflict when we’ve experienced what the other person experiences.
Steve Motenko: Once again, the website is, Catherine’s email, Thanks for joining us on the Boss Show.
Catherine Colli: Thank you so much!
Steve Motenko: Jim, I really loved talking with Catherine Collins. We did a thing on the Weber Grill Academy, an episode on the Weber Grill Academy some time ago, and any time that you take a workplace team and put them in an unfamiliar environment, and make them work together in some way, it’s just really intriguing. A lot of lessons to be learned.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, absolutely, and it goes along with the theme that we talk about a lot, is the importance of knowing each other as human beings and not just as elements of workplace production, and this is a great way to dive a little deeper in our relationships, in a way that’s kind of fun, so we recommend it. I think these things are great.
Steve Motenko: I think what Catherine said about how she didn’t experience there to be a lot of personal connection in a lot of the workplace teams that show up …
Jim Hessler: It speaks to that, yeah.
Steve Motenko: The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership. Our sound engineer is Kevin [inaudible 00:21:54].
Jim Hessler: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at, you can also go there to subscribe to the podcast or to contact us.
Steve Motenko: Maybe you want to bring us into your workplace. Contact us at
Jim Hessler: Thanks for listening.
Steve Motenko: And hey, don’t forget rule number six.

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