Leadership
Volvo Ocean Race:
A Microcosm of a Successful, Purpose-Driven Business

Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) is considered one of the longest and toughest professional sporting events in the world; sailing’s toughest team challenge and one of the sport’s Big Three events, alongside the Olympics and the America’s Cup.

At SB’17 Copenhagen, I had the opportunity to speak with Miles Quitmann, the Race’s Commercial Director, who described its most recent sustainability, diversity and impact-related initiatives. As he explained, VOR embraces the responsibility to use its huge media reach and platform to make the world and fans aware of ocean-related environmental issues and how to do something about it. Not only does VOR present and offer an amazing sporting event, with seven teams racing around the world over eight months and visiting 12 cities, but the power of a sporting platform is huge. Two billion people are touched by sporting events around the world and 63 percent of Americans follow sport: There’s a great opportunity to amplify a message dear to their hearts. Specifically for VOR, the ocean is its race track and ocean plastic pollution is the key theme for which the organization wants to raise awareness and drive action. VOR’s sustainability and impact portfolio consists of a few major initiatives: along with ocean plastics, there is also climate education, gender diversity and harnessing the power of human leadership.

Environmental Sustainability

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****The entire Volvo Ocean Race is wrapped around the UN Environment Clean Seas Campaign, with a particular focus on ocean plastics. Partnering with organizations such as UN Environment, founding Principal Partner of the Sustainability Program 11th Hour Racing and AkzoNobel, VOR’s focus in particular is on educating young people about what it means to reduce single-use plastic use and protecting our oceans; Quitmann mentioned that much of the race’s following is due to the clean oceans campaign.

For example, VOR has designed 12 of the stopovers as Ocean Summits — an opportunity for business leaders, government, scientists and celebrities to talk about the issue of and solutions to the ocean plastics problem — aimed at getting individuals in those parts of the world to commit to making changes in plastic use, reduction and elimination. Through these summits, they’re maximizing the Race’s impact and using its global communications platform to educate, change views and bring together a wide variety of individuals across the globe.

Another educational angle of VOR is a science program whereby scientists aboard the vessels test the water temperatures and take samples in the Southern Ocean. These samples from most remote part of the planet are critical data for making progress on eliminating ocean plastics. Also by dropping climate buoys, they’re taking readings from the ocean to gather important data and send it back to research centers around the world.

Diversity

Miles also spoke passionately about VOR’s gender diversity initiatives — it is the first global, professional, team-sporting event to promote diversity and mixed-gender teams. Team Turn the Tide on Plastic is skippered by record-breaking yachtswoman Dee Caffari, and has a 50/50 male/female team. As Quitmann said: “It’s about brawn and brains, thinking together about how they work strategically.” A good gender mix brings a certain beneficial mix of traits that can make the team even more powerful than just one alone; all seven teams have at least one woman on board, because the organization has seen the benefits.

Human Leadership

Running a team can be a perfect metaphor for running a business: Modern businesses are pulled in many directions and have shareholders that want results, but these same businesses increasingly need to be seen to be contributing to society more generally, as well. VOR often has the team skippers give talks and leadership observations to sponsors on general leadership skills, as well as more impact-related issues. The teams present a great metaphor for running a modern business under an immense amount of strain and pressure, with intense competition. Since all the vessels are designed the same, how the team interacts and makes decisions together determines whether they succeed in the Volvo Ocean Race.

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