By age 30, I’d been working in the telecommunications industry for eight or nine years.
After college, I’d started out at British Telecom, the largest company in the UK, and then joined Mercury Communications, their main rival.
I saw getting an MBA as a way to move from marketing into a management role. Mercury Communications offered to cover about a quarter of the cost, with the promise of the job at the end.
Before I started the program, I decided to take some time off, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have the same luxury afterwards.
A friend of mine had a boat that was in the Caribbean, so I went down there for a few months and joined him.
I’d grown up spending summers sailing on the south coast of England, so I had a great time.
Shortly after I returned to England, I got a phone call from a boat owner who I had met through my friend in the Caribbean, offering me a job.
His skipper had left unexpectedly, and he needed someone to replace him immediately.
He had plans to take the boat around the world, which would take three to four years. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s not every day that someone’s going to call you up, out of the blue, and offer to pay you to sail their boat around the world. And being a skipper is a very challenging role where you’re responsible for managing the crew and everything on board the boat that you’re taking around the world.
After giving it a lot of thought, I felt that I could either get an MBA or I could get a world-class education by doing something that I was passionate about: sailing.
I chose sailing.
At that point, I had to write to the school and say that I wouldn’t be coming in September. I’d paid a deposit, but it wasn’t a large amount. I wrote a letter explaining my rationale, and they were very understanding and supportive. I had a great relationship with my boss, and he knew about my interest in sailing, so he was very supportive, too.
I thought that I’d do the MBA when I returned, but by the end of the trip, I had decided to live in America, not the UK, and had also decided to pursue a career in the marine industries rather than going back into telecom. The technology had moved forward at such a dramatic pace that I’d have to play catch-up, and at the time that didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.
A lot of the crew on the boat had the same experience. They didn’t want to just slip back into what they were doing before. They used it as a catalyst to do something that they found more interesting or more fulfilling. No matter what kind of adventure you embark upon, that’s often what happens.
After I left the boat, I took a job with New England Ropes, managing their marine division, and grew it from a $US6 million business to a $US12 million business over a period of five years. Later, I was approached by Sail America, the national trade association for the sailing industry, to join the organisation as its Executive Director.
I ran the association for six years, through what was probably the toughest six years that the marine industry experienced, due to the recession, and was actually able to grow membership, strengthen the financial performance, and add a couple of new initiatives during that period. And now I’m COO of Siren Marine, which is pioneering remote boat monitoring systems for the marine market.
I was on the boat for a total of four years. My plan was always to complete the circumnavigation, then find a land-based job and get back into the business world. Those four years gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do as a career: what things I liked and what things I didn’t like.
At the end of the trip, I had learned so many valuable lessons that I could apply to my business career. I had become a better leader, a better communicator, and a better manager, and figured out the logistics of travelling around the world. Running a boat is like a microcosm of running a business.
In many ways, it was a broader education than an MBA.
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