Growing up with three younger siblings, Sara Ballinger's grasp of group dynamics inspired an early passion for teaching and team building. After formal study and a number of years working in the corporate world, a chance conversation highlighted the parallels in yachting and an opportunity to provide team building for yacht crew. Here Sara discusses the road to success with Crew-Glue and shares her insight into two very different worlds.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in leadership development and team building?
I am the eldest of four girls and have spent my life training my sisters! When I started work, I was really drawn to training and took every opportunity to get my team in a room and teach them skills and techniques for customer service and selling and, as my career progressed, I realised that was where my strengths lay so I studied for a degree in adult development and gained a couple of coaching qualifications.
As my career developed, I worked with larger teams and that added leadership and team development skills to my repertoire, with genuine experience rather than just ‘stuff I’d read in a book’. Bringing it all together I started my first training company nine years ago.
Which types of client have you worked with and what are the main issues that you’ve been asked to address?
I started in insurance, banking and finance but it was when I started working with retail and hospitality that I really found my flow. In the past seven years I have worked primarily with luxury brand retailers and hospitality businesses. I am often asked to partner with businesses and teams who want to address a lack of employee engagement, often combined with high levels of attrition. When we do the discovery work, we search for the root cause of the issues and deliver solutions to resolve them. We are also engaged with new teams or those needing a boost and have become known for our highly participative and creative approaches to team building and team development.
Which schools of thought underpin your approach?
I am a huge proponent of the principles of Servant Leadership – as a leader you have a responsibility to serve your team, not only for them to serve you!
Flexibility and understanding that people are different rather than difficult is how we approach team and leadership development. Behavioural change and developing emotional intelligence underpin our learning events and everything we do with groups uses the principles of experiential learning which accelerate and embed behavioural skills development.
More recently, together with your partner Christian you created Crew-Glue – what led you to apply your expertise in the superyacht sector?
Having worked in the luxury hospitality market for some time and having lived and worked on a very tiny island in the Maldives for a couple of years, I have come to understand the very unique challenges associated with living and working in close proximity to your colleagues, day in, day out: eat, sleep, work, repeat. I also understand the complexities of working in service to the high-net-worth community and how that affects your working day and your expectations of life.
When I came back to the UK to relaunch my business, I was chatting with a friend who was on a large yacht and he told me about some of the challenges his team were having. It struck a chord and I could see the parallels with the work I had been doing in hospitality, hence Crew-Glue was born.
In November Crew-Glue joined forces with Luxury Hospitality under the banner ‘Stronger Together’ – can you talk us through the vision?
Luxury Hospitality came to my attention when we were doing the research and development for Crew-Glue and I connected with Peter Vogel, who was generous enough to offer me an opportunity to see how they worked by attending their leadership programme in Waterland in Amsterdam. I was impressed! I also really connected with Peter and his vision and I think from that moment we both knew we would work together rather than in competition with one another.
Crew-Glue is successful in the 40-60 metre arena offering pure team building, while the focus at LH is crew development on larger vessels using a broader 360-degree approach. There’s a perfect synergy so we made it happen!
A superyacht is unlike any other work environment - what are the most common issues that negatively impact teamwork on board?
Exhaustion, stress and clashes of personality rank high. Communication can also be problematic when people don’t understand each other’s ‘‘language” – by that I mean how we like to communicate rather than the actual dialect we use. Promotion to leadership roles often happens for reasons of technical competency in role rather than a person’s innate ability to manage and lead others and, without the relevant training, it can be challenging for the crew when they are not being led by experienced and confident senior crew.
What defines a really strong team and what are the vital ingredients?
Trust. That is the number one ingredient in any successful team. To achieve trust, you first need to know each other, then find reasons to like each other through acceptance and understanding. Trust follows and then we find it much easier to be forgiving of our ‘off days’ and to be kind to each other. Like family.
How do team dynamics vary between smaller yachts and larger vessels?
Smaller boats tend to have a ‘one team’ culture where everyone chips in, it’s less siloed and more mutually supportive, very much like a small business. On larger vessels the culture is more ‘big business’ with necessary silos, stricter hierarchies and less interdependence.
And on sailing yachts compared to motor yachts?
Great question… answers on a postcard please?! I haven’t identified any particular differences in terms of type of boat other than the fact that sailing yachts tend to have more actual ‘sailors’ on them! They tend to have the ‘smaller yacht’ reliance on one another as ‘one team’.
What do you cover in your two-day sessions and how does it work in practice?
We look at how teams develop, the secret to high performance teams and how teams develop trust. We also explore individuality, how people work together as a team, and work with you to agree how you are going to work together even more harmoniously and effectively. If you are a new crew team, we set you up for success!
Do you offer any follow up or refresher sessions later on?
Absolutely – we offer a third day either consecutively or later to suit the crew, during which we refresh the learning and address any challenges the crew are having.
We also offer team building courses online - they will deliver the same basic content but in a virtual environment.
What have been some of the highlights or surprises working with yacht crew?
The highlights have been the people we’ve met who work on board and onshore in support of the crew. There is so much talent, energy and creativity out there, it’s really inspiring.
I guess the surprise has been how many crew members are really struggling with the challenges and how their mental health is being impacted, even if the Instagram version appears very glam and shiny. I am heartened that the support around these crew is really building now, and more and more systems are being put in place to help and answer the call to action in terms of these issues.
Who has inspired you most in your career so far?
My partner, Christian. He is very different from me and has given me a whole new perspective. I had low self-confidence and he is helping me to see how much I have to offer others and what value I add.
What is your motto?
Life is an adventure, live it!