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Rowing in the same direction

Have you ever noticed how many advertisements feature images of rowing?

When a large organization wants to depict teamwork, the company’s marketing firm tends to post images of people rowing. The pictures appear in the Wall Street Journal, insurance ads, hospital newsletters, bank brochures, and any number of technology magazines. The rowers are wearing uniforms and are rowing vigorously in the same direction. The image is powerful: everyone is working together for a common end.

That’s a nice image, but how does rowing work in real life? And what, if anything, does rowing have to do with our concern – ownership, decision-making, and succession in family enterprises? To get the real story, I assembled three experts: William J. Burleigh, Peter Burleigh, and James T. Gerdsen. All three rowed for one of the best high school rowing clubs in the United States, the Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club. CJRC regularly wins the Midwest Regional Championship, which draws boats from as far away as Minnesota and Missouri. To the surprise of East Coasters, CJRC often stacks up well in both women’s and men’s events at the National Championship, against teams from rowing strongholds like Connecticut and Massachusetts. CJRC alumni have gone on to row at the collegiate level for Yale, Columbia, Brown, and the Naval Academy.

Let’s review our distinguished panel:

William J. Burleigh - rowed for three years for CJRC. He represented CJRC at the National Championship in Sarasota, where his four-man boat came in fourth in the country.

Peter Burleigh - also rowed for three years, and senior year he received gold medals in both four- and eight-man boats at the Midwest Championship.

James T. Gerdsen - had the most famous rowing career of all. His eight-man boat came in first place at the National Championship. He went on to row at Boston University, and to apply his rowing mindset to run Apollo Home, an exceptionally successful residential mechanical systems provider.

What follows is a distillation of our panel’s thoughts.

It is not possible not to row in the same direction.


A rowing boat, called a shell, is very long and very narrow. It’s far longer than a car and barely wider than a rower’s hips. Each rower has one oar. The oars lock into place. The rower moves the oar back and forth in the oarlock. Due to the locks, one rower cannot make the shell go in a direction that the other rowers are not headed. Yes, one rower can foul up the timing of the oars’ movement. But the shell is designed for the group to move in the same direction, in sequence and on time.

Considerations for the family enterprise owner:

In a family enterprise, as in the marketing of rowing images, sometimes too much is made of moving in the same direction. In fact, directional movement is an outcome of design – how the boat is designed and how its occupants use that design. In a rowing shell, the rowers are locked in for a purpose. Yes, they can get out of the boat any time they want. And if they “catch a crab” – the oar stays put, the boat keeps moving, and the oar smacks the rower in the face – they can fall out of the boat. Yet the design of the shell – the placement of the seats, the oarlocks, and the oars – is meant to lock the rowers in place so they can focus on moving in synch with each other. In a family enterprise, as in rowing, the design of the structure affects the direction you’re headed.

Have you paid enough attention to how your “boat” is organized? Does its design fit what your crew needs? Have you considered how your fellow “rowers” make use of this design?

You can row in the same direction even when you can’t see where you’re going.


You wouldn’t know it from the ads, but rowers face backward. They do not see where they are going. The coxswain, the small person at the stern, is the only person who faces forward and sees where the boat is headed. The coxswain takes charge of two critical functions: calling strokes, and steering the boat. For example, the coxswain might call a “power 10,” 10 rapid, powerful strokes, to surge the boat past an opponent. Or the coxswain might steer the boat slightly left to adjust for an imbalance in power or technique from left-side oars versus right. The coxswain is both cheerleader and the coach on the water.

Considerations for the family enterprise owner:

Successful progress as a group of family owners requires you to rely on the eyesight of others. What do they see that you, in your location, do not? You have to put yourself in the hands of your coxswain. You have to listen for the coxswain’s calls, based on what he or she sees ahead. Then you need to follow the pace of the person in the stroke seat. Is he or she heating up the strokes or dialing them back? Steering the “boat” is not the function of one person. Steering is the successful combination of a person seeing ahead, a person calling a pace, a person setting the pace, and a person meeting that pace.

Do all your fellow owners understand what’s involved in this process? If they don’t, what needs to happen for them to learn and to do it?

Great rowers work their place in the boat.


From land, rowing looks like entirely a team sport. Yet each rower is working his or her respective spot in the boat. Each seat has a purpose. The coxswain is in the back, the stern. Next to him is the person sitting “stroke seat,” who sets the pace based on what the coxswain calls. In the front, the bow, are rowers with the best technique. And in the middle, the “engine room,” are rowers with power who make the boat go.

Considerations for the family enterprise owner:

Every owner of a family enterprise is a composite of unique abilities. Some excel at the finesse and consistency of technique. Some have tremendous core power. Others are ideal to lead the pace by sitting “stroke seat.” And some have the small build and strategic sense needed to be a coxswain. In this way, every owner makes a unique contribution, even though they all are in the same “boat.” They compete against themselves at the same time they as a group compete against outside opponents. This twofold competition is how they take ownership of what they are doing.

Does each owner in your family know what his or her unique abilities are? If not, when and how are the other owners going to point them out? How are the unique abilities of each owner going to be used to power the “boat”? What has your group of owners done to protect and develop these abilities for use long-term?

Your form creates energy in ways you do not appreciate.


Rowing’s intensity is legendary. Rowing is one of the most physically demanding sports, on par with swimming or cross country running. During a race, a rower maintains a heart rate, and burns calories at a rate, that would put a normal adult in the back of an ambulance. Yet the two basic movements that comprise rowing form – pushing with your legs, and pulling with your arms – are not equal. The legs contain bigger muscles. Pushing with the legs generates the speed that wins races.

Considerations for the family enterprise owner:

Comparing your form to someone else’s does not necessarily lead to success. Focusing on the best way for you to expend your energy does. Every owner should focus on pushing themselves using what they have to push. This is especially true for owners who have strength in the places the enterprise needs it most.

You gain forward movement on the water by practicing every day.


Except for a rest in the summer, rowing teams go all year. Whether competing in glorious fall weather, hammering indoor regattas during the grey winter months, or gliding powerfully along in the spring, the best rowers practice every day. Whatever else they do in one day, they get their daily allotment of meters.

Considerations for the family enterprise owner:

There is no magical way for family owners to get on the same page. The only way that works is to work at it. As in rowing, allowing too much time to elapse between periods of working together weakens the performance of all the owners. Finally, not everyone has the mindset of an owner. Those who want to be owners commit to what ownership requires.

For what regatta are your owners practicing? How do you and your fellow owners measure forward movement? And above all, do you use a practice format that actually fits your group of owners, in your family, and in the enterprise you have undertaken?


Typically a club sport, rowing depends on involvement of families. Families make it go. Or more precisely, the act of a family taking ownership makes it go. To see how the owners in your family can take ownership of your “boat” and really make it go, schedule a meeting with us by calling 513-357-4334 or emailing us at