Episode 137 – Making the Boat Go Faster with Ben Hunt-Davis

‘While we’re doing one thing, let’s just do it as well as we can and make sure we are spending our time, of which we have so little, let’s spend it wisely.’

Ben Hunt-DavisBen Hunt-Davis knows a bit about focus. As part of the ‘Sydney 8’, who revolutionised the approach to rowing training and won Gold in the process, he learned powerful principles about performance and process that he now brings to the business world in his business – named after his book – Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

In this conversation, he talks about how that single-minded focus translates into the messy real world, and how writing the book (in collaboration with executive coach Harriet Beveridge) clarified and deepened his message and ultimately transformed his business.


Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?: https://www.willitmaketheboatgofaster.com/

Ben on Twitter: https://twitter.com/OlympianBen

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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, where I’m here today with Ben Hunt-Davis who rowed for the GB national squad for a decade, competing at three Olympics and six world championships.

And he’s now a motivational and performance speaker and coach, using those experiences of raising the bar in his rowing years to achieve a gold medal. And the Sydney 8, as they’re known, won gold because they took apart everything that they did in and out of the boat as a crew and as individuals and they rebuilt it based on what would make it a faster and more successful boat.

So together with executive coach Harriet Beveridge, Ben translated the ideas and the practices of “Will it make the boat go faster?” into a book of the same name, and he now works with organisations of all sizes to teach them how to apply those principles.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Thanks Alison. Thanks for having me on the show.

Alison Jones:                        Welcome to the show, Ben. And it’s really great to have you. I’m so excited about this interview actually. It’s not often I get to speak to a gold medallist. I’m very excited.

And for those that haven’t read the book, just tell us a little bit more about the principle behind that brilliant title “Will it make the boat go faster?” It’s such a distinctive idiosyncratic title. And also why it’s a business book and not a sports coach book which it could easily be.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So when Harriet and I got together and discussed it and wrote it, we wanted a book with a really broad appeal. We were both working with people in business, but yeah, there’s lots of other stuff we do in our lives around this, and we thought just aiming it at a sports audience was a bit narrow and we thought we had a lot to add a to a business audience.

So, I mean, the simple question, “Will it make the boat go faster?” While I was rowing, we just challenged everything around whether it was going to make the boat go faster and on very simple terms, if we thought it was going to make the boat go faster, we’d do it, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t.

And I think that the challenge that so many of us have now is we are so incredibly busy. There are so many things going on to pause and challenge it takes off and kind of work out what our equivalent question is, and make sure we are doing the things that actually do take us in the direction you want to go, I think is really important.

Alison Jones:                        It’s so true. I think that it’s very easy to have so many things competing for your time and attention that you start using metrics that if you stopped and thought about them, you wouldn’t necessarily choose. You do what’s in front of you or you do what’s easy. And to have that consistent test every time…

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Because we have less time because we’re busier. I think it’s easy to get in a situation where we don’t actually make that many conscious decisions. We operate on auto pilot and we do what’s in front of us.

We do the easy stuff, that stuff we can get through quickly rather than doing the things that actually really matter, and being able to pause and work out what does matter and then work hard on doing the things that’ll actually take us in that direction rather than seem nice at the time. I think it’s really important to use our time wisely.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, my metric is sometimes, ‘Oh, I quite fancy this. I’m going to do this now.’ That possibly won’t make the boat go faster. Now I don’t know if you know, I read this book and I recommended it to the Extraordinary Business Book Club listenership, readership, whatever, as part of my summer reading list.

And I said that there was so much that I loved about it, but one thing that really struck me – and I think it’s possibly because I’m a mum and I’m running my business, and all the rest of it – I think I was just jealous basically. I found it really hard to relate to that really simple single-minded pursuit of that, it’s a kind of binary goal, isn’t it? You’ll know if you’ve got it because you win the gold medal and it just seems to me that life is so much more complex than that, with lots of distracting domestic stuff that needs to be looked after and I just remember thinking, gosh, you know, if I had one thing to do and somebody looking after all the other rubbish, then that would be great. Is that a common reaction?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yeah. And I think you’re actually right. In a way sport is really, really simple. The goals are very, very clear. The numbers of people involved are small. It is binary as you say, and clearly for most of us, normal life isn’t like that. So, using sport as a metaphor to think about what’s most important and they’re all sorts of different tools and ideas in the book as to how to get you to achieve what you want.

But in reality I say life is different. Then I had effectively one boat. I had the one boat which was my rowing and my fiancée as she was at the time knew where she stood and that was not at the front of the list of priorities.

Whereas now life’s different and now she’s my wife, and I’ve got three kids and I want to be a good husband and father. I’ve got my own business and we are steadily growing and I’m quite ambitious for what I want to achieve here. I’m still involved in the rowing world. I help organise various different events and I have ambitions there. I’m still involved in the Olympic world. I, there are all sorts of different things I have.

I have lots of different boats effectively now and when it comes to working out how much time I should spend in each boat, if anyone’s got any guidance, I would be delighted to listen. But when I’m in one of my boats, I think the same rules apply. So when I’m with my kids, am I actually really with them, or am I still on my phone doing bits of work or browsing various other rubbish?

Or when I’m, and the number of evenings my wife and I have conversations about did we really do a good job with our 16 year old today? Or do we need to do things slightly better tomorrow? Or the way we handled our 10 year old talking about this, was that right? Or should we, should we manage that situation better tomorrow? Or in at work, things I’m doing, I’ve got a clear goal of what I want to do at work, and am I actually doing the things that’ll take me in that direction? Or am I doing the other rubbish that gets in the way?

So yes, sport is very, it’s very simplistic and life is not like that, but I think that when we’re in a boat, we just need to figure out what direction it’s going in and are we doing the things that’ll actually take us in that direction? And that’s where the link is for me.

Alison Jones:                        And I’ve now got a wonderful image in my head of trying to be kind of in two or three boats at the same time, which of course is going to land you in the water. So there’s a great sort of extension of the metaphor there. Being in one boat at any one time. I’ll be working on that.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Absolutely, and how we divide our boats, our time between each boat. As I say, if anyone’s got any guidance, I’d be delighted to hear. You know, the whole managing work life balance is one of the big challenges…

Alison Jones:                        Yes, answers on a postcard please…

Ben Hunt:                               …but while we’re doing one thing, let’s just do it as well as we can and make sure we are in fact spending our time, of which we have so little. Let’s spend it wisely.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. And I think even just that consciousness, it’s a cracking question to ask yourself, isn’t it? Which boat am I in and what does this boat need to take the performance? I know, it sounds awful. Performance perhaps isn’t quite the right word. It’s the same principle isn’t it?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yes, it is. You’re right. Performance of my family. I’ve got that, makes me sound like a pushy dad. But (laughing) to have …

Alison Jones:                        We’ve got some metrics for these.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 I’ve got an idea of what I think being a good father means, what being a good husband means, and I want to make sure I do that. So, kind of thinking about how I’m doing. Am I actually spending my time with my family wisely? Am I behaving the way I should be behaving? Am I reflecting on it and trying to get better.

My kids were pretty young when they were saying, Daddy, I think you need some toast because maybe it’ll make you be a bit happier. And so you know, there are all sorts of things that I know and they know that I can do to be a better father and measuring it isn’t the important part, but actually trying to make sure I’m doing a good job at that or selling what my business does or me doing speeches or whatever else it may be. I want to try and make sure I’m doing a good job.

Alison Jones:                        Well, to be honest with you, if you have brought up children who know to offer someone toast when they’re not feeling well, I think you’ve done a pretty good job. I’d be happy and really proud of that.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 I think I can thank my wife for that.

Alison Jones:                        That’s what I call emotional literacy. That’s brilliant. (laughing). Now, you wrote this book with Harriett as you said, who is part of your team “Will that make the goat go faster?” Will it make the goat go faster is an entirely different industry. How did that work in practise? I’m always interested when people work together as co-writers. I mean some people sit down and write every word together. Some people kind of write it separately, then just munge together and compare notes. How did it work for you two?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So, I had, firstly I’ve been trying to write this for some time and I had managed about the first chapter and that’s all I’d managed. And eventually I may have managed to persuade Harriett to write this with me, because I knew that she had, she’s got a great turn of phrase, really good clarity about what she’s trying to get across.

And so the way we did it is we would, we met up pretty regularly and we brainstormed different topics, and we would spend whole evenings and afternoons brainstorming various different topics as to specifically what we meant by them, what the ingredients were, and then we split up and Harriet … So each, in the book, the chapter is split into two parts. The first part is a story that I’ve written about what we did while rowing, and then the second part of the chapter is it’s an analysis.

So if I told the story about motivation, the second part of the chapter is going well here are seven or eight tools that you can use to help motivate yourself to do the things you know you should do even when you didn’t want to. Or with bullshit filters. Here’s the story around that and here’s actually how you can use them in the real world.

So I would go off and write the story. Harriet would write the analysis part. We would then send them to each other, compare notes, edit, feedback and make sure the two parts came together as a good chapter and then move onto the next bit. So partly brainstorming, and partly writing our own bits on our own, but always feeding back and having some pretty straight conversations about what was working and what wasn’t.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, and of course when you’re working with someone else you’ve got, you can’t be too precious can you about your brilliant, polished sentences, or your fabulous ideas about the way things should be?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 No, no. You definitely can’t be. And I think, I think also when, we found when writing this in general, we just couldn’t be precious. We, there were a number of different people we sent chapters to in various different shapes and forms, parts of the book. Because we really wanted to make sure that what we were doing was landing and we got all sorts of feedback on what we sent to people. A whole lot of people were absolutely fantastic to take time and read and give some really good comment and observation and being precious about a particular sentence about a particular story about a particular turn of phrase frankly wasn’t helpful. So we …

Alison Jones:                        Exactly. But this is my point because I think a lot of people shut themselves away in their room and write their book and they don’t have that kind of oxygen, that kind of bracing salt of somebody else coming in and saying, well, no, you don’t really mean that, do you? And I think the sooner you can do that, the better in some ways.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big believer in feedback in any situation, frankly. Getting other people’s views and ideas and some of the ideas you get you like and some of them you won’t and then you’ve got a choice of what you do with them, but avoiding getting the ideas or other people’s views because you may not like them, I think is definitely the wrong way to go forward.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and certainly with a book, you want those as soon as possible because you definitely don’t want them with the reviews at the end.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 No, absolutely. Absolutely. The sooner the better.

Alison Jones:                        That’s it, because people are going to tell you what they think, you might as well incorporate it.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        When you and Harriet actually are quite clear in the book. It’s very clear, you know what you’ve written and what Harriet’s written, which I think works really well because you’ve got those two distinct competencies. Yeah. Really interesting.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yeah, it was, I certainly couldn’t have written it without her. She was, her turn of phrase I think it’s absolutely fantastic and her ability to lay out all of the brainstorming, the ideas we had together. Yeah, I’m really lucky that we got to write it together.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, it’s a good lesson in getting the right people around you, isn’t it?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yes, it is. It is.

Alison Jones:                        And of course, “Will it make the boat go faster?” as we’ve kind of alluded to, it’s not just a book, it’s a talk, it’s a whole company. You have a team of coaches and speakers working with organisations to improve their performance. Tell me in a rough sort of timeline, how did this develop? Was it book then company or company then book, or did they all kind of happen together?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So it was book then company. So I had, Harriet and I actually met at my first job after rowing. We met, we were both working for a performance consultancy. We then went off and did different things. I then approached her about writing the book. I then actually, and I was looking for somebody to go into business with. I’d been doing my own thing, doing speeches and running workshops and stuff for some time.

And one of the people I gave a copy of my book to you when I spoke at his company, approached me a few months later. A chap called Tom Barry and said, “Why don’t we go into business together?” And six months later we were, we had set up “Will it make the boat go faster?” as a company.

And the work we do is a lot of it’s based on the content of the book and we work with lots and lots of different organisations. Different shapes and sizes to help them work out what’s their crazy goal, what are they really trying to achieve and what sort of culture, what sort of environment? How do people need to perform in order to achieve the goal they want?

And we’ve been up and running for six years. We welcomed employee number 10 on Monday. We’re interviewing for another two employees. We have eight associate facilitators and coaches and so far it’s been really good fun.

Alison Jones:                        It’s a great case study, isn’t it in how writing the book. I mean I’m assuming you didn’t imagine any of this at the point where you were just sitting down writing the book with Harriet. Just the power of the book to build the business, to build your network, to open doors and opportunities.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yeah, it’s been fantastic and I, one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book was because I was doing quite a lot of speeches, but I wasn’t and running some workshops, but I didn’t think I was able to get across the, I guess the knowledge and the experience I had.

And people were asking for kind of one very specific thing and I was trying to do something else, but people kept asking for the one thing. And so writing the book I wanted to show actually quite how broad the kind of depth of experience and knowledge I had was. And so I wanted it to lead to more, but I didn’t envisage it would be the business that it is now.

Alison Jones:                        And how does it work in the business now? I mean, I’m guessing it’s still a key asset of the company. Does it bring people in or do you use it with the people who’ve already come in? How does it work actually within the business now?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So, we get a number of inquiries where people get hold of us saying, I’ve read the book. I’d love to hear more about this or I’d love to hear more about that. Can you do this? There are all sorts of clients who come to us via various other means and we say, you know, I think you should have a look at the book and I think some of the key things you need to be working on are it’s about ability or change or whatever it may be. And we can use parts of the book for content for programmes and workshops we might run.

So we use the book in various different ways, but it is still absolutely very much at the heart of the business. Harriett and I are working on a second edition at the moment, and it has been, it’s been incredibly useful. I hoped it would do one thing and it’s done that times about 10 so far, so it’s been fantastic.

Alison Jones:                        That’s brilliant. I love hearing stories like this and it’s when you have that, it’s such a close correlation between the book and the business, it’s always really fascinating to unpick, you know, how the two work together. So thank you for that little behind the scenes glimpse. I love it. Not planning any, how to make the goats go faster, though. That’s not …

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Well, we’ve discussed that quite often. In fact, quite a lot of people discuss that with us and yeah, quite often I get introduced as the boat or the goat guy, so you know. Anything, frankly, I’ll answer to anything. I really don’t mind.

Alison Jones:                        I think that after today’s conversation there’s something about which damn boat am I in at the moment and where am I going again? It’s a sort of mid life …

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 That’s, it’s a pretty, pretty big question really. Yes, yeah.

Alison Jones:                        It’s very existential and tell us, you know, for people who are listening to the show who think that’s fabulous, but I unfortunately didn’t win a gold in Sydney. What’s your first, what’s your best tip for a first time author who’s listening to the show now?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So, I think that when writing it, we spent quite a lot of time talking about the audience that we were trying to appeal to and you asked earlier, you said earlier it could just be a sports book and we wanted it to be really broad.

So I think getting very clear on the audience you’re writing for is really important. The bit that we didn’t really do is actually work at how to get it to the audience. And I think that having an idea of what you want to do is fantastic, but then actually having a plan for how you’re going to get it out there, how you’re going to get people to hear about, how you’re going to get people to pick it up, is something that we massively underestimated.

And I think that’s probably a critical part of the book writing thing. We can get so really enthused about the actual, the content of the book, the enjoyment of actually writing it and producing something, but then what happens next is really rather important.

Alison Jones:                        Do you know, that’s so funny. We’re doing the 10 day business book proposal challenge at the moment and we’ve just done the day on the marketing plan and I always say to people, you know, writing a book is sort of necessary but not a sufficient condition. It’s just phase one.

Phase two is about getting people to actually care about it because it’s like anything isn’t it? You can make this beautiful thing, but if it’s not brought to the attention of the people who want it in the right way, it’s not …

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 And I thought it would be far easier. I mean I guess in an arrogant way, I thought people will hear about it and they’ll want to buy it and it’ll be great, but actually, I had no idea how hard it would be to get people to hear about it.

And we went with a publisher called Troubador who’s effectively a self-publishing house. They do, kind of helped us with all sorts of bits, but actually getting it into bookshops, we have found incredibly hard. We sold about 55,000 copies, but still getting it into the bookshops has been really hard and the whole, what you actually do with the product you have is pretty, yeah, it’s important to think about.

Alison Jones:                        It is and I think it’s a good message to people to say don’t assume you will get your book into bookshops. It’s vanishingly difficult because there’s fewer bookshops on the High Street and also there’s less space in those book shops for books because they’re selling more cuddly toys and pencils now, and serving coffee and stuff. So it’s really … Yeah, but what you’ve done of course is built a machine that runs on the book and the book feeds the machine and the machine feeds the book.

And that’s it. You know, you use the book in the business and you’ve got a platform for it and if you don’t have that, you’re right. It is incredibly hard to make an impact in the way that people assume books are sold in the bookshop.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 And you can go into a bookshop and you can browse, but browsing online it’s just very, very different. So getting people to actually hear about it and see about it. Getting people to pick it up is a critical part of the equation.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, and then giving them a reason to care. And of course every time you give a talk, you give a whole room full of people a reason to care about this book, which is really powerful. Great tip. Thank you so much. And I hope when I bang on about that, but nobody ever listens to me, I hope they listen to you.

And obviously apart from “Will it make the boat go faster?”, I’d love you to recommend a business book that you think that everyone listening to the show, we should go out and read.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 So I’ve been struggling with this really, trying to narrow. To be honest, I don’t actually read very much. I listen to a lot. I spend a fair bit of time in the car and I’m a big fan of audio books. So when I say I read, actually I tend to listen. I kind of listen to quite a lot of books.

The book that I would recommend would actually be a book called “Thank you for being late” by Thomas Friedman. He’s a New York Times columnist and certainly the first half of the book I thought was absolutely gripping. And he talks about three big challenges in society today. One about technology, one about globalisation, and one about environment, and how these three things are coming together and the world is changing incredibly quickly, and I thought it was a fascinating read. And I actually bought quite a few copies to give to various different people.

His analysis of what to do about it in the second half is less good I think, but the first half is really gripping reading and I think really, really important for society, and for the society we live in. So that would be my recommendation, “Thank you for being late.”

Alison Jones:                        I love the sound of that. I haven’t heard of it at all, so thank you. And I think that listening counts as reading, I mean you could say consuming, but that’s a horrible word. But I think if you’re listening to business books or you’re reading them, the point is you’re taking the ideas in. Thank you for that. I’m going to look that one up. Sounds really, really exciting. Now, Ben, if people want to find out more about you and more about “Will it make the boat go faster?”, where should they go?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 The best place to go is willitmaketheboatgofaster.com.

Alison Jones:                        This is the benefit of a title like this. Nobody’s got that URL.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Well, and having Ben@willitmaketheboatgofaster as an email address, I mean, and the number of, going to visit different organisations. I go into reception and I’m asked to write my business name. Quite frankly, it’s a pain in the arse. I wish I had written a book with a much, much shorter title. But …

Alison Jones:                        At least they’re nice short words.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 Yes, they are nice short words, yes. So if you want to find out more then please get hold of me through my website and we would be delighted to help.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. I will put that link up on the show notes. The other clever thing about that title is there’s no word that anybody’s going to misspell and there’s no transatlantic variations or anything. These are all things to think about when you choose the title of a book.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 They weren’t necessarily front of mind whilst coming up with it, but it’s worked and we’ve thought about abbreviations. What if we call, should we call it the business WILLIT or the website WILLIT? Or WIMTBF. I mean it just, it’s got to be the full thing. It’s got to be “Will it make the boat go faster?”

Alison Jones:                        It’s not a snappy acronym, is it?

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 It’s not, no.

Alison Jones:                        No, I’m just trying to say it out loud and it doesn’t work. No, brilliant. Well, all those links will be up on the Extraordinary Business Book podcast notes, which is Extraordinarybusinessbook.com. So if you haven’t got a pen and paper on you just now, then you can go there as usual. But Ben, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Ben Hunt-Davis:                 It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for having me on your show.


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