A day of yachting - and advice from Dennis Conner - shows Ruth's Chris Steak House managers how, to be an industry leader, they must learn to lead in their own restaurants.

It's a brilliant day, cloudless and golden, and your sailboat is gleaming from bow to stern, the rippling waves reflecting off its shiny hull. The wind is strong, pushing you over the whitecaps at 6 to 7 knots. As it picks up speed, suddenly you're having a great sail, fast and loose, with 12 to 18 knots just ahead of the beam. The boat skims easily over the smooth swells, and clouds working northeast make for a gorgeous sky. You raise your sails, and you're dipping and soaring in the not-so-gentle breeze. It's a rollicking ride, with lots of spray. You breathe in the sweet air, feeling keenly alive, and it's as if you could go on sailing forever. How many people get to do this at a company meeting, you ask yourself.

Managers at Ruth's Chris Steak House do. The annual meeting for the international chain of meat-and-potatoes eateries might aptly be described as three parts conventional communication and one part high adventure. Wherever it's held, the 120 executives who attend - men and women who range in age from 30 to 60 plus - can count on an experience that takes them out of their element and that pushes, even taxes, them physically, mentally, and emotionally. And above all, one that's high on fun.

This year's meeting, held from June 4 to 6 in Washington, D.C., offered something completely different with its three days of breakout sessions: a sailing teambuilding exercise and a guest appearance by none other than Dennis Conner, the champion yachtsman who brought the America's Cup back to the United States.

"We like to include a team competition in our activities at our top management meeting," says Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth's Chris, whose headquarters is in Kansas City, Mo. "Since it's an election year, we decided to visit Washington. And because the area around Chesapeake Bay really shouldn't be missed, we decided to take advantage of it by sailing."

Every year, the company looks for activities that will challenge the group and give them an opportunity to hone new skills. Last year, they did a cattle run in Phoenix with Fertel, 74, right there on a horse with her management team. "Both the run and the yachting, different as they were, enabled us to accomplish all our goals beautifully," she says.

A Year of Change This year's meeting differed from previous ones in another key way: For the first time, Ruth's Chris' chefs and kitchen managers attended along with the operations managers. Explains Deborah Hinson (deborahh@ruthschris.com), director of marketing for Ruth's Chris: "As our competition has increased, it's become more important than ever to run a top culinary operation, so we need to focus on developing the people who provide the food. They need to understand our strategy, what we do globally, and why what they do is so important to us."

The meeting had two important goals. "First, we wanted people to want to share in Ruth's Chris' future, and two, to do their part to make the potential for the future come true," says Donna Guido (donna@dsgai.com), the head of DSG Associates Inc., a Santa Ana, Calif.-based event management company that helped to organize the event (www.dsgai.com).

Early on, William L. Hyde Jr., the CEO of Ruth's Chris, shared his vision of making the company more successful than it's ever been with the planners. "That requires more of people, and we wanted them to feel good about doing it because change is so hard," says Guido. "We wanted the meeting to be an exciting, fun time, and also to deliver the firm message that individuals within the company should take greater responsibility for their own development and that of the people who report to them."

It's all about leadership, she says. "Ruth's Chris is the leading fine-dining chain restaurant in the world. But to maintain that lead, they need greater leadership in every one of their 74 restaurants."

Why Sailing? The Training and Creativity Institute, based in Washington, D.C., was brought in to find a sports activity with all this in mind. "Yachting was good for them because Ruth's Chris has people with different skill levels and yachting allows people to play different roles, according to their strengths," explains Nancy Rotunno, director of sales for TCI. "Also, these are people who work in restaurants, many at night. They're used to being on their feet, moving around fast, and being very active."

Sailing is also a thinking person's sport. "It really teaches you about strategic planning, because it's not just about how to get from point A to B, but all the steps along the way," says Linda Higgison, founder and CEO of TCI. "You also have to deal with a lot of variables that you can't always foresee. So we use sailing as a metaphor for all those lessons that are really just natural lessons about life - and business."

On the first day of the meeting, participants met in the morning with the four- to six-person teams they'd been assigned to about six weeks before. "The teams had already chosen leaders and names and had been given colors," says Jim Cannon, director of culinary operations and purchasing for Ruth's Chris. "We were the purple team, and we called ourselves the `Purple People Leaders.'"

Some 22 boats with Ruth's Chris teams bobbed on the water like gleaming white birds, each one staffed with a coach from a local sail school, the Chesapeake Bay Sailing Co., who instructed the team members throughout the process. "The teams had each elected captains, who had to make quick judgments about which people would be most successful doing the various jobs on the boat," explains Guido. "The captains were also in charge of moving people around to make sure they were capitalizing on each participant's strengths."

Attendees had been informed that they would be sailing about a month before the meeting - and some were a little hesitant. Recalls Lanette Jarvis, district general manager at Ruth's Chris in Winter Park, Fla., who had never sailed before, "I was apprehensive, mainly because when I was a small child, I'd had a boating accident. I told them I would try, but when I got out there, I decided not to go."

That is, until Jarvis and another colleague, Pam Johnson, who wasn't going to go because she was afraid of getting seasick, went down to the dock and saw the boat to which they had been assigned - and it stole their hearts. "It was a very beautiful boat, one of the bigger ones, and it looked very safe," says Jarvis. "Pam and I turned to each other, said, `Let's go!' and we leapt on board."

Jarvis volunteered to be the timekeeper, and she was also given the job of handling the main sail. "Whenever I was told to do so, I'd pull hard on a rope that moved the main sail left or right, turning the boat," she remembers. "So I was multitasking all over the place!"

Cannon was one of the few people there who had sailed before. Explains Higgison, "Our philosophy was to put people in an experience where everyone would be on common ground. That forced them to see each other as individuals instead of as vice presidents or general managers, and to communicate and understand each other personally as well as professionally."

"It was exciting and exhilarating, as well as a great way for people to see how they have to depend on one another to put out to sea," Cannon says. The chefs and kitchen managers got a lot out of it, he adds, "because a kitchen is based very much on teamwork. If you don't have a good team in the kitchen, you can't produce."

Everyone Wins As for the teams on the water, they really produced. Cannon's group came in second, and Jarvis and her mates won the competition. "The joy of getting the winning spot after not even wanting to go, being part of the team, and then finding out that my fears were unwarranted, was a nice little package of accomplishments," she says.

Another big surprise awaited her on shore: A surprise greeting by Dennis Conner, who joined the group for dinner. The following morning, he addressed the meeting with an hourlong speech about the connection between leadership and sailing. "He talked about the fact that you have to overcome obstacles to accomplish things in life. It was very inspiring," Jarvis recalls.

His speech also related to Hyde's vision of growth and leadership among the company's managers. "He discussed winning the America's Cup and what led up to it - getting the sponsors and recruiting sailors - and the importance of looking beyond what you see at first," says Jarvis. "I related that to recruiting our managers."

In the end, Lanette Jarvis, the reluctant sailor, came away very high on the meeting. "I learned that even though we're leaders, we still have to be part of a team, because a leader can't do it all alone. On a sailboat, it's critically important to take direction, and everyone has to pull his or her load, or you can go the wrong way in a heartbeat. This was definitely an eye-opener about how far I, and my colleagues, could drive ourselves and this company."