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Leadership skills coveted, not required, for captains

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As long as I have been hosting these lunches, the issue of leadership skills among captains has come up. The skills aren’t required for licensure yet most captains and crew rank them high on the list of qualities of an effective yacht program.

So why aren’t they taught and required? And even if they aren’t, perhaps the more important question is how do captains successfully run a program without them? (We conducted our monthly survey on this topic of leadership as well. Read those results and comments here.)

I invited a group of captains respected in this area of yachting to talk about leadership at this month’s From the Bridge luncheon. And although we didn’t arrive at any ground-breaking resolutions, we did agree that captains themselves are key to improving this area of yachting.

“So many times it [leadership training] is identified as important but who takes their own time to do it?” one captain said.

“In yachting, I haven’t see much of this,” another captain said. “We talk about the need for it but I don’t see it.”

“I think people like us need to be responsible and give back to the industry that has given us so much,” said a third.

As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion.

The captains have decades of experience running large yachts, managing large crews and operating them for a long time. Several also had management-level experience doing something else before they got into yachting, training and experience they said they apply to running yachts.

We first established that leadership and management are different sets of skills. And while both are applicable to captains in their jobs running large yachts, we focused on leadership for this lunch.

The simple qualities of a strong leader, these captains said, include confidence in their abilities, respect for their crew, open communication and common sense.

“We all know good leaders,” one captain said. “There’s an amount of confidence they display and people naturally gravitate to them. New crew come onboard, go through your orientation and they can see you’ve done this before. Your confidence comes through.”

“And a good leader has to be a good teacher,” another said.

“I can’t tell you how many times new crew come to me and say thanks for letting us know,” a captain said. “On my last boat, we didn’t know what we were doing, the captain never told us.”

These captains all handled communicating with crew differently. Some have regular meetings, others meet informally whenever there is information to share. One uses the dry erase board in the crew mess and writes something on it every day.

“I go to crew while they are doing their jobs, I don’t call them up to the bridge,” one captain said. “I’ll stand in the galley and talk to the chef or stand in the stateroom while the stew is making the bed. You get more information that way.”

They talked about how powerful simple praise can be.

“You can see it in their eyes,” one captain said. “After a long day and they’re tired, you tell them they did a great job driving the kids around on the tender and you can see a burst of energy in their eyes. It’s amazing.”

Happy crew do their jobs better, which makes it easier for captains to do their jobs, they said.

“And job satisfaction is always going to win out over salary,” a captain said.

“I’ve been lucky to work for great owners the majority of my career,” another said. “The biggest mistake they make, when they hear someone’s leaving, is they offer them more money. That never works. They stay in the short term, three to six months, but it’s a temporary fix. They have already made their mind up that they will leave.”

Successfully leading a crew, though, takes more than praise, they said.

“One of our primary responsibilities is to set the standards of the vessel, how it will be run, to what level,” a captain said.

Doesn’t the owner decide that?

“The owner doesn’t tell us details,” this captain said. “He tells us how he wants it to be and we interpret that. We set the standard.”

“This is a peculiar industry,” another captain said. “Our leadership ability onboard is somewhat limited. The owner holds the purse strings. He has to be a good sponsor for us to do our jobs well.”

So how significant is the yacht’s budget to your leadership ability?

“It’s huge,” a captain said. “If you don’t have money to maintain the boat, crew can’t be proud of their job.”

“And we can’t make decisions without asking, which hinders our ability to follow through,” another said.

“I can’t become a good manager without the full confidence of the owner,” the first captain said.

But doesn’t that take time?

“It starts by treating crew with respect,” this captain said. “That leads to job satisfaction, which leads to the owner’s happiness, and the owner giving me more freedom.”

“If you ask crew to do something but don’t give them the tools they need to do it, they’re not going to have much success,” another captain said. “Without the owner’s support, we’re limited in what we can do.”

One captain who has the support and confidence of the owner said he is able to make employment and staffing decisions to help the crew, which returns loyalty and job satisfaction. In one case, for example, he was able to send a crew member home for two weeks when a family member got sick, even though the owner was due to arrive in a few days.

“I brought in some relief crew and the trip went fine, but I didn’t have to call the owner about that,” this captain said. “I was able to make that call, and the crew appreciates it.”

A lot of times, though, these talents aren’t methods that can be learned in books. One captain admitted to an innate leadership ability, one he didn’t learn or study, but one he instinctively has.

“I think there’s a lot of instinct involved in being successful as a captain,” one captain said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked back on a decision I’ve made and been glad. I’m not sure why I made that choice, but I’ve been glad I did.”

These captains also were proud of the crew they have influenced, even if it means they leave the boat for another opportunity.

“My favorite guys started as deckhands and worked their way up,” one captain said. “I’ve had four guys in my career like that.”

Unfortunately, one captain said, it doesn’t happen often enough.

“The problem I see is captains who don’t teach their life experiences,” this captain said. “We’re not passing that along. I see a lot of young captains with the tickets to run yachts, but one in 10 have the leadership skills ready to do it.”

Over the past decade, many younger captains achieved licenses with not as much sea time as some think should be required. That resulted in younger — and less expensive — captains landing leadership roles on yachts, perhaps before they are ready. And that, these captains say, results in high crew turnover and eventually the owner’s dissatisfaction.

“When I hear captains complain about how horrible their crew are, I want to hold up a mirror,” one captain said. “Crew are more our business than the owner is. What are you doing to get better? We have to be good teachers.”

“If you have a lot of crew turnover, you have to look at why,” another captain said. “Do you have the tools you need? Are you a good leader? … We have to be good at creating a vision of what we want crew to be.”

“You’ve got to get a few knocks on the head to get humble enough to realize it might be you,” said a third.

They discussed how they might get more feedback on their leadership abilities. Few get performance reviews, but they can ask crew who leave for an exit survey.

“That’s how you get the most honest answers,” one captain said. “Would you work onboard again, what did you like most, what did you like least?”

One captain who enjoys the crew management side of running yachts — he calls it building a team — likened his performance to that of a Broadway show.

“It’s everyone pulling together, not just the two or three people up front who get all the applause,” he said. “I always tell my team, anytime you get a compliment, pass it along. When the chef gets praise, pass the credit along to the service team. No one can do their job unless everyone does their job.

“It’s hard with young crew, who bask in the glow of a compliment,” he said. “The reflex you need to train in them is to pass that accolade along. I do it, too. When the guests are all around the dining table and say what a great time they had, I say I couldn’t do it without the support of the owner, who’s usually sitting at the table there, too. You want to take every chance you can to funnel accolades along.”

Alternatively, they accept the blame when crew quit.

“For me, it’s when a crew member resigns for something that could have been prevented,” one captain said. “You say to yourself, where did I fail?”

“But you have to draw the line with yourself,” another captain said. “So often, we see more potential in people then they see in themselves. We give them more chances, more time to discover it, and in the meantime they’re causing collateral damage and we have to be sensitive to that.”

Often, this level of captain will delegate the handling of crew issues to department heads, including more personal issues such as snoring.

Interestingly, several crew complained about this practice in this month’s survey, perhaps misinterpreting it as captain not making any decisions or managing the crew themselves.

“I tell them [department heads] I’m happy to go down there but it’s better for you to gain the respect of the crew,” one captain said. “And it teaches them how to facilitate crew communication with each other.”

“It’s another way to elevate them,” another said.

“Department heads can come to me to discuss their decisions, but I like it to be their decision,” the first captain said.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. If you make your living running someone else’s yacht, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.

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