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Not long ago, I was asked why crew turnover is so high in the yachting industry. Although there are many reasons why someone leaves a job, my answer is that crew members simply don’t have to tolerate poor leadership. Experienced crew know that if they find themselves in an environment they neither expect nor want, they can just leave.
Working on a yacht isn’t indentured servitude, nor is it military service, even though it can sometimes feel that way. Leadership on a yacht is different than most in the industry (captains, managers, brokers, agents, etc.) may understand it to be. This is because crew members aren’t necessarily the same type of person in a land-based job.
The people who make up the majority of crew on yachts are from all over the world. This means they have left the comfort of home, friends and family to strike out on their own without any guarantee they will succeed in finding a job. Either the adventure will end in failure by not getting the job they seek or it will be successful.
Almost all of the crew on yachts today have taken some kind of chance like this with their future. This takes courage and determination. Compare this to the many people who hear the same glamorous and adventurous yachting stories but decide not to make the move. There are many people who say they wish they could pack up and go. There are lots of people who are able to do the same thing, but for whatever reason, choose not to. Actions speak louder than words or wishes, and I consider the ones who actually do it to be leaders.
I call them leaders because these people exhibit fundamental characteristics of leadership: They set objectives and move to accomplish them; they bring about change by achieving their goals; and they encourage others to do the same.
Taken in this view, every member of a crew, no matter what role they fill, is a leader on some level. And since crew members have already taken the difficult step of leaving home, friends and family — their life, in other words — leaving a boat can be a trivial matter in comparison.
What this means is that leadership on a yacht is more difficult than in a comparative setting on land. On land, people are more willing to tolerate poor leadership because they aren’t fundamentally leaders, or they may be stuck with a mortgage, car payments, family obligations or other issues that prevent them from leaving. There are any number of outside forces keeping them at their job. T
his is not necessarily so with yacht crew. They are mobile and can move on a moment’s notice.
It’s important for leaders to understand that on their boat, they’re actually dealing with other leaders in some way or another. The leader must consider how his or her actions contribute to the turnover on their boat. When crew members feel they’re being treated like children or as if the leader thinks they’re stupid, it makes their decision to leave much easier.
Unlike becoming a doctor or lawyer or pilot, the barriers to entry to become a leader are low. In fact, leaders don’t need any training or schooling at all to fill this role. This is part of the problem with turnover. It’s true, some people succeed as leaders without any training. Unfortunately, the reality is that the number who succeed without personal and professional development is small.
Leadership is not a natural behavior for most of us. We may be charismatic and outgoing, but that isn’t leadership. Leadership is a skill that anyone can develop; it’s not reserved for only a special select few. Learning foundational leadership skills such as conflict resolution, effective communication, and team dynamics as well as motivation and engagement will improve a leader’s chances of success and reduce crew turnover.
Leaders on a yacht must remember they are working with other leaders, and that their leadership is always under scrutiny. If crew don’t experience good leadership, they can and will look to find a better environment.
A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.