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Taking the Helm: Causes of high crew turnover found at the top

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

It’s no secret that one of the better ways to tell if leadership is considered good in an organization is to critically examine how high company turnover is. Do crew flee the vessel like rats running from a sinking ship, or do they never leave? Here’s the thing: People leave people, not jobs. This means whenever turnover is high on a team, the first place to look for the problem is the leader of the team, rather than the job or the individuals who have come and gone. Sure, one or two crew may have had problems and left, but when there’s a pattern, it’s time to look higher up in the chain of command.

Of course, there are any number of reasons people may leave a team besides poor leadership. A team member may have family issues that need to be attended to or other personal issues that come up. Meanwhile, people who stay and put up with poor leadership because they feel they are unable to leave can make things worse than if they quit.

The person who stays can become toxic within the team. For example, maybe a crew member has a mortgage to pay and simply can’t afford to leave, but really wants to. That crew member becomes unmotivated, which impacts the rest of the team. This can be disastrous within small teams, especially in combination with poor leadership.
Whether there’s a visible issue or not, it’s a good idea for leaders to determine how effective they are in their role. Part of the effectiveness will be in determining why there’s high turnover, or if there are people on the team who should be asked to leave.

To become aware of personal effectiveness means demonstrating humility and asking team members for suggestions on how you can improve as a leader. Not surprisingly, this isn’t a common activity from a leader. Who wants to be seen as not all-knowing or insecure in the role?

One way to become a more effective leader is to understand the leader isn’t somehow superior to the other members on the team. The idea of class levels isn’t something we consciously think about, but it sometimes comes across when team members are treated as less than, or lower than, the leader. People are people and expect to be treated as such.

Leaders of the past would tell their people what to do. This is a one-way conversation that relies on the leader knowing all the answers, and crew members can switch off their brains.

The leader of the future includes team members in the decision-making process and asks what can be done. This is a dialogue, which encourages the crew to think and consciously make decisions. The person who does the work is the best one to ask how something can be accomplished because they have insight into the job.

This brings us to the next skill for effective leadership: communication. An  effective leader is an effective communicator. A leader who hoards knowledge and keeps their team in the dark won’t be effective because their team won’t be effective. Communication and leadership go hand in hand.

Another skill that improves effectiveness is to set clear expectations early and often. A team needs to know what is expected of them so they know what to do to succeed. The effective leader will be proactive and manage expectations in order to be successful.

Leaders who behave like a jerk – harassing, bullying or controlling – may be effective in the near term because of the fear they create among team members. But that effectiveness won’t last long, tying back into high turnover.
Leadership means bringing people together to accomplish a goal or task. A title or position doesn’t guarantee that someone will be seen as a leader.  Followers decide if they will follow, and part of that decision is based on how well the leader succeeds at getting the team to accomplish goals and tasks.

When leaders are effective, they will be able to hold onto their team members.

Former first officer Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

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