Promotions don’t automatically endow leadership skills

Jan 14, 2015 by Paul Ferdais

As leaders move up through the ranks, their role becomes less about their specific technical skills and more about how well they’re able to grow their people and get them to work together as a team to produce results.

It’s kind of a paradox, really. A deckhand gets promoted because of the skills he’s acquired, but those technical skills become less and less important in most of their work as a leader.

When you move up in your career and become a leader, you take on many other roles: coach, mentor, accountant, project manager, parental figure, counselor, etc. None of these new roles are part of the traditional training most yacht crew go through.

As a leader, team members look to you to help them perform, no matter what your specific training has or hasn’t been. Sometimes, your team will need a mentor, sometimes a coach. Understand that these two roles are not the same.

A chief mate will act as a mentor to the deck crew because he’s done the jobs the team must do and understands the challenges the team faces. As a mentor, the chief mate is there as an expert, to advise, guide and use his understanding and skills to support the rest of the team. The mentor-mentee relationship has something of the apprenticeship model in it.

Mentoring has a clear focus on performance. Mentoring is that part of the leadership role that has learning (competence, proficiency, skill, know-how, wisdom) as its primary outcome. The chief mate mentors the deck crew to achieve the outstanding results expected of the team.

On the other hand, coaching is the ongoing process of shaping and developing people through training, observation, feedback, and follow-up, in real time and on the job. Coaching is different than mentoring because it’s fundamentally about helping people fulfill their potential.

Coaching allows your crew members to recognize the things that hold them back from achieving what they want. It helps people arrive at their own solution to a problem through reflection. Coaching helps the individual being coached to discover his/her own solutions, make and implement better decisions, and expand his/her awareness.

To be an effective coach or mentor, your crew must trust you. Without trust, little can be accomplished. Only where there is a trusting relationship will there be effective coaching.

This means that what gets said in a coaching session remains confidential. It also means that performance difficulties are explored in a supportive environment and not used as a weapon to deny progress or suppress a performance bonus or raise.

The next step in being a coach is to ask open-ended questions that encourage self-reflection. You may even need to draw the answer out of the person you’re coaching. The questions you ask should give them the freedom to arrive at their own solutions.

People often ask for help to make critical decisions, but most of the time they already know what to do. They just need the assurance and confidence to step up and do it. Self-confidence is a key factor in most people’s development.

Imagine the impact you create for the people you lead and coach when you ask questions that empower them to think and create buy-in to a solution, as opposed to simply telling them what to do.

For example, if you are the chief mate working with a deckhand who needs to become better at driving the tender, what will you do? You can mentor him in terms of building his competence and knowledge, but he will still need time behind the wheel practicing the technical skills in various environments to become truly skilled.

Here’s what you can try in this situation:

  1. Set a goal with the deckhand. The goal is to become proficient at handling the tender and be able to bring the tender alongside the yacht on the first try rather than the third. By setting this goal you can track actual progress toward success.
  2. Find out what’s preventing the deckhand from bringing the tender alongside in the first pass. Perhaps he is nervous because of the water conditions. Perhaps he is intimidated having the boss on the tender. Whatever the case may be, find out everything that might be impacting the driving situation. You may find the driving isn’t the issue; something else is.
  3. Explore the options available. Perhaps the deckhand should spend more time driving without the boss. Start by letting him make his own suggestions for possible options. His increasing comfort level will help create a situation where he can start to succeed and build his confidence.
  4. Establish the will to succeed. The final step is to get your team member to commit to specific actions in order to move forward toward his goal. In doing this, you will help him establish his will and boost his confidence and motivation.

As a leader you will sometimes be a coach and sometimes you will be a mentor. Use the four points listed above as a guide or a step-by-step process to help your people achieve their full potential.

Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group ( delivering leadership training workshops and coaching. He holds a master of leadership in business degree and spent years working his way up from deckhand, to first officer on yachts. Comments are welcome at