Taking the Helm: Mid-level leaders must balance needs of those above and below

May 1, 2019 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

While a bosun, second stew or second engineer all have leadership roles, they’re also considered middle managers. They have people who report to them, and others to whom they report. To be successful in that role, they must strive to be the best middleman they can be.

Keep in mind that leadership and management aren’t the same thing. Leaders deal with people, which means they create a common goal for everyone to aim for – say, five-star service – and explain how to achieve that goal. Good leaders will be seen to do what they ask of others, create influence, and deal with people as people. Meanwhile, managers deal with things. They make schedules, make plans, direct the flow of activity, set up rules and procedures, and create goals. Leaders and managers are two sides to the same coin.

Here are suggestions on how to be a great middle manager and leader:

Be a straight talker.

Communication is a critical skill as a go-between. Middle managers need to be able to pass on instructions or requirements as clearly and as exactly as possible, both up and down the chain of command. With good communication, not only will management skills improve, but so will their standing as a leader.

Relate to the crew.

Middle managers work the most closely with their direct reports. Chief engineers, because of their many responsibilities, may not work as closely with team members on a daily basis. Therefore, the chief may not get to know everyone on the team on a personal level. This can create a divide between team members and the chief,  which makes sense, given the hierarchy. However, if the second engineer, who works closely with everyone on the team, only relates to the other engineers as tools to be told what to do, interpersonal difficulties will arise within the team. Middle managers must figure out a way to relate to their people.

Know the strengths and weaknesses of the crew.

Good middle managers develop insights into which crew member is best at certain tasks or activities. If a stewardess is a 7 out of 10 with table settings, but only a 3 out of 10 with rudimentary tender driving skills, it’s probably more beneficial to take the 7 skill to an 8 or 9 than to spend a lot of time trying to take the 3 to a 4 or 5. Good middle managers will find ways to develop the strengths of their team members.  

Be a good teacher.

It usually falls to the bosun to teach necessary deck skills to the deckhands. Therefore, a bosun who takes time to learn how to teach and coach will be a more successful leader and a better all-around manager.

Understand the big picture.

Middle managers must know what’s expected of them and their team at any given time. At different times, different steps will be necessary for the team to succeed. This includes when the boss is on board, or when the yacht is in the shipyard, on charter or underway to a destination. It’s essential for a good middle manager to have a plan to accommodate what’s coming next.   

Root out problems.

Good leaders don’t avoid conflict; they face it head on. If there are issues with team members, middle managers must get to the bottom of it to prevent the issue from growing larger and affecting the team as a whole.

Respect critical relationships.

While middle managers may not like those who are considered upper management, or even those at the same level as them in the hierarchy, they must be able to ignore that. These are critical relationships that have to work, no matter what – lives may depend on it. Succesful  leaders do everything in their power to work the best they can with everyone, no matter how they may feel about them personally.

Speak the truth.

Good middle managers aren’t yes people. They build influence through diligence, competence and conscience.    

Managing and leading from the middle is a balancing act, and it requires learning how to help those below and above succeed.  

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.