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Taking the Helm: Leading in times of crisis takes consistency in messaging

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

In times of uncertainty, crew members and co-workers need to frequently hear from the captain and team leaders to stay informed, feel heard, and remain focused.

During this COVID-19 crisis, our professional futures seem to feel more uncertain by the hour. General questions are the focus, like how will the schedule change, or will the vessel go alongside somewhere to wait and reduce to a skeleton crew, or how will we overcome the physical distancing challenges on a boat. 

No one is immune to this situation, plus the repeated forecast of an impending recession that could put some vessel owners out of business like the 2008 recession aren’t helpful. Crew members have a lot to think on nowadays. 

And don’t forget, we’re all front-line workers when on a yacht. Our close-quarters reality makes it more challenging than other industries to remain compliant and stay safe.

It’s critical for captains and department heads to redouble their efforts on the few things that can help crew members stay informed and updated, feel like they’re being seen and heard, and keep everyone focused on the task at hand. The question is: How can we provide what our team needs right now?

Staying informed and updated

Crew members aren’t robots. They read the news from home, have friends and family who may currently face uncertainty, which means uncertainty is front and center in everyone’s minds. To help reduce uncertainty, captains should communicate candidly and frequently (at least daily) about the current state of the business on the boat. In difficult times, crew members need to know the vessel’s actual status as soon as is reasonably possible. 

If you’re not giving team members regular updates, they’ll make up what they don’t know to fill the information vacuum through gossip and hearsay. The most important thing is to speak candidly and promptly.

Department members need to hear regularly from their immediate team leaders, too, not just the captain. Team leaders set the tone and serve as the voice of reality. Be clear, steady and real. A challenge for some people is to stick to the facts and get information straight from the source. Is the deckhand rumor mongering and spinning ever more outlandish what-if tales? If so, this needs to be eliminated due to the potential stress and annoyance all the other crew can then feel in this circumstance.

Consistent messaging

If department heads aren’t in agreement with the captain and point out flaws in the plan, this is counterproductive to good teamwork and can lead to distrust of the captain. Department heads need to be seen to support the activities of the owner/captain/management company and the actions they deem necessary. 

If you feel the need to bash the plan or the leadership, do it with someone unrelated to the team who won’t create dissent with others. Call a family friend and rant; just don’t do it in public. All team leaders need to be on the same page with how the vessel will overcome any challenges, even when some may think things should be done differently. Crew members need to be able to rely on their immediate leader for honesty and stability and hear the same message from everyone.

Feel seen and heard

Crew members are human, so speak to them like they’re human. While there’s no need to sugarcoat, there’s a high need to remember that you’re communicating with — and relying on — a whole bunch of people who have decided to stay with the vessel and not flee home. The individuals who make things run have decided to stay, when they could leave. Remember that.

As alluded to earlier, team leaders should keep in mind that it’s only human to be worried and scared in these trying time, when crew members are in a foreign land, only surrounded by our work family and that distancing ourselves from urgent concerns is difficult as the world seems to end.

Good leaders will make the effort to remind team members they are important by saying things like “I’m proud of you all”, or “I know I can count on you to take care of our guests” as well as specifically point out when someone does something above and beyond the job. These actions embody exactly the kind of approach we should all take as leaders. Now is the time to step up.

Now more than ever, we need to be real, we need to be human, and we need to pay extra attention to our people.

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motoryacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments on this column are welcome below.

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