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Taking the Helm: Ensure trust outlasts COVID

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to balance the business side of our boats with respect for the potential threats to the lives of the people around us. This tension is all too real.

One of the side effects this global event has produced is a huge amount of distrust between people today. For example, instead of taking a few minutes to go to the store to get something we need, we’re now made to wait outside the entrance if a threshold number of people is already inside. Upon entry, we may be stopped to have hand sanitizer squirted in our hands. In many places, we can only enter with a mask on and are told to stay six feet away from other shoppers.

The command and control aspect of the steps now in place treats everyone with suspicion, as though we are each infected with the virus and thus, potential threats.

While these steps may be necessary for public health, these protocols have subconsciously created distrust between us. 

The challenge for us as leaders onboard is to remember that we will need to interact with society again after this crisis ends. How we maintain the trust we have with our colleagues — and rebuild any trust lost — will go far in reestablishing relationships after the crisis ends.

Trust is generally unconscious, but it’s critical to everything we do. The sudden onset of a worldwide pandemic has revealed an honest truth: most leaders fail when it comes to building trusting work relationships. Controlling behavior signals to crew members that the default attitude on the vessel isn’t positive, which then filters down into all levels of the organization and creates the culture in which we work.

The longer we have this pandemic mindset, the longer the lingering effects of the suspicion we see in those around us. Hold onto whatever trust we have with the people in our lives, be they crew mates, owners, guests, contractors or suppliers.

Beyond assuring owners and guests that a vessel’s level of service and quality will remain the same, articulate what positive changes have arisen from dealing with the pandemic.

As the leader, focus on developing trust with the team. Put into action behaviors to build trust. For owners and guests, let them know crew members understand the circumstances at play and spell out any and all steps being taken to keep the ship COVID-free as well as the plan and steps that will be taken should anyone fall sick.

When communicating to owners, guests and crew, keep the message brief and sincere. Ultimately, owners and guests will care most about the value created for them. Remind crew that they’re to maintain the mindset they had before this all started and focus on delivering five-star service. Explain to owners how, despite the upheaval in how yachting operates, their yacht will continue to exhibit the levels of service they’ve come to expect.

Will crew offer service in new or unique ways? Any change must be explained so it makes sense from a vessel or service perspective rather than as an emotional reaction, which is based in fear. Remind guests these actions have been put in place to overcome obstacles imposed by outside parties due to the crisis.

The current reality can also be seen as an opportunity to try out different service strategies that may have been seen as too difficult in the past. If this is true, give it a shot. Demonstrating initiative will build trust, particularly with owners who see captains and crew being proactive with the best interests of their guests in mind.

Struggle against the breakdown of trust. Continue to extend trust as a signal that onboard department heads are taking ownership of the situation. Keep the transition from pandemic mindset back into normal operations front and center to keep things seamless and unchanged.

Capt. Paul Ferdais 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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