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The Crew Coach: Can you Learn to be a Leader?

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Q: Anonymous, Captain, 36:
"How much of being a leader is inborn, and how much can be learnt? I have been a captain for just over a year and I’m still finding some things about the people management side of things pretty difficult, so I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just not going to be able to get the hang of this.

I’m trying to apply what I learnt in the HELM training but it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether it works, and I don’t always know if I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes it works and my crew seem to be happy and working well, and sometimes my actions seem to make things worse. Is that normal? Basically I’m just not 100% sure if I’m doing a good job as a leader or not."

A: The Crew Coach:

You know what? The fact that you have even sent me this email is an indication of your leadership potential, even if you’re not quite there on all fronts yet. Just being open to the idea that you might need to make some changes is in itself a great sign.

To answer your first question, I know from first hand experience that leadership skills can be learnt – as I had to learn everything I know about leadership myself, having not shown a lot of great ‘natural’ talent in this area when I first found myself thrust into a management position.

It took me a while to realise this and I made a lot of mistakes along the way before I began to realise I didn’t have to figure it all out or struggle on my own. You can make this process faster by learning from someone who has been there and done it before, and studying and practising new techniques goes a great way to expanding your skills in this area. And the cool thing is that we just go on learning – there is never a time when you are going to simply ‘know everything’.

Now in answer to your second question about whether or not you are doing a good job, this is going to sound a bit odd after what I just said above, but to be honest you are asking the wrong person. I can give you good advice, sure, and help you learn more effective leadership techniques, but the people you need to be asking whether or not you’re doing a good job are your crew, not me. 

I’m smiling now, at the face I imagine you just pulled when you read that. It sounds pretty scary right, asking your crew to tell you what they think about how you are doing as a leader? I get it – I had to ask my team for performance feedback recently and it can seem a bit daunting before you do it, but ultimately the feedback they give you is extremely helpful. And after all, they’re the only ones who truly know what you’re really like to work for. 

The thing is, you just can’t improve unless you know where you’re going wrong. People in all industries fear asking for feedback, and research shows that the more authority people have, the less likely they are to request, or even value, feedback. This is particularly relevant to yacht captains who have the ultimate authority and power over the crew management onboard. 

We’ve all seen the captains that fall into leadership ruts over the years and won’t hear a critical word said of them (although plenty are said behind closed doors.) You obviously don’t want this to happen, and I commend you for it.

So how to go about setting up your own performance review? 

Formal or informal? Written or verbal? That’s up to you and what you’d feel more comfortable with- although you’ll probably get a better sense of the truth if you sit down one to one with each of your team members and ask them how things are going. 

delegation 101

Here are some hints to help make this process most effective and valuable for you: 

Set the context. Make sure people know why you are asking them for feedback and share your intention to be the best leader, with a genuine desire to serve them in the best possible way.

Build this into a general review with each crew member, where you ask them how happy they are with the way things are going in their career and position as well – this spreads the focus so it’s not ‘all about you’. 

If you ask broad questions such as ‘How am I doing as captain?’ you’ll tend to get very general and not very helpful remarks. So drill down with specific questions: Do you find my management style works well for you? Does anything I do get in your way or make things difficult for you? How can I make your experience on board better? What could we do differently? How can we improve the way we work together? What do I do that you appreciate, and what drives you mad? What would you change about me, if you could wave a magic wand?

If you’re really nervous about asking your current crew, you could try asking some who have worked with you and then left (assuming you are on good enough terms to do this). These people are a goldmine of information about what they thought of your leadership style and can help you pinpoint any problems as they might be more likely to give you straight answers now they are no longer working under you.

Allow people to give you anonymous feedback if they prefer to do so. There may well be things they would like to know, but are not brave enough to say them to your face, so you could have a written feedback form they can fill out if they wish to do this as well. 

When you have the ‘results’, try not to let your pride get in the way of acting positively on the aspects that you believe need the most work. Come up with an action plan and share this with the team so they know you are taking their feedback seriously.

Many insecure leaders fall into the trap of believing they’re above asking for feedback from their subordinates, but remember, you give feedback to your crew in order to improve their performance, so it’s perfectly natural to ask them to do the same for you.

Have you ever asked your crew for feedback about you? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below!

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