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Captains - Common Leadership Issues On Board

When it comes to leadership, many believe we're either born to lead or we're not. It's a lofty word that conjures the notion of special powers, a world apart from simple management. Peter Drucker, the Austrian-American management consultant made the distinction clear when he famously said: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."

In the first of a two-part series, leadership coach Martin Mainey steps on board to answer some common questions raised by superyacht captains in relation to their crew.

Over the past 12 months we’ve had problems with turnover in the interior. We hired a new chief stew two months ago and she’s very effective – the owner thinks she’s great – but morale is at an all-time low and I’m not sure why.

I would suggest the first thing to do is to meet with the interior team, either as a group or one-on-one and simply ask the question – why is morale at an all-time low? It’s important for you as the leader to make this move, not the chief stew.

The issue may lie with the leadership style of the new chief stew. If this is the case, and you feel you have the skills and experience then, as the captain, you can coach them and support them to improve their style.

Alternatively, the issue may concern the dynamics within the team. As before, you can support the chief stew in dealing with these issues. If you feel you don’t have sufficient knowledge in this area, you might want to consider external support from a leadership coach or leadership training for the chief stewardess.

The boss has started flirting with our female bosun and she’s very uncomfortable. I’m worried she’s going to leave mid-season which is the last thing we need.

The fact that the bosun had the confidence to speak up is a positive sign. It is the captain’s responsibility to take this seriously and follow the agreed guidelines around harassment put in place by management. This is a challenging situation which needs to be addressed very carefully. Raise it with the owner if you are able. There is always a risk that the bosun is dismissed, but at least the owner is made aware that their behaviour is unacceptable and is more likely to adjust their behaviour going forward. Either way, this must be handled with care and be resolved.

Recently I had to deliver some bad personal news to our first mate, and I didn’t do a good job of it – I still feel bad and I don’t want to make the same mistake again. How do I do it better next time?

The best thing to do is to deal with this head on to repair the situation. Re-open the conversation, be vulnerable – share your feelings around the situation and admit that you could have handled it better. The first mate will appreciate your honesty and together you can work out how a similar situation might be managed more sensitively in the future.

There’s a major personality clash between our chief stew and the purser – both are popular with the crew but for some reason, they hate each other.

Personality clashes are very common on board. To deal with this, first and foremost, it would be highly beneficial for the captain to develop a culture where it’s clear that people on board are responsible for managing and leading themselves, with the support of their captain. This ensures crew take responsibility for their own goals, actions and behaviour.

I would suggest to the purser and the chief stewardess: “Go away and talk, then come back to me with what you have agreed and tell me your solutions.” It is their responsibility to resolve this and if they can’t, then they may need to consider the consequences of their clash and the security of their employment going forward.

If you feel you do need to get involved, I recommend you use an FBI form of mediation – Feelings, Behaviour and Impact. Set a meeting and allow each of the individuals to explain the behaviour of the other, how it makes them feel and the impact it has. They must then agree a way forward and are each responsible for adhering to that path and the consequences they will face if they don’t.

Our management company is very hands on and I don’t see eye to eye with the rep. How do I politely tell him to back off?

It’s good to be direct– arrange a meeting at a time and place convenient for both of you. During the meeting, open up the conversation with a question. Ask the rep how they feel things are going. Most likely, they are not feeling great about the current situation either. You should then look to agree on a mutual paradigm and start working with the end goal in mind. I’d also suggest that you evaluate the progress within a set amount of time in order to keep things on track.

Two of my deckhands are fighting over the same stew and it’s badly affecting the whole team – how should I handle it?

First of all, does the boat have a policy around “no relationships on board”? If so, the solution is easy – reiterate the policy and the consequences if this is not adhered to. Let the crew members make their own choices around that and, if they can’t live amicably on board, they can decide whether or not to leave.  

If there’s no onboard policy and this issue is happening regularly, consider introducing one that makes it clear that relationships on board are not acceptable. This may help, although it’s unlikely to prevent them entirely.

If the problem persists, I would speak to the stewardess involved for her take on the situation. Perhaps she wants no part in it. If she’s not encouraging or involved with either one, the deckhands are responsible for their own actions and must resolve their issues going forward or face the consequences.

If she is involved, I would make it clear to her that the resulting disharmony is unacceptable. Be clear that there will be consequences for her too if the issues aren’t resolved immediately.

Our new bosun is very experienced and the guests love him, but he’s too cool for school and it’s rubbing the crew up the wrong way. How do I put him back in his box without souring relations?

Again, I would use the FBI method. Praise the bosun on the qualities he brings and the fact that guests love him but explain that you need to give him some honest and accurate feedback. Let him know his behaviour is causing a bad feeling among the crew which is negatively impacting the overall performance of the team. Ask him if he was aware of the situation. Either way, put the responsibility on him to moderate his behaviour going forward.

An onboard culture where having difficult conversations is encouraged is vital in order for the whole team to perform at their best. It’s important to speak up about difficult issues as they arise, but it’s essential that these conversations come from the heart. These difficult conversations are not about pointing fingers or put people down – they must be done with an open mind and the intention of finding a positive solution for all.

Our boat has always been known for its fun events for guests - we’re a real party boat - but this season it felt like we were just going through the motions and we’ve lost our spark – how do we get it back?

It sounds like there could be a lack of flow in the team. Creating a new point of focus and identifying a purpose for the team will help everyone to recapture their spark. Discuss and agree new goals and ensure everyone in the team agrees with them. This should also be reviewed regularly to ensure everyone is pulling together towards a common aim.

Our first mate has found out he’s on the same pay as the bosun who’s been with the boat a lot longer. He’s not happy about it and he’s threatening to leave.

The first mate is well within their rights to find this unfair, so it needs to be addressed. The likelihood is that the bosun’s pay has been increased over time. You should look at creating a formal pay structure where, despite the length of service, there is no overlap from one rank to another. Without a proper pay structure this may well happen again, so it needs to be fair and equitable. Crew should be adequately and fairly paid for their experience at the level of work they have been hired to undertake.

If it’s within your power, make sure you address the situation and give the first mate a pay rise, but ensure this won’t impact other pay brackets causing the same problem. If you are not in a position to decide rates of pay, all you can do is have an open conversation with the first mate and explain the history. The boat will not want to lose the first mate so perhaps you can reward them in a different way, for example by paying for extra training or extended leave. Ask them what they think is a fair and reasonable solution. If you do everything you can to support them, it is then their decision if they choose to leave.

We have a number of new junior crew this season and I feel I’ve lost authority. I’m being challenged more than usual, and I haven’t got the time or the patience to negotiate every point with these newbies. 

I would recommend that you put yourself in the shoes of the newbies and imagine how you’d feel in a similar situation. Then apply the FBI method to this situation to ensure both parties feel valued. It is the captain's job, as the leader, to nurture their crew and support them in their professional development.

When you apply FBI, you will shine a light on everyone’s thoughts around this situation. Conversely, if you avoid giving feedback on a situation you are unhappy with, you are allowing it to continue. Be proactive, ask for a meeting and share your thoughts. It’s highly likely that the newbies will agree to adjust their behaviour going forward.

More generally, this approach will create relationships built on honesty and trust. Discuss how you want to lead your team to success and discuss your own role and that of the HOD’s within this. Furthermore, open up about your own start in the industry and how you understand that they will have a lot of questions, thoughts and ideas, but that there is a time and a place to bring these to the table. You could also build in monthly one-to-one meetings with HODs to discuss progress and any issues, empowering them to manage and support their own teams, allowing you to take a step back.

In part two, we ask a number of company bosses to share a personal account of effective leadership and how it impacted their business. 


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