Last month on OnboardOnline I talked about the best models of yacht management, and referred to the importance of a vision statement to guide the yacht’s efforts. This generated a lot of reader interest and in response I will unpack this a bit further.
For a yacht to have any chance of meeting the ‘normal industry expectations’ which includes shifting and ever-rising performance standards, there must be a vision. It should convey where the yacht’s efforts are focused. Many yachts are out there striving for their own form of excellence without ever determining a vision. It is the nautical equivalent of putting the engines to full ahead without a plan and then going to lunch. It is the difference between speed and velocity, there must be direction to direct the energy.
I myself fell into this group; I approached captaincy with great horsepower but without much control. It was not until a long way into my career that I understood the power of a statement of purpose to lead a team and manage the process. I will share an example followed by one of my teams that took us from being a fair performing crew to a very tight and successful superyacht team, with purpose and direction.
Define the vision
The captain does not need to be the sole creator of the vision; quite the opposite. The more stakeholders all are involved, the greater the chance the vision will be followed. The captain is the one to shepherd the vision through to its completion. They must seek and embrace direction from the yacht’s owners, their representatives and their appointed managers, and then marry this with the needs and wants of the crew, without suffering too much compromise.
Yes, this is a needle to be threaded, but it is worth the effort.
On nearing completion of a yacht construction project, there was a great feeling among the build crew. Many had worked together in the past and we were supported by an incredible yacht owner that had a clear sense of style and purpose for his new yacht. His 'why' and personal vision were very clear.
Even with this in place, it was not enough, and I knew we needed to glue our performance together with something more. Something we would refer to in times of need, and something to reward ourselves with in times of success.
The vision started over morning tea, seated on past-use-by-date plastic chairs in the shipyard container we called our office in the ramshackle shipyard. What did we want to be a part of? How did we want to be seen by others? How did we want to see ourselves, and how could we grow the team yet retain the consistency of what we felt we had brought with us?
What started as a loose collection of ideas started to form and gain momentum. It seemed we all wanted to be a part of something, we did not want to put the engines to full and sail away with no shared plan.
The list grew, shrank and grew again, as we all contributed and self-edited. It was not filled with ‘management speak’, it was our truth as a crew, using the language of our own daily conversations. We committed to uphold and defend the values we agreed upon.
Key elements to consider
The big picture: Why are we going to work each day? What were the core metrics that underwrite our performance? As a hint, none involved a spreadsheet.
Brand: Contrary to what many may say, a brand is not a logo. The brand must embody the values of the yacht and go further to guide behaviours and interactions. You and your crew support the brand, and the brand supports you.
People and personal values: This is big. How do you interact with each other and the wider community that your yacht moves within? What are the core values that you must have as a team?
Leadership: Yes, you need to talk about what style of leadership is going to be in place. How are the seniors going to lead and how are the juniors going to interact and challenge healthily?
Communication: Within the vision it is hard to choose what is 'most important', but agreeing how the information that underpins the operation is passed on is essential. We must all know where to find our information and its content must be legitimised.
Measuring and monitoring: All that can be achieved through the points above is only valid if it is reviewed for its relevance. It is only embraced when the team sees that the vision is improving their performance, and this can only occur through measurable outcomes agreed in advance. Not unlike disaster management, it is unfortunate that clever actions taken to avoid a catastrophe cannot be truly measured. Actions taken to avoid a car crash never truly show the event as it could have been.
Success: As with measuring and monitoring, defining what success looks like is important in order for the team to embrace the vision. If I cannot see what success looks like, I have no reason to put the effort in. The crew must be able to clearly see their success; like an Olympic sprinter who trains through heat and cold for four years, they are driven by the chance to cross the line first. This is easily visualised and sustains their discipline through the hard hours of training. What is your visualisation of success, for you? For your crew?
Share the vision
Once our vision was defined it was shared - printed and mounted in the crew canteen, and later the crew mess once on board. This was a start but, on its own, not enough.
The vision became part of recruitment and induction, so if a candidate did not agree or comprehend the purpose of the team’s vision it drew the question: Are they the right fit for the team?
We shared the vision with new candidates and asked them what they understood from it. There was no wrong answer, but it was important that they could identify with the reason and, ultimately, that they could describe what their own success in the workplace looked like. If you cannot see your own success, like the sprinter crossing the line, you will not commit the effort to achieving it.
The yacht owner, their representative and their appointed managers were all stakeholders and held copies. Indeed, as at inception, the yacht owner’s own vision was drawn upon; they could recognise the evolution of their own ideas. This put the crew healthily on notice, as the yacht owner and external stakeholders would subsequently hold us accountable to deliver on the goals of the vision.
Of course, there will be darker days when your performance does not meet the standards of the vision that you were fundamental in developing. These will be hard times and you will be held accountable by your yacht owner and, more importantly, by your crew. I had many of these days and they never got easier.
The only thing that helped was knowing that if there had been no vision, I would not even have known that I was off-track. Just like the yacht I spoke of earlier, without a plan, the yacht does not know if it is standing into danger and, the faster it goes, the bigger the likely crash at the end.
Captain Brendan O’Shannassy began seafaring at 17 with a maritime cadetship and undergraduate degree under scholarship with the Royal Australian Navy. He then served at sea with the Royal Australian Navy before undergoing commercial training and working in harbor tug, barge and offshore support. He began yachting in 2001 and has worked with some of the industry’s largest and most reputable yachts including captaincy of Princess Mariana, Octopus, Vava II, Amadea and Andromeda.
Alongside his maritime commitments, Brendan has contributed to the goals of Blue Marine Foundation, the Brain Tumor Charity, Superyacht Charities and is one of the founders of www.yachtcrewhelp.org, a mental health support platform for yacht crew developed by ISWAN. He is also a board member of the International Superyacht Society and Chair of the ISS Captains Committee.
Most recently he founded Katana Maritime which supports yacht owners, their teams and managers in a broader capacity than single yacht captaincy allowed.