Are your crew leaving because of the Owner?

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Q: Anonymous Captain, 39:

“It’s my first drive, and despite being warned the boss was difficult before accepting the job, I’m still sometimes surprised by how tough it is to work for a man who shows so little respect for the crew. It’s ok for me, as I knew what I was getting myself in for, but I’m haemorrhaging crew who just can’t stick it out- and sometimes I can’t really blame them. I’m in a really difficult position when I’m trying to replace them too- because as much as I’d like to be honest in interviews about the boss, I feel that that’s both breaking confidentiality and ruining any chances of the candidate actually wanting the job. The more candidates I tell the boat is tough, the worse the yacht’s reputation will get, and the worse standard of crew I’ll see coming forward to interview. It’s a vicious cycle! I don’t want to leave before 18 months, that’s my goal — but that’s 12 months away and the boss is very unhappy (to put it mildly) with the crew turnover so far. How on earth can I get high quality crew to join and stick with me?”

A: The Crew Coach:

This sounds like quite the challenge for your first command, and I can imagine you’re on a pretty steep learning curve at present. I really admire you for reaching out as you’re completely right in saying it’s a delicate situation, and it is difficult to decide when hiring, how much information to divulge, and to whom. It’s also extremely hard to retain crew under these circumstances but there are some ways you can manage this.

Firstly regarding the hiring side of the problem, you didn’t mention whether you are using any crew agencies, but this is exactly where a crew agent comes into their own. I’d suggest being pretty open with one or two trusted agents, explaining the situation, and asking them to source candidates with a proven record of success working for ‘very demanding’ Owners. Some highly professional crew genuinely find a challenge in ‘pleasing the unpleasables’, and you need to let your crew agents help find these candidates for you. If they have the full picture they can shuffle through their database, put feelers out, and run initial interviews, without the yacht’s name ever being mentioned. This will really help weed out any people who won’t last before you even have to spend any time talking to them.

When it comes to interviewing those who’ve made it through the crew agency net, I’d advise giving a few hints about the boss in the first round to judge their reaction, but not give them the full picture. Then when you narrow it down to your top 2-3 candidates, be as honest as you can with them – as you are not doing anyone any favours (least of all yourself) if you’re not open about the situation with them at this point.

It may be difficult, given your situation, to source a full complement of hardened professionals for your yacht. So when it comes to the more junior crew, you’re going to have to go out on a limb and trust your judgement. Try to find interior crew with really strong hospitality backgrounds, excellent longevity in all their jobs (shows they don’t quit easily), and if they’ve had a ball-breaking boss at some point, so much the better!

You’ll need your interviewing powers to be sharp here, as it’s all too easy for enthusiastic junior crew to say (with all honesty at the time) they’ll be fine with a difficult boss, but then crumble and run the minute the boss yells at them for the first time. So in this primary interview stage, rather than spilling the beans on all the boss’s negative points, you need to really dig into the candidate’s work experience. Ask them to give you examples and describe times they’ve dealt with tough customers, massive challenges, and angry bosses. The golden rule of good recruitment is that ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’, so you need to pull this information out of them to make your decision on whether to take them further.

Once you get down to your final interviews, before you come clean about the difficult Owner you need to advise them you require absolute discretion with the privileged information you are giving them, whether they get the job or not. Obviously you wouldn’t divulge the Owner’s name at any point and I’d probably suggest keeping the yacht’s name out of it too if possible until you are really certain you want to offer them the position (or even after they have accepted, if you want to be really sure.)

As you have no doubt already realised, if you’re not honest with them at the final point when you’re offering them the position, you run the risk of them simply quitting when they find out the reality. Not only is this clearly a waste of everyone’s time, effort and money, it gives your boss more reason to be annoyed with you about the high turnover. You may as well be upfront with these key candidates, as they’ll lose trust in you immediately if you keep things from them and they find out later what you were hiding.

In fact, trust is a very important factor here, because without this, you simply won’t be able to make them stay. The success of this venture depends entirely on you: the leader of this ship, both literally and emotionally. Some of the best Captains I’ve ever met are the ones that manage to bond their crew together DESPITE a tough Owner- asking the crew to do their best to impress each other, and for their own high standards, therefore delivering great service because of their loyalty to each other and you as Captain, rather than loyalty to the Owner. The great thing about this is that the Owner still receives great service because the crew are still striving and performing, but their motivation is more to each other and themselves, so it’s win-win. Also, these crew are SOLID. It’s hard to find a more bonded crew than one who’s been through tough experiences together.

When your crew is suffering, you have to step up, encourage them, and ask them to stick with you. Admit that you find it tough too, for while it may feel like admitting weakness, I’ve written in the past about how showing vulnerability is the behaviour of great leaders. Also, give them as many incentives as you can: extra days off in downtime, training courses if the budget allows, crew meals out, using the watertoys: whatever you have at your disposal to make their lives a little easier, use it.

It might even be worth having a chat to the Owner about coming straight to you with his complaints rather than the crew: make yourself the ‘metaphorical punching bag’ to save your crew. They’ll love you for it, and it won’t be so hard to take the Owner’s harsh words when you know why you’re doing it.

To sum up, this is going to take all the motivational leadership you can muster, and I promise you’ll be a better Captain for going through this baptism of fire at the beginning of your command career. Asking those around you to dig deep and show mutual support in difficult times is the true sign of a great leader, so if you can do it in your first job, then you can definitely go on to be one of the great Captains of this industry.

You’re only 6 months into this adventure, so there’s an excellent chance that things will get easier as you get more used to the boss, notice his triggers, and you and your crew will settle into a routine. Before long, you’ll be known as a top-class Captain who can ‘please the unpleasables’, and you never know, you and your crew might find you make it well past 18 months.

Best of luck and keep in touch, I really want to know how you get on!

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