“It’s lonely at the top!”

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Q: Anonymous, Captain, 36:

“I moved up from first mate to Captain this year. It might sound stupid but I thought things wouldn’t change that much – and I now know I was very wrong. Being a Captain is a whole different dynamic. The pressure has been getting to me quite a lot – as the buck stops totally with me. Every decision, big or small, every responsibility – ultimately if the boss isn’t happy it all comes back to me. I’m so nervous about making a mistake that I’ve really become a different person. I’m stressed a lot and I’m finding it hard to remain friends on a social level with my crew so I have really withdrawn and I don’t really go out and socialise with them like I used to. There is so much to do and I’m so worried about getting behind, so I just work all the time. I’m really starting to wonder if the extra money is worth it, as I don’t think I can keep going like this for much longer – for one thing, I feel really lonely! I used to hate Captains who were so distant from the crew and now I’m turning into one of them. The biggest problem is there doesn’t seem to be anyone I can talk to about this, as I don’t want anybody to know that I’m struggling. Does everyone go through this or is it just me?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Ah yes, heavy is the head that wears the crown, as they say. I’m so grateful to you for asking this question. Very few people talk about this, but moving up to Captain is one of the trickiest career moves you’ll ever navigate. You are certainly not alone in feeling like this – it’s just that nobody ever admits to this publicly, so you wouldn’t know that others are suffering from the same concerns!

The first thing I want to say is that you really do need to take a bit of a step back and get some perspective on what is happening here. You need to find some ways to get a work / life balance back so that your work doesn’t become all-consuming – or it will eat you up and spit you out like so many burnt out crew before you. I know it’s easy for me to say this when I’m not the one with all that responsibility and enormous workload piled on my shoulders. But believe me, every job can be like this if we let it – it’s our approach to the responsibility and workload that makes the difference between manageability and overwhelm.

Have a look at your time management and have a think about seeking some help with improving this. Long before I became a coach I was a busy, stressed out marketing director for a large international yacht brokerage company – and my workload was so crazy I once found myself reading a book on time management at three o’clock in the morning! When the irony of this dawned on me, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was a life changing moment: the book was called ‘Eat that Frog’ by Brian Tracy – and it became a huge turning point for me.

After implementing just a few of the core principles in that book I completely transformed my way of working, and now years on (and many more time management courses and books later) I use a great combination of effective techniques to keep my workload under control. More importantly, I no longer get stressed out about the amount of things on my never ending ‘to do’ list. My point is, you can get help with these things. Learn from people who have been there and done it before you, it really is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.

This brings me to my next point: you need to get yourself a mentor. Whether it’s a great Captain you once worked under, a close industry friend or even someone outside of yachting in a similar position of seniority and responsibility, you really mustn’t struggle on – trying to shoulder this all on your own. Your self-inflicted isolation is only contributing to the problem – as it often takes another person’s perspective to help us solve problems or come up with new approaches and ideas. The more you turn in on yourself, the narrower your perspective will be – and (this is the scary part) – the more likely you are to actually make a mistake, because you haven’t got anyone else to validate or question your ideas and actions.

I do agree that yachting can be a cut-throat industry and you need to be careful about who you open up to, but if you have one or two trusted advisors you’ll find things begin to flow a lot more easily. Remember when you were working your way up the career ladder, you always sought out more experienced crew to learn from? Things haven’t changed just because you’ve reached that final rung – you still have a lot to learn, and need people to learn it from. You just need to look a little further afield and be a little more discerning about who you approach.

Something else you are clearly concerned about is your job security. In yachting this is always somewhat tenuous, but there are ways you can improve your own stickability. First there are things you can do regarding your current job that will make it more likely the boss will want to keep you around, and then after this it’s always prudent to lay some foundations outside your immediate situation that will help in the event of the proverbial hitting the fan.

Onboard you need to start engaging with your crew again. For a start it sounds like you have become so caught up in your own fears and concerns that you have forgotten how much they are all counting on you to actually mentor them. They need you to show them a great example of someone who is able to cope with the pressures and strains of leadership and still be a pleasure to be around. Many of them will have their own fears and concerns about their roles onboard and you are missing the wonderful opportunity to help them overcome these. Not only will this help them feel more confident in your leadership, it will also give you more confidence as you begin to remember you do actually have great knowledge and experience to pass on.

Secondly it sounds like you are really not delegating enough. This is a classic trait of new leaders; especially when the buck really does stop with you. I know it’s scary to hand some things over, but there are ways of doing this while still maintaining an element of control over the final outcome. The added benefit of delegating well is that it actually motivates and engages your crew more, so you are really killing two birds with one stone there.

Once you have begun to get things running more smoothly onboard, you can begin to shore up your ongoing career security by improving your yachting network. Remember that every single person you interact with in yachting is forming an opinion about you that will be remembered and quite possibly communicated to other influential people. Your industry relationships are like golden threads, linking you to the best career opportunities and helping to keep you afloat if everything else goes down. Make sure you join industry associations, attend events, network and seek to make valuable contributions to everyone you engage with. Don’t wait until you need something from someone before you offer to do something for them, seek first to give, without thinking about what you might receive, and you will find that what goes around really does come around in this very small yachting world of ours.

Last but not least, don’t forget there are industry professionals you can turn to for 100% confidential guidance and support, to get you over this hump and into the zone where things are running smoothly and efficiently and you are confidently in command of a happy and productive yacht. In the corporate world, much like the sporting and entertainment world, successful people and senior executives all engage coaches to help them stay at the top of their game. No one is an island. It’s vital to have someone impartial to bounce ideas off and get feedback from about how you’re going, as well as to give you additional training and leadership guidance when necessary.

There are plenty of ways I can help with your current situation, from private and confidential coaching to our online Leadership Advantage video training library. Please don’t hesitate to click here to book a complimentary breakthrough session with me where we can discuss this in more detail.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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