Walking the blurred lines of yachting leadership

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Q: Sara, Chief Stewardess 38:

“I have a bit of an odd one for you, it might seem like a silly question but one of my young stews has been having some relationship problems lately and she keeps trying to ask me what she should do. There are two main problems with this – one is that I would rather keep our relationship on a more professional basis and I feel really awkward that she is asking me about her personal life. And the other is that I have the most terrible relationship track record in history so I feel I am the worst person she should ask! I really don’t know what to say to her, how can I handle this so I don’t hurt her feelings but get her to stop trying to talk to me about this kind of thing?”

A: The Crew Coach:

What an interesting question Sara, and one that actually comes up more often than you might imagine. This is a perfect example of what makes leadership in yachting such a difficult challenge – in our industry we live, socialize AND work with our colleagues, meaning the lines between professional and personal are often very blurred. It makes it even more difficult when we share cabins with people who report to us – this kind of thing would never happen in the corporate world and it makes it very difficult to prevent our yachting work relationships from crossing that invisible line.

The first thing I want to say about this, which might seem a bit unexpected, is that it’s a really good thing! The fact that you have a direct report who is wanting to open up to you about her personal life shows that you have done an excellent job of building trust in your relationship with her. Trust is fundamental to good leadership and without it you have very little ability to influence or inspire people to not only do what you ask, but WANT to do what you ask (a subtle but extremely important difference).

This is particularly true when we are talking about slightly younger team members, who are of the ‘millennial’ generation or younger (i.e. pretty much anyone under 30 today). This generation has been brought up completely differently than its predecessors, Generation X, who followed the Baby Boomer generation’s predict that authority should automatically be granted to people of a more senior rank or those who are older than you. The Millennials and Generation Z (aged 20 and under) have a different attitude to respect. For them respect is earnt, not automatically granted – and the way to earn it is through trust.

So if you have a younger crew member who trusts you enough to ask you about her personal life, you most probably have a pretty motivated crew member who cares what you think about her and is keen to do a good job in order to gain your recognition. This is not something you want to stop! Being a ‘go to’ person for your team is something to encourage, whether the problem is personal or professional – anything that could be affecting a team members’ performance is something you need to know about, and this is a great opportunity for you to earn even more respect from your team.

This means that the second part of the problem is actually the real crux of the matter: the issue that you don’t really know what advice to give her, given you feel you are not exactly an expert in this area yourself. Well the good news is that once again you are off the hook here! One of the first, and easily still the best thing I ever learnt about leadership, was that we don’t actually have to know all the answers in order to be good leaders! We just need to know the right questions.

Especially when it comes to relationship matters, people do always know deep down inside what they really want to do. Sometimes their judgement can be clouded by a whole bunch of ‘shoulds’ that might come from other voices in their head (friends, parents, siblings, etc) but all this is really just ‘noise’ drowning out their own inner voice and gut feeling. It can be very handy to simply ask the person asking for advice something simple like “What do you think you should do?” (with emphasis on the word YOU). You can also try questions like: “If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?” or “What would your best friend tell you to do?”

If they are trying to make a decision about something you can ask “How will you know if you’ve made the right choice?” – this is excellent for getting them to stop and consider the criteria and outcomes they are basing the decision on. These kinds of questions are doing two things: teaching people to trust their own judgement and decisions, and also teaching them resourcefulness and the ability to solve problems themselves. When you do this, you develop independence and initiative in your team members, which makes them more valuable employees, and you become of even more value to them, which makes them trust, like and respect you even more. What a great virtuous circle!

Good luck with this – try some of these techniques with your junior stew and let me know how you get on!

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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