The art of ‘being human’… and keeping a happy crew
Captain Giles Sangster takes a look at the choppy waters of on-board HR processes...…
The other day, I helped a crewmember carry his duffle bags to the pier, wished him luck on his new boat and watched the rest of the crew say their goodbyes. In an industry permeated with global, transient, young men and women, we all know that high crew turnover can be the norm. This particular crewmember had been with us for only five months and, as a low-ranking deckhand, his departure wasn’t a big loss. But the truth is that every departure not initiated by management is a loss. At the very least, it’s the loss of time that went into his training.
While some turnover is unavoidable (in this instance, he left to join his partner on another yacht) and some is beneficial (injecting fresh energy into the work environment), higher rates of retention are desirable. The longer you can keep your team together, the stronger they become as a team and the stronger the team, the better the yacht will run. Thoughtful management of the human factor is essential to achieving this goal.
The longer you can keep your team together, the stronger they become as a team and the stronger the team, the better the yacht will run.
It’s common practice to manage crewmembers like you would an assembly line at a factory, giving each individual their task to repeat mindlessly and to perfection. Sand, wash, clean, cook, varnish, service, repeat. While this might produce competence in given areas, it is underusing the human assets at your disposal and isn’t likely to produce a fulfilling work environment that will result in long-term crew cohesion.
So what do we mean by managing the human factor instead of the human factory? Most commonly called The Human Element (HELM), it refers to a selection of ingredients that merge together to create a living culture, a workable hierarchy, an established management structure designed keep things running smoothly on your yacht. Establishing good HELM practices begins in the hiring phase, extends through crew training, leadership (including providing leadership opportunities) and incorporates your management company into the team.
It starts with choosing your crew well and utilising them to maintain your yacht in a positive, productive manner. When recruiting, you are challenged primarily with finding suitably certified crew with job-specific skill sets. You’ll likely have in mind additional traits such as someone creative or sporty. But it is easy to overlook what can be the most important of skills – and that’s the ability to interact and live together in harmony when quarters are confined. It doesn’t take more than one bad choice to upset the equilibrium and turn a healthy positive crew into a miserable negative one. You have to make good choices based on a CV, a reference letter and a short interview (coupled with the pressures of flying someone halfway around the world to find out they don’t want the job or aren’t as suitable as first thought). In a regular office environment, skill set and experience are paramount, but you can’t afford to stop there in yachting. You must consider each individual’s personality and character when choosing your team.
Training crew starts on the day they arrive on board and continues indefinitely. Further training should be promoted, and a well thought-out training sponsorship scheme will help motivate and retain newly certificated crew. As crewmembers achieve further certification and experience, a promotion or greater responsibility might be appropriate. It’s important to recognise achievement and effort. Missing important moments shows lack of interest and that can only lead to motivational issues or crewmembers jumping ship at the next opportunity.
Leadership skills are of upmost importance and are an area for captains and senior crew to continue to develop. You need to maintain a crew, keeping them active, motivated and involved. Remember, human factor, not human factory. Department meetings are a great opportunity to share ideas and provide direction. Handing out responsibility and incorporating valuable ideas from crewmembers of all levels will allow you to make the most of your human capital, while creating a more fulfilling work environment.
Handing out responsibility and incorporating valuable ideas from crewmembers of all levels will allow you to make the most of your human capital, while creating a more fulfilling work environment.
Recognising success and regularly reviewing where projects are heading will foster further innovation and success and promote a sense of team and individual accomplishment. The yacht will run smoother, and relationships will grow stronger, but be sure to allow for some failure as this is part of the building blocks for success.
Leadership extends beyond work performance. It’s important to get to know everyone and manage their needs. The happy lively ones look after themselves, but look out for signs of anyone feeling the strain of a long season or perhaps a problem at home. Addressing issues early helps resolve them swiftly, while missing the signals can lead to an unexpected and needless departure.
Where does onshore management come in? Out of sight, but not out of mind, their involvement is critical; a good management company should support you in times of need. The management are an extension of the yacht team, a direct link to industry changes, certification, accounts and owner’s requests. Regular communication is imperative, as is an understanding of the pressures and needs on both ends of the line.
Your thoughtful management of The Human Element is a combination of choosing the right people, providing the right training and creating an environment where everyone feels valued, motivated and part of the team. Steering away from antiquated models of top-down management, where crewmembers are more akin to factory workers on an assembly line, can help you capitalise on what has the potential to be your yacht’s greatest asset – the human one.
Captain Giles Sangster, Master Unlimited (who wrote this article while crossing the Atlantic) has worked for the same owner for 20 years.
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