Crew Management

Tips to Creating Happy Crew on Board

4 May 2021By Kate Lardy
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Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Kate Lardy shares eight strategies to improve crew dynamics during trying times on board.

Nobody saw this past year coming. It’s no exaggeration to say that the challenges of a global pandemic have infiltrated life at every level. To some extent yacht crew have been protected, working within an onboard bubble with far less exposure to the public than most other industries, but the very nature of an isolated bubble creates its own problematic issues. “We are social creatures, and a connection and a sense of belonging is one of our most basic needs,” points out Karine Rayson, director of The Crew Coach.

Take a small group of multinational individuals, forbid them from interacting with anyone off the yacht, throw in unreliable Wi-Fi, add the anxiety of a potentially killer virus penetrating their bubble, and expect their welfare to suffer. During this most challenging time, it’s more important than ever to have a cohesive team on board. Dockwalk speaks with three team-building specialists to learn their top tips on how to support a happy crew.

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1/ Hire Team Players

A great team player is honest, a good listener, and open to learning; they have a sense of humor, a positive attitude, a willingness to go the extra mile, integrity, and humility. “Yet when we are looking for the next crewmember it’s rare that we mention those points. Instead, we tend to focus on years of experience and qualifications,” says Karen Passman, founder of Impact Crew, which provides team and leadership development for the superyacht industry.

Expanding the interview process to get a better sense of a potential crewmember’s personality is a strategy that has worked well for captains with a history of retaining crew, such as Capt. John Crupi, whose hiring process spans two months of interviews, daywork, and crew integration during the yacht’s yard period.

2/ Define a Shared Goal

While developing a high-performing team takes time, there are shortcuts that can expedite that process, says Sara Ballinger, managing partner at Crew-Glue, which specializes in coaching and team building for superyacht crew. One of these is to have each department — or the whole crew in the case of a smaller yacht — work out what they want to achieve from their season. “Teamwork is about having a shared goal, a shared purpose. So get together as a group and define your objectives and goals,” she suggests, whether it’s getting bigger tips, learning new skills, or just having fun. “Try to find a way to create a vision that supports everybody’s individual desires, as well as delivering an exceptional experience for guests.”

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3/ Find a Greater Purpose

Working as a team to make a positive impact on the world is an excellent way to improve crew morale and promote healthy relationships, says Rayson of The Crew Coach, which offers counseling and coaching services to yacht crew as well as leadership training and team building. “It takes away team rivalry or competition because your focus is on joining forces to serve,” she says.

M/Y Slipstream is an excellent example. In addition to delivering supplies to hurricane-ravaged islands, the crew put 2.5 percent of all charter tips in a charity fund that is used for any cause close to the crew’s heart. They’ve donated to help hurricane victims, orphans, and even family members suffering from life-changing illnesses.

4/ Create a Culture of Positivity

Challenge your crew to say something nice to everyone they meet at least once a day. This simple tip from Ballinger is grounded in the idea that positivity breeds positivity. “Being nice makes you feel nice,” she says. “Psychologically, it tunes your brain into more positive ways of thinking.”

And smile, adds Passman, citing the example of around-the-world solo sailor Alex Thomson, who has blogged: “Happy people perform better. And — although it may sound very simple — the easiest way to feel happy is to look happy. So even when times are tough, try to smile.”

“Things will go wrong,” Passman says, as they have done for Thomson in the Vendée Globe. “But you have a choice about how you feel. If you put on a smile, amongst other things the body also releases endorphins, and after twenty minutes or so you feel happy and will be more productive.”

Forget IQ — What’s your EQ?

EQ, or emotional quotient, is a measure of emotional intelligence and one of Sara Ballinger’s specialties at Crew-Glue. “As somebody who’s had to work quite hard at my own emotional intelligence, I come from a place of experience,” she says. “I think of it as having a toddler, a teenager, and an adult in my brain when I’m talking about emotional intelligence.”

Developing emotional intelligence can help crew relations. Ballinger recommends the book The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters. “It gives you insight into why you behave the way you do sometimes when you know you’re being stupid and irrational. You learn to recognize your trigger and engage your adult brain.”

Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson, a book about how different personality types clash or click, is also helpful. “It’s all about getting a sense of why we’re different and why that doesn’t need to be an issue if you are able to understand yourself better,” Ballinger says.

5/ Promote Inter-Departmental Relations

A lot of the bickering on board can be between departments, with the common complaint being one department doesn’t work as hard as another. To these objectors, Passman suggests work shadowing across departments to better understand each other’s roles and challenges.

She has seen this work. “I was chatting with a guy who said they had about three or four years’ longevity with his crew (of 19). I said, ‘That’s fantastic, what do you think is at the heart of it?’ He said, ‘We are all cross-skilled. It doesn’t matter who is at the stern of the boat, if the tender needs launching it could be deck, interior, engineering — anyone can do it.’”

6/ Implement Performance Reviews

For any crew larger than four, Rayson recommends reviews be built into the department heads’ job descriptions to keep tabs on the pulse of the team. “They shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to slam someone for what they haven’t done but rather an opportunity to create a place of safety and support so that all parties can work collaboratively on meeting the overarching goals of the yacht,” she says.

This is a service that The Crew Coach performs, which Rayson says increases productivity levels, job satisfaction, and morale. “Coming on board as a neutral party, I have found that running my crew opinion surveys and 360-degree performance reviews have been invaluable in pinpointing underlying crew tensions, miscommunications, and learning gaps, which lead to fractured relationships and low crew morale. Once I have identified the red flags, I then develop a customized learning and training program to resolve misunderstandings between crew and close any learning gaps.”

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7/ Consider a Wellbeing Rep

Just as there is a crew safety rep that touches base with crew about any safety issues, Passman proposes there could be someone to deal with wellbeing issues. “If you are not feeling listened to or you’re upset about something, you have somebody you can go and speak to in confidence on board,” she says. “Sometimes just talking about it is enough. Or things could be taken forward if several people are saying the same thing about a particular crewmember who, for example, may be bullying. You can have zero tolerance to bullying, but I think the bigger challenge is how do you do zero tolerance to bullying.” Her suggestions — in addition to there being someone to talk to — are that the captain and department heads model ethical behavior, are approachable, and deal with any issues early.

8/ Participate in a Team-building Workshop

Getting a crew to a high-performance level will happen naturally over time, but busy superyachts don’t usually have the luxury of time. Experts like The Crew Coach, Crew-Glue, and Impact Crew can speed up the process by helping crewmembers understand each other better and formulate strategies to working more efficiently together. “Team-building activities are designed to bring out team spirit and enhance collaboration. Crew crave real connections, and that comes with being your authentic self in these more relaxed settings,” Rayson says.

Yet Ballinger has found that some captains who have no budget for team building find it difficult to position their requests. “They’re afraid it will suggest that they’re not doing a good job as a captain. This is really unfair because they are captains, not team development specialists. It’s like asking me to take the boat out while the captain does a team briefing.”

In the corporate world, team building is commonplace. “A CEO wouldn’t bat an eyelid; they’d write it into their strategy,” Ballinger says. Considering that many owners are captains of industry, and that many captains compare themselves to small-business CEOs, she wonders if the perceived criticism is real or imagined.

This article originally ran in the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.

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