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Lessons from the boat, Part 2

When captain serves the crew

“If you're a CEO and you understand the problems of your staff, get rid of the problems. Then let them get on with it. Give people a lot of freedom, and if you have the right people, it’s amazing what they will do.” Chris Baird, managing director, Fusion Entertainment

Captains in boating and in business alike often gain a reputation for cajoling, complaining and yelling at their crews on a regular basis. In my experience as both a leadership coach and a racing sailboat skipper, I find that approach is rarely productive in the long term. Things work better when leaders spend less time with their mouths open and more time listening, asking questions and working out how to support their teams.

Before a race, my attention is on setting up crewmembers for success with equipment that works and enough practice to smooth out the kinks in our maneuvers. After the start, my job is to steer a steady course, listen to what others are telling me, ask for occasional tweaks to our sail trim and communicate any major course changes ahead. Mainly, I let them get on with their jobs, including solving the occasional snafu without giving them high-volume advice or, worse, leaving the helm untended and jumping in to try to fix the problem.

I was reminded of this when Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers of America Association, showed me his group’s organizational chart.

“The reality is those on the front lines have the biggest impact on us as an organization, and whatever I can do to help them is most important,” he told me. “We think of our org chart as an inverted pyramid. I’m at the bottom, supporting those at the top who are working on the front lines with our customers. It’s my job to teach, provide tools and set the frame of reference for those above me. That’s the true leadership opportunity — to support the team.”

There are many reasons why a supportive kind of leadership like this works, but in talking with Gruhn and other industry leaders, I heard key themes again and again related to empowering staff, earning their trust and showing up every day with enthusiasm.

Empowering the crew

Step one is to knock off the micromanaging.

Chris Baird, managing director of Fusion Entertainment, says, “You employ people to do a job, so don’t micromanage them. Instead, if you’re a CEO and you understand the problems of your staff, get rid of the problems. Then let them get on with it. Give people a lot of freedom and, if you have the right people, it’s amazing what they will do.”

Frank Peterson, president of the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, agrees.

“I try not to micromanage,” he says. “When it comes to tactics, my team comes in, gives me their pitch, explains the cost, the KPIs [key performance indicators], and if they are confident in their plan, I let them run with it. Afterwards, they bring a report and tell me why it worked or didn’t. I give them the flexibility to do their jobs, because that’s how you innovate.”

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, also says leaders should make sure employees know what’s expected and give them the tools to succeed.

“Then get out of the way,” Dammrich says. “When they have questions, try to be responsive and make quick decisions.”

Dammrich says he works hard not to make decisions others can make, but admits he’s not always successful with that. The same thing can happen on a boat. Sometimes there isn’t time to stop and talk a decision through until later.

But whenever I can, I find that turning the question back to the asker usually results in a short discussion, a better-informed decision and something learned by both captain and crew.

Earning trust

Setting up your team to succeed is easier when you have a personal relationship with your team member and begin to earn his trust. Otherwise, you may not learn there’s a problem in the first place.

Eric Braitmayer, president of Imtra Corporation, walks around the facility every day to see how things are going.

“We have a family vibe,” he says, “and I like to find out about people’s kids and see how they are doing. Often, they’ll tell me things that are influencing their ability to do their job, but would never come to my office to discuss. It sets a tone that lets them know it’s OK to bring things up.”

Kevin Hutchinson, founder and CEO of MyTaskIt, touches base with staff members as well, whether in person, by phone or in one-on-one lunches, developing relationships and hearing what people are thinking about.

“I know their priorities,” he says, “and if they know I know, and I ask them how we are doing on X, Y and Z, they know their work is important because I’m paying attention to it. I’m not just working on things up in the clouds.”

David Wollard, senior director Leisure Division at Webasto Thermo & Comfort North America, says, “My greatest responsibility is toward my team and how I serve them. To do that, I work hard to open lines of communication and develop trust. They learn that not only do I ask them to help me, but I also expect them to ask me for help too.”

Hutchinson says his favorite question for staff is, What can I do to help?

“I can tell you at least a hundred times where people have said, ‘All we really need is X,’” he says. “I’ll ask them, ‘What’s the upside and downside to that’ and then go talk to their manager.”

When he does, sometimes he finds there’s more to the story or maybe another alternative. But whatever the result, he gets back to the employee, a step that builds trust.

Generating enthusiasm

Good leaders can motivate with words or by example. Either way, they exhibit a consistent passion for the work at hand. In any crew, this passion is infectious and becomes a positive part of the culture.

Baird says, “When your staff is looking around, they want to see that their leader is enthusiastic and passionate. They can’t see the pressures and stress you’re under — you have to make sure you’re coming across with passion.”

Braitmayer says he focuses on a “positive mind-set” and adds, “Most people here say I wear my emotions pretty openly, and that influences others. If I’m not having a good day, I work hard to keep that down. And if I’m feeling good, I’ll spread it around.”

Dammrich says, “Be optimistic. Show up that way — energized — and lead by example. I won’t ask anybody to do something I am not willing to do myself. As a small example, at the last Miami show, when we had a crunch time, I helped check IDs at the front gate.”

In our boat, I feel the same way about wet-sanding the bottom for a smoother, faster finish; cleaning and lubing the inside of the winches; or pumping rainwater out of the bilge. Not only does my contribution say to others that nobody is above doing a gritty job, but I also find that every time I sweat a small detail, I’m reminded of the value of doing each job well.

And I also find that I’m more likely to acknowledge a crewmember each time she does a small job well, which reinforces a sense of value, teamwork and trust yet again.


John Burnham is a leadership coach, independent writer and editor. He is former editor of Sailing World, Cruising World,, YachtWorld and Boat Trader. As a competitive sailor, he has led teams to world and national titles in the International One-Design, Shields and other classes, most recently winning the 2016 Shields Nationals. If you’d like to share leadership lessons from your boat that align with your leadership in business, email John at

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.



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