A senior officer directly shapes the seafarers’ perception of the organisation and their jobs. This means he can affect both the seafarers’ willingness to go above and beyond as well as their intent to stay in the company.
We are at a course location two hours’ drive outside Gdansk, Poland. 24 senior officers from four different countries have been gathered for five days to learn something about themselves and how to lead others. Now the time has come for the participants to share their personal reflections about what each of them will do when the everyday working life on board is back on the agenda.
‘Good afternoon gentlemen, my name is Jacek – and I’m an alcoholic!’
The other participants break into relieving laughter and the nervous atmosphere seems to be slightly lightened.
Jacek wipes the sweat off his forehead while he tries to control his nerves. We often experience that the course participants find it taboo-breaking to share their personal development targets with each other, however, it is our experience that the fact that it is taboo-breaking makes them remember the targets more clearly at a later stage.
Three weeks ago he and the other participants have received an e-mail with an online questionnaire in which they are asked to describe their professional behaviour, i.e. the behaviour they show when they work as officers on board the vessels.
On the background of the questionnaire data we have generated a personal profile for each course participant in the form of a report describing their behavioural strengths and weaknesses. These reports, which are strictly confidential, may concern the course participant’s ability to make necessary unpopular decisions, work with changes, work systematically, etc.
The purpose is to describe how the behaviour turns out/appear right here and now so as to create a point of departure for the development journey to be commenced by this course.
The contents of the course have been about good leadership behaviour – what is it? When we google the concept ‘leadership’ we get 464 million hits, and since we only have 5 days at our disposal for this course it is important that we prioritise our contents from day one and choose to focus only on subjects that we know will work in a maritime context.
On the last day, when all theories and tools have been presented, discussed and elaborated the course participants must go through a final exercise in which they discuss in groups the optimum behaviour profile for a captain or a chief engineer. The purpose is to create role consciousness, or in other words, establish a target for the behavioural change we want to achieve.
So, while the written profile report creates the point of departure for the personal development voyage the last exercise is about where this voyage will end.
Jacek, who has now gained control of his notes as well as his own nerves, starts reading aloud:
’I have become conscious about the fact that I probably have a tendency to focus too much on the detail which does not have a positive effect on creating good relations to my junior officers. When I get back on board I will therefore focus on delegating more responsibility. I will also try to become better at communicating my expectations more clearly – in this case I will try to apply my newly learned feedback techniques. My third and last development target is about working more constructively with dealing with conflicts. I have to admit that I have always tried to avoid conflicts!’
Jacek looks up from his notes and smiles in relief. I thank him for his contribution and ask if he would like to give some general feedback on the course – positive or negative. He now has a faraway look in his eyes, pondering, and then he slowly starts to explain:
’It is my experience that at sea we have often praised the principle ‘learning by doing’. We gain new skills, first and foremost by reading manuals, and for me it has worked alright, by and large, when I think of the large number of technical work tasks I have carried out during the years. On this course I have become aware that when we talk about subjects like motivation and communication this is a completely different ballgame. This is not something we can learn just by reading a manual. It has indeed been an eye opener for me and therefore I think that this course should be compulsory for all officers in the company. I am sure that my work life would have been different if I had participated 31 years ago when I was appointed a master.
I thank him and ask a follow-up question; ’well, does that mean you didn’t find anything unsatisfactory?’
He gives me a wry smile: ‘Soon I will retire. I do feel annoyed that I have only 3 years left to try all this out.’