Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bossman Blues

One of the things that comes with a master’s license is supervisory responsibility, and it’s the part of the job that the CFRs, International Rules and USCG-approved courses don’t do much to prepare you for.

In my first captain’s job, I fired a deckhand off the boat about five minutes before a trip. I had asked him to do something, for the third time, and he looked at me and said: “F*ck you.” My response was just as direct: “Get off the boat, now.” He did, management backed me up, and that was that.

In the past two years, though, that sort of experience has been rare. Much more common is working with a crew in which everyone knows their jobs and does them without complaint and without being prompted.

Unlicensed crew members who have been doing their jobs for years can be great resources for relatively new captains, like me. It can be a fun, productive and collegial relationship.

This isn’t my first rodeo as a supervisor, and because I’ve been on both sides of that relationship I try to be smart about the way I manage people I’m responsible for. I’ve lived by the “praise publically, correct privately” dictum. I go to bat for my guys, too: whether it’s getting someone a long-delayed pay raise or the supplies he needs to do his job – I consider those things to be part of my job.

And I grind and paint and lend a hand with engine oil changes.

A lot of my opinions about leadership come from my experiences -- both good and bad -- in the Army. On the positive side, I had one commander, an academy grad who today is a friend, who exemplified good leadership: He was the first one up, the last to go to bed, the last through the chow line, and he wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the field with his troops. He was fair, but decisive.

And more than anything, we knew he had our backs – when sh*t rolled downhill, he’d put himself between the giant ball of dung and us.

So, I try to live up to that example. I don’t always succeed, and I’m still learning as I go.

A long time ago I put one of my best friends on a formal performance improvement plan and then, when he didn’t come through, fired him. I felt righteous for about five minutes. It destroyed our friendship and caused untold hardship for him and his family. Was I justified in firing him? By the letter of the law, sure. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely not; it was like employing a grenade in a fistfight.

This topic today because last week things came to a head with one of the deckhands on my current boat. Nice enough guy, I thought, who started the same time I did. We’ve worked through some issues, mostly arising out of his opinion that a.) he’s “basically a captain without a license,” and b.) apparently, I’m so new at this I can’t possibly make a good decision without his input.

I thought we had agreed that if he ever saw me – or anyone else – about to do something unsafe, he’d use his Stop Work Authority (as he is obligated to do, under our company policy). If there were three or four safe ways to accomplish something and I chose an option different from the one he preferred, he could tell me about it later but in the moment he just needs to do what I tell him without arguing or offering alternatives.

Well, during an offload at the beginning of the week, it didn’t go quite that way. Without going into the dreary detail, there were some issues with PPE (not worn), with communication (not effective) and rigging (unsafe), and it culminated with him throwing a radio on the counter in the wheelhouse and “bowing up” on me – trying to get in my face while I was at the stern controls holding the boat at a platform.

Everything was correctable up until that last moment.

After I calmed-down, and after we completed the evolution, I decided to offer him a choice: I could write him up and he could take his chances on keeping his job, or he could find another boat. Before I could even voice the options, he told the more senior captain on the boat he wanted off at the next crew change.

I still haven’t decided how to handle this. The captains swapped watches mid-hitch, as is the routine on this boat, so the deckhand is working opposite me right now.

It is my nature, I guess, to wonder what I could have done differently to change the outcome in a situation like this. And running someone off seems like an admission of failure – if I was smarter, or more patient, or communicated more clearly, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to that point.

On the other hand, some guys are just knuckleheads and nothing I say or do will ever make them stop being knuckleheads.

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