Seafarer lessons for corporate soldiers

Have you ever wondered what is a life onboard of a container vessel? 90% of world trade is carried by container ships and we have about 50,00 of them. Lots of people are employed in this sector and seafarer job can be many times very dangerous and challenging. I have seen an electrician “climbing” a pretty high stack of containers and it looked scary. Most of them leave their home and families for at least couple of months to stay on-board.

I had a unique opportunity to sail on a triple E-class Maersk container vessel from Felixstowe to Rotterdam port and spend a long weekend with seafarers.

Obviously, the environment over there is different from our offices but I found so many insights useful for myself. Let me share with you some of them which I think we could apply in our office environment. Additionally you can read my blog post about 3 Lessons learnt from working in the biggest shipping line.

Empathetic leadership

Life on the sea can be demanding. Most of the seafarers sail for months on without seeing their families. One of the seafarer told “I was a hero for my son till he was 6years old. Now he is fifteen and I am not cool at all.. I am always away”.

Even though the captain holds the highest responsibility, he says that the real boss here is the one who is closest to end of their shift (i.e. going back home).

Empathetic leadership is important to build strong teams by showing care towards your people.

Empathetic leadership is thoroughly needed to build a strong team.

Role model what you preach

I was amazed how everything is structured on the vessel. Two separate eating areas depending on which clothes you wear, no dirty shoes in the living area etc. I have seen Second Engineer removing his shoes (I would say very clean ones from the outside) before entering a lift to reach his room. It is a clear signal to the staff that there are no exceptions for the rules agreed even for seniors.

Always and everywhere role model what you preach to earn respect and trust of your team.

Employees deserve rest and sleep

In the early 20th century Robert Owen introduced a campaign to have “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Ford Motor company followed introduced eight hours work day and has seen radical improvements in productivity and profit. On a container vessel seafarers work in three shifts each lasting maximum eight hours. I have seen leadership heavily worried if someone needs to work an extra hour in a business-critical situation. Unfortunately, I haven’t observed a lot of this in the office environment.

Numerous recent studies show that employees experience more and more work-related stress mainly caused by a heavy workload. It seems that we need to go back to the “basics” and ensure we have eight hours work days.

Team with a shared purpose does not need “team building”

Team members on the vessel change often thus you are constantly working with new people. It was interesting to see how quickly they bond with each other. I was observing a new joiner who just started his shift. You could clearly see that very quickly he became a fully integrated crew member. When I have asked him how do you connect with all so quickly, he told me “in the first two days you ask few standard questions and immediately become a part of the family”. In the end you do not need special team building activities if you are able to put people together who share the same purpose.

Although talking to the captain he said that internet has had it’s impact on team spirit; “We used to talk longer and in more depth after our dinners…these days everyone rushes to their cabin to use mobile internet”.

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