I wake up every morning wondering if I'll be piloting my business across placid seas or doing battle with a perfect storm.
Knowing that no entrepreneur can predict the future, I turned to Hakan Svedung, a Norwegian Cruise Line captain whose 40 years of experience can help Inc.com readers plot the right course for their businesses:
1.) Give the crew their due. Captain Svedung currently skippers a ship staffed by 1,650 crew with 69 different nationalities. Sounds like a floating United Nations. Svedung says the success of any voyage rests entirely on the crew's happiness. He ensures this by having the head of human resources report directly to him (something too few CEOs do).
He'll receive an overall 'crew happiness' report from HR. But, that's not nearly enough for Svedung. He finds time every single day to walk his ship from stem to stern and asks every employee how he/she feels.
"A happy crew ensures happy passengers which, in turn, assures a successful voyage," says Svedung.
I wonder how many foul-mouthed, win-at-all-costs Wall Street CEOs would agree with Captain Svedung?
2.) Take a sounding. Svedung starts every single day with a five-minute meeting with his bridge four top managers. He also has a weekly management meeting with his ship's 10 different department heads. "I do so to lay out my plans for the coming day. I also want to know their goals, and vice versa. And, I want to know about any possible problems. Trust me, learning about a steering issue is not something you want to find out about in the midst of a raging storm," said Svedung.
How many entrepreneurs set aside five minutes every morning to prepare for the day ahead? I know I don't, but plan to begin doing so tomorrow.
3.) Challenge and response. Svedung is a big believer in what he calls challenge and response meetings. He invites officers of every rank, as well as his key managers, to challenge the status quo. Their challenge is then discussed before he makes the ultimate decision. "This assures my next generation managers feel they have a voice in our ship's course and course-of-action," he said. "That almost guarantees they'll happily follow my instructions."
Do you stop to ask your middle managers for their thoughts on the business?
4.) Hand over fist. Lots of entrepreneurs believe they're great listeners. But, Svedung is a five-star listener. In addition to the daily management meetings and his challenge-and response sessions, he listens intently to his passengers. "Passengers are so much more informed and better educated about sailing now than they were 40 years ago, so, when they ask about rogue waves, on-board illnesses, running aground or any other subject that may worry them, I don't hesitate to answer their questions."
Svedung's hotel director also keeps a suggestion box that crew and passengers alike are invited to use. "I cannot tell you how many small, but important, course corrections I've made over the years thanks to the suggestion box," he stated.
Note to entrepreneurs: Ever think about going old school and installing a 'Dear CEO' suggestion box next to the volleyball court or ping-pong table?
5.) Be above board. Svedung prides himself on answering every single question and never, ever, lying. "The fundamental key to building trust, among crew and passengers alike, is always telling the truth. It builds, and maintains, trust. And what leader can lead without the complete trust of his employees and customers alike?" he asked. "So, God forbid there's a fire on board, I'd immediately communicate that news and assure passengers we train every single day for that and every other conceivable emergency."
How do you alert your customers when things go south on your end? Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
6.) Toe the line. Simulating a crisis and evaluating his crew's response is part and parcel of a Norwegian Cruise ship captain's training. Svedung said that every crew member from bartender to purser is not only trained to excel at his particular job but, critically, in what to do in case of an emergency.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that far too many companies wait until an emergency to figure out who does what during a crisis instead of planning for such an eventuality in advance.
7.) Lead by example. Svedung says he took the best practices of his mentors and flushed the bad ones down the bilge. He now takes great pride in sharing those learning lessons with proteges.
Fast-moving CEOs might want to think about mentoring their direct reports as they bring yet another new product to market or raise another line of capital. Are you prepping your team to one-day replace you or steaming straight into an iceberg when it comes to shared institutional knowledge?
Captain Svedung may not be running the fastest-growing technology company in Silicon Valley, but I guarantee the hot shots who are could learn invaluable management lessons from this salty seafarer. I know I have.