Turbulent waters ahead? Bring the engine room closer to the bridge

Published on
February 26, 2015

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Evidence at the recent trial of Costa Concordia captain, Francesco Schettino — sentenced to 16 years’ prison for the 32 deaths — noted that “he barely got his shoes wet” in his rush to escape the sinking vessel, leaving his passengers and crew to their terrible fates.

As the litany of poor decision-making, ego, and even poorer judgment unfolded in court, one thing became very clear — leadership was missing in action.

The captain claimed to have ordered the helmsman to turn the rudder to port to avoid the rocks, but the helmsman went starboard instead. He allegedly delayed the mayday call for more than an hour, arguably exacerbating the tragedy’s scale. He was apparently distracted by his dalliance with a comely crew member. There was a systemic failure of communication with his crew, and it seems clear that self-interest overrode duty of care as evacuations finally got under way. So much for the captain going down with the ship.

Schettino’s elbow-sharpening as he jostled for the lifeboat probably rings some bells for the corporate world. All too often, we hear of those ill-equipped to lead, of decision-making skewed by self-interest, of failure to anticipate, act, or communicate in a timely way when the going looks like getting stormy.

Thankfully most corporate sagas do not have a final chapter as grim the Costa Concordia’s, but Schettino’s leadership shortcomings and much recent talk of ‘captain’s calls’ got us thinking about the lessons to be learned for communicating in turbulent times.

If you’ve been on a big ship, you’ll know that the captain’s bridge is a long, winding way from the engine room where the real work happens. The same is true for many land-lubber organisations.

Logic and experience show that the further you are from the source of information, the harder it is to receive and act on a clear, credible message.

So if the economic sirens in your sector are getting louder, it’s time to turn your thoughts to preparing your engine room for the storm. Team communication alone won’t save you, but it’s an invaluable buffer — a resilience-builder — for when things get tough.

  • Bring your leadership team close — Don’t bunker down. Keep leaders in the loop, trust them to share news with their own teams. Don’t stop having difficult, future-focused conversations.
  • Be visible, accessible, involved — Go walkabout regularly, talk to people informally, find out what’s really going on.
  • Honesty is the best policy — People generally cope with change, and can deal with bad news. But they don’t like not knowing. Need them to help? Make them part of the solution.
  • Step outside the norm — Not getting traction from your regular internal communication? Try something different. Focus on the challenges, and think about how to harness your team’s commitment and ideas to get through.
  • Keep the engines running — Hard decisions may be inevitable, but with some communication credibility on the scoreboard, the fallout and the re-set should be less onerous. Don’t ever stop celebrating what’s going well.

Looking for inspiration? A couple of recent Ted Talks give food for thought on leading through adversity, creating trust, and genuinely tapping into people’s power to innovate.

For further ideas on how to improve leadership communication in the workplace, please contact Janet Houen, Principal Client Director at janet.houen@rowland.com.au or (07) 3229 4499.