The Right Crew In The Right Boat

With only a few notable exceptions, I’ve been fortunate to sail with very compatible crews. All were interested in the same destination (or no destination in particular,) shared duties (pleasant and unpleasant,) enjoyed each other’s company and gamely faced whatever interesting challenges came our way. The very few exceptions were a drag, especially on long or difficult hauls with no opportunities to let others off the boat. (Since “walking the plank” has long fell out of favor.)

Jim Collins (Good To Great) emphasized that an organization’s or leader’s first task should be “getting the right people on the bus.” My take, of course, is Boat crew flickr Nathan Hobdayto get the right people in the boat; in addition to being nautically inclined, I can stretch the analogy further.  Buses are customarily for shorter rides, and their routes more predictable; sailing can be days without sight of land, with constant course adjustments. Bus drivers drive; boat captains take their turns at the wheel, but bear added responsibility for everything associated with a successful voyage, seaworthiness of a boat, safety and crew morale. Buses occasionally encounter rain and snow storms, but none where buses and passengers disappear forever. I could go on; the point is to emphasize the critical importance of getting hiring and retention right in our organizations.

I was struck by a Silicon Valley CEO’s remarks recently: that a new company’s culture is determined by its first 10 or 12 hires. So not only is it important to get the right people in your “boat,” but to be very selective about those you take on first. You first hires / “crew” will for better or worse set the tone and direct “the way things are done around here;” you will want to make sure the right messages get conveyed.

Not long after hearing the CEO’s remarks, I saw research comparing primary hiring criteria of higher vs. lower performing organizations. (“The People Profit Chain,” Institute for Corporate Productivity.) At the top of the list for higher performing companies were “passion for the work” and “positive attitudes towards peers and customers;” “intelligence” and “technical job skills” were much lower. For lower-performing organizations, the ranking of hiring criteria was reversed. The same study identified “shared values” as one of five key high performance indicators (along with perception of the company as a good place to work, receptiveness to change and readiness to meet new challenges.) Actually, these factors come close to my criteria for whom to sail with; get the right people in the boat.

Here are some guidelines for getting the right people in your “boat,” keeping the right ones in your boat and getting the wrong ones out of your boat:

  • Be clear about your values and the culture that you want to shape; translate those to criteria for use selecting your “crew.”
  • Keep communicating your values and culture aspirations – how you want to reach your destination together – and most importantly, model them.
  • Reinforce your values and culture aspirations by aligning hiring, onboarding, training, performance management, promotions and recognition / pay with them.
  • Be very selective when hiring and careful when promoting. You will pay later by filling a role prematurely and neglecting to hire for values-fit vs. just technical skills.
  • Audit your organizations’ systems and practices regularly to assure they are consistent with your values and desired culture. You can learn more about tools for that purpose at
  • Be diligent about getting the wrong people off the boat; they can do immeasurable harm. My advice to a physician practice once was toRub-a-dub cartoon buy a partner out who regularly mistreated staff and sewed seeds of discontent everywhere. Distracted by his high surgery volume and revenue, they couldn’t pull the trigger; after a few more years of poisoning the well and driving away staff the physician left on his own for a competitor. I’ve witnessed more self-described “collegial” organizations imploding from the inside by not expelling “dissemblers” than those succumbing to external competition.

We want to make sure that we’re in the right boat, too, and not on one headed where we don’t want to go or with a crew whose values are incompatible with ours. A good friend and very experienced sailor delivers owners’ boats across the Great Lakes. One owner wanted to accompany my friend on delivery of the owner’s boat from New York to Duluth. The owner was a micromanager about things he didn’t know about, and in additional ways made the voyage so unpleasant that my friend disembarked and left the owner to his own devices halfway to Duluth. ‘Better to part company then before heading out to the open sea when stakes are higher. (See “Is It Time To Part Company?” for ten signs of employers not to sign on with or that you might want to leave:)

Guidelines for assuring that we’re in the right boat parallel those for getting the right people in our boat:

  • Be clear about your “3 Ps:” purpose, principles and priorities. As John Adams put it: “If we don’t know where we stand we’ll fall for anything.”
  • Interview prospective employers to learn about their aspirations and values-in-practice (vs. just espoused values.) Just as employers need to practice behavioral interviewing, look for signs and ask for examples in employer interviews to determine if they practice what they preach. Check references by talking with current and former employees.
  • Organizations and cultures change, especially after reorganizations, mergers or acquisitions. Be diligent about signals that your “ship” may be headed in a different direction or for unfavorable waters. Signals include who gets hired or promoted, recognition, pay and whether behaviors match espoused principles and priorities.
  • Even if we’re happy with the “boat” and crew we have, circumstances change. Keep your options open and an eye out for situations that might be a better fit if time comes to “jump ship.”

Boat crew 3

As “captain” or crew, are you clear about your destination, values and expectations so you find yourself in the right boat with the right crew?

Are you prepared and courageous enough to make a change if you find yourself in the wrong boat or with the wrong crew?


To Laurence J. Peter’s: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else,” I add this corollary: If you don’t agree on where you’re going, you will all end up somewhere different.


About Al Watts

inTEgro owner and veteran consultant with 25+ years' experience serving leaders and their organizations. Expert facilitator, strategic planning consultant and coach for senior teams and boards. Author of Navigating Integrity (Brio Books, April 2011) - a practical guide for positioning Integrity as a winning strategy.
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2 Responses to The Right Crew In The Right Boat

  1. Hi Al,
    As always, relevant and interesting blog post. You are very right to emphasize the importance of getting the wrong people off the boat. As the candor-coach that you know I am, you will not be surprised by my comment that especially when deciding on who to keep and who to promote, clarity about expectations and above all the courage to be respectfully (and if needed brutally) candid about performance are crucial. Fear for tension and conflict, the need (or addiction) to be liked, and unrealistic standards for difficult conversations keep too many people from saying it as it is, without sugarcoating or beating around the bush.

    • avatar Al Watts says:

      Thanks, Carolien. And I would emphasize exercising candor respectfully, which people have different standards about. It’s also important not to confuse fear of being disliked with respect for maintaining a relationship if that is our intention. Sometimes “brutal candor” or disrespectful directness can also stem from fear of a different kind.

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