Lessons from The Crew at Deadliest Catch

Leadership lessons are EVERYWHERE

silver fish on white plastic container

The last few years have seen an explosion of reality TV shows that show the seedy underside of the participants personalities whether it is a Housewife from [insert city] to a screaming judge or celebrity chef to a scheming housemate.  Now most of us will never be sent off to a deserted island to survive the elements or put behind the wheel of a tractor trailer set on a few hundred miles of pure ice.  But most of us go to work each day and recognize the characters we see on TV in our co-workers, bosses and subordinates.  Truth be told, I am a big fan of some of these shows.  I understand they are scripted and edited and packaged to hold our intrigue but hidden among the manufactured dramas are some leadership lessons we can all take to heart.  My favorite is Deadliest Catch featuring a competition of crab boat captains in the Bering Sea to see who can net the greatest number of crab.  It’s also one of the few shows that show people getting injured and exposed to the cruel elements within which they work.  These, generally uneducated but hard-working, gristled veterans of the Bering Sea can show us many ways to treat staff and create productive work environments whether that is in an office, construction site, or deck of a crab boat.

➤ Provide Timely Feedback on Job Performance

The short duration of a crab season requires constant performance observation and feedback between captain and staff.  While corporate settings would generally not support the manner and language used on a crab boat, the nature of the feedback is to the point, geared toward achieving the team goals, for the development of staff (think Greenhorn to Deckhand or Office Engineer to Assistant Resident Engineer), and for the overall cohesiveness of the team.  Regardless of the captain, they are direct and forthright.  They are honest and direct.   Too often we hear from staff that annual performance evaluations have no bearing on them and it is sometimes difficult to convince them otherwise.  Perhaps the evaluation is not truly honest or providing feedback to the employee – as opposed to the HR department requirements – to help in personal and professional growth.  Just because the evaluation is mandated to managers and viewed as a burden, there is an opportunity to have a formal discussion as a continuation of ongoing feedback and evaluation happening throughout the year.

➤ Set Clear Expectations

The deck of a crab boat is a dangerous work environment and requires a certain ballet among the crew members where each does his part and supports his fellow crew mate.  With defined roles, each knows explicitly – nothing implied or left to chance or interpretation – what his job is, when he needs to do it and how it is to be completed.  Our own project teams should not be any different than the crew on a crab boat.  The captain is the project manager and sets the tone and direction for team.  He is responsible for laying out the roles and responsibilities as well as the hierarchy of the project team.  In addition to the project manager setting clear expectations, it is incumbent upon the team members to understand and accept their roles and ask for clarification if there is any confusion.

➤ Lead By Example

The captains will come out of the wheel house at least once an episode to discuss what they crew is or is not doing correctly.  For many, these are family businesses that stretch back to prior generations and where they learned by doing – after being shown by the veterans on the crew.  For the up-and-comers with advancement potential, they are invited to the wheel house for some one-on-one instruction on navigation, positioning, and strategy.  Too often, project managers never seem to find the time to offer the direction and instruction necessary for staff members to grow and advance.  Making it even worse, they frequently behave in a manner which is counterproductive – lacking timely communication skills, providing confusing directions, clouding the larger picture.

➤ Be Flexible and Adapt

As professionals, we generally do not have to contend with 35-foot seas, sub-zero temperatures, or massive ice floes.  In the Bering Sea, the ships contend with these challenges and more.  In such a harsh environment, the captains and crews need to be prepared to change course at a moments notice and maintain the workflow.  We often forget about flexibility and adaptability when completing a project or managing our staff.  How often have you heard a project manager say “that’s not the way we planned it?” or struggle to make sense of a new client request or discovery of a previously unknown condition.  It is precisely in that moment that a project manager needs to take a step back, breathe deeply, assess the situation and chart a new course.   Like the captains, we need to consider the possible challenges faced, formulate strategies to deal with them (possibilities vs. probabilities), and have the plans at the ready in case you see an ice floe on the horizon.

➤ Develop a Personal Connection

We spend as much, if not more, time at work with our co-workers, clients, and staff as we do with our families at home.  On a crab boat, the crew lives and works in tight quarters often for days at a time with little sleep, meager food breaks, and virtually no sleep.  Despite the terrible working conditions, the crew members come back year after year and usually back to the same boat and captain.  True, they make significant sums of money in a short period of time but why is there so little jumping from ship to ship.  They create personal connections and develop a familial environment and when someone does not mesh with the collective personality the person often opts to leave voluntarily.  It is more difficult to leave a company and “jump ship” if a true connection has been made with the other people you work with every day.  Organizational behaviorists tell us that salary only has a small part in overall work happiness.  A greater factor in satisfaction and remaining with a company is liking the people you work with.

➤ Work Hard – Play Hard

There is no shortage of hard work on the deck of a crab boat and a level of physical effort that would cause most to crumble or cry.  There is also a lot of playing that goes on as well.  The crew members tease each other mercilessly, play practical jokes on each other, and often develop healthy rivalries with the other boats in the fleet.  The end of the season brings a fireworks display – albeit technically illegal in most areas of the Lower 48 – to mark their success, to recognize a job well done, and to allow the crew a final burst of relief after weeks and months at sea.  Professionally, we have the work hard concept down cold.  Blackberry charged and emails flowing in and out on days, nights and weekends? Check.  Working into the evening on non-critical tasks?  Check.  Calendar littered with conference calls and meetings that does not allow for lunch?  Check.  Don’t forget to bring a little fun back to your office or project team.  Take them out for drinks after work every so often and talk about anything but work.  Bring in a speaker to provide some professional development opportunities.  Arrange for a company outing to a ball game.  The same behaviorists that talk about workplace happiness will also tell you that job satisfaction is driven by a sense of appreciation.  For many of us, these are just the outward manifestations of recognition.

Truth be told, I never want to find myself on the deck of the Northwestern, Time Bandit or Cornelia Marie in the middle of winter with my families livelihood on the line or for any other reason for that matter.  But I can live vicariously through their adventures and pick up a few management and leadership tips along the way.  I invite you to tune in and see what resonates with your office or project team and hopefully it will help you find smooth sailing and profitable relationships.