Your Company Is a Boat and You Are the Captain

Your crew needs to believe you are 1. capable and 2. invested in their success

The perfect setting for a team-building exercise is on a sailboat in the open water. Sailing requires cooperation, quick transitions, and reading the wind. Roles become fluid and crew members sometimes need to wear “multiple hats.” If you can’t get the sail up in time, in the right direction, you’re dead in the water. For those of you reading this on the coast or the Great Lakes, you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about. For those of you in other parts of the country, consider a large lake or a river for the scenario I propose below.

Your company is a boat

If you are a chief executive or the owner of your business; or even a supervisor of more than one company function, picture yourself and your team on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The smaller your business, the easier it is to visualize the crew. For larger organizations, consider your senior management team. Each department of your company fills a critical role on the boat.

Sailing and boating are as old as humanity itself and, before fancy technology like motors and GPS, it has always required teamwork. The fact that you are miles from shore increases the stakes and illuminates the challenges of running an organization. You need to work together to survive, or you’ll starve. You are the captain, and this is your boat. All hands on deck.

Big business is not immune to poor teamwork

Satya Nadella is the head of Microsoft. There is a very good chance you own Microsoft products. I am writing this piece on one of them, now. “Nadella officially became CEO of the company on Feb. 4, 2014, after the previous head, Steve Ballmer, announced his resignation in August 2013. Ballmer and Bill Gates picked Nadella to pull the company up from the hard times that had hit.“

Here’s a quick laundry list of his greatest hits:

  1. Embracing Linux operating system (a rival) on the Azure cloud
  2. Releasing Microsoft Office for Apple’s iPad
  3. Buying Mojang (the company that created Minecraft)
  4. Releasing iPhone and Android apps like Microsoft Outlook
  5. Skipping Windows 9 and releasing an extremely improved Windows 10
  6. Introducing the company’s first laptop (Microsoft Surface Book)
  7. Aligning the company behind one mission, which is to empower companies and individuals to achieve more

Here’s a picture of the performance of the company for the last 30 years:

Source: Yahoo Finance

The crosshairs indicate Nadella’s start date. Notice anything significant?

On Tuesday, June 20, 2021, Microsoft passed a major milestone: $2 trillion dollar market capitalization. This makes it the second most valuable company behind Apple – another company you have probably heard of.

Can Nadella’s success really boil down to strategic moves and good timing? Long-time Microsoft employees and market analysts don’t think so. Yusuf Mehdi is the corporate vice president, modern life, search & devices at Microsoft. He joined Microsoft in 1992. He attributes Nadella’s success to something entirely different – learning.

Nadella’s almost fanatical focus on teams and how they work together was a secret item on the list above and he famously said, “Success can cause people to unlearn the habits that made them successful in the first place.”

Back to the boat

Imagine your company’s boat. You are the captain. Your senior team is the crew. Each of your people, and their respective departments, occupies a function of the boat. Marketing baits the hook, sales reels in the fish, product management and R&D figure out where the fish are, operations keeps the water out and patches the sails, IT and accounting tell you how far you are from land and keep an inventory of your catch. Lots of sailors, all with different jobs, all working together to keep the boat afloat. They need to work together.

If you can’t keep everyone working together; at best, you’ll starve. At worst, you’ll sink.

The ever-present silo

Success breeds silos. Success creates victories that people can stand on and feel confident that their way was the right way. Success also breeds complacency. ‘People lose the habits that made them successful’ and soon you have squabbles on the boat. The sales team feels they could reel in fish by themselves without marketing or R&D. Accounting starts to question the need for bait. Crew members start operating independently and stop learning from others. They stop listening. The efficiency of your boat is in jeopardy. What will you do?

The most common type of incompetent leader

According to the Harvard Business Review: “Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics — taking value out of an organization without putting value in. As such, they represent a special case of laissez-faire leadership, but one that is distinguished by its destructiveness.”

You are the captain

As the captain, you are responsible for the safety of everyone on your boat at all times. You are also responsible for getting them to work together. If your crew can’t seem to get along, you’re the captain; everything is your fault. Get in there, figure out why the boat isn’t running efficiently as it should. Your crew needs to believe you are 1. capable and 2. invested in their success. Start operating from a position of “learn it all” and get to the heart of why your people are having trouble getting along. Chances are it’s a simple fix, and you can get back to running the boat. Everyone on that boat is looking to you for leadership. Show them why you are the captain.

Team building on the water

Whether or not you actually step foot on a water vessel, consider the impact of the boat analogy. Storms come and go, but boats remain above the water when they have a good crew and a great captain. If you have the means, get your people out on a boat. It’s an experience you’ll never forget. Out on the water, with your hand on the wheel, you’ll see that the horizon is endless, just like the future success of your business. Bon voyage.

Dana Curtis

Dana Curtis


Dana Curtis is the founder and CEO of Biztools, a strategic consulting firm that helps small businesses multiply revenue through improved customer experience and pivot to new markets.

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