When Jonathan Banks decided to sail around the world for four years instead of pursuing an MBA, he knew that it would be a unique life experience.
What he hadn’t expected was that running a boat would teach him how to run a business.
Now, as the chief operating officer of Siren Marine, which builds remote monitoring systems for boats, he’s seen many of the leadership skills that he developed as a yacht captain translate to his career.
Here are six critical business lessons that Banks learned at sea:
1. Communicate clearly.
Just like managers need to convey long-term goals and strategies to their team, captains are responsible for making sure that everyone on the crew understands what’s ahead.
“If we knew that we’d be running into stormy weather, we talked through it time and time again in order to make sure that everyone was on the same page and understood what needed to be done when it arrived,” he says. “If you give vague instructions, like ‘Pull in that thing,’ it can be dangerous.”
In the business world, the same kind of preparation comes in handy when you’re getting ready for a new product launch or major event. Making sure that everyone has a clear understanding of their roles means that you won’t be caught by surprise when the chaos hits.
2. Get input on new hires from all members of your team.
On small yachts, there may be just a handful of crew members. On larger boats, there can be as many 70. Either way, owners will often leave hiring decisions to the captain, who is responsible for making sure that everyone gets along and works well together, even after long, tiring days at sea.
“Putting together a crew for a boat is like putting together your management team,” Banks says. “But the thing about business is that at the end of the day, you go home. Even if you have differences with your team, you can compartmentalise it. When you’re on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you can’t change or replace any part of your team.”
His yachting experience has changed the way that he evaluates job candidates. “I like every member of the team to be involved in the selection of new hires. While the manager should ultimately make the decision, I think it’s really important to get input from all members of the team, because you all have to work together.”
3. Be resourceful — there’s a solution to every problem.
Out of necessity, yacht captains quickly become skilled at creative problem-solving. “When you’re in the middle of the ocean and something goes wrong, you can’t just pick up the phone,” Banks points out. “You have to be resourceful.”
Although captains are in charge of the boat, they report to its owner, who often won’t take no for an answer. “One thing that the owner of the boat never accepted from me was, ‘Oh, I can’t do it,’ or, ‘That can’t be done.’ He was a firm believer that there was always a way, and you needed to find the way.”
In business, that means thinking outside of the box and not giving up until you’ve tried every possible avenue. It might require some delicate negotiation or coming up with an unusual workaround, but there’s always a better alternative to saying, “It’s impossible.”
4. Being polite but persistent will get you far.
Banks visited more than 50 countries during the four years that he spent sailing around the world. While it was an incredible experience, it came with plenty of bureaucratic hurdles.
“When you’re sailing around the world, you spend a lot of time going through customs and immigration, and dealing with officials in different countries,” he says. “Sometimes, they could be very adversarial. I learned to try and befriend them, show respect, and recognise that they’re doing their job. You have to make sure that you abide by the customs of the land that you are visiting. Don’t be demanding, but be persistent.”
Even if your job doesn’t take you overseas, it never hurts to be extra polite — especially when you’re following up on a request for the tenth time.
5. Stay calm and trust your decision-making abilities.
Sailing around the world may sound idyllic, but it often means facing dangerous conditions when the weather turns stormy. The captain’s responsibility is to keep the boat intact and get the crew to safety.
“People often comment that I keep a cool head when things get hectic. I think that’s something that I learned as a yacht skipper,” Banks says. “In extreme weather conditions, you have the lives of the crew dependent on you. Facing that pressure gives you confidence in your decision-making, and also teaches you how to maintain your composure.”
6. Be prepared for anything.
Working on a boat means that your job changes from day to day depending on the weather. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect.
“We could be sailing for days on the Pacific in perfect champagne conditions, the sun shining, the boat moving along very nicely,” Banks says. “Then suddenly, without any warning, a 15 knot squall hits. You have to be able to shift gears very quickly in that situation.”
The same thing holds true in the business world. Being able to quickly move into crisis mode, if necessary, is an important skill for any leader.