Quinton Luck, Managing Director Saatchi & Saatchi South Africa, shares five valuable principles that have worked well for him in leading the agency. As someone who has been a member of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), he likens leading a company to correctly launching a boat.

I was selected to be part of the trainee Coxswain programme – a process that took about a year, with the end goal being taking responsibility for my own rescue craft and fully-manned crew, to perform whatever rescue was necessary. One of the core tasks was launch training, where you had to show your ability to work through the entire process, from crew briefing to launching a rescue vessel into the water. With your Station Commander and crew watching your every move, it was known to be a daunting task.

1. Choose the right team

The exercise started with crew selection. I was told to choose five crew in a room of about 12 very eager volunteers, all keen to get some boat time. My first selection was someone I could rely on to be second-in-command; someone who could perform all my duties if something happened to me during the exercise. This person needed to be a strong advisor, assisting me in making key decisions, as well as someone the rest of the crew trusted. The second was the comms guy, a person who knew how to work the radio and GPS and keep the smooth flow of communication between the vessel and base throughout the exercise – thus freeing me up to focus on more important aspects.

My third and fourth crew members needed to be competent swimmers who I could confidently put into the water – no matter what the conditions – to get the patient safely back into the vessel. My final selection was someone who knew the ins and outs of the vessel and equipment – a Jack of all trades – and who could tackle any task without second-guessing me and get it done. I knew that this person would be taking on the all-important task of driving the tractor and launching us into the surf, a task that required ultimate precision.

I knew that everyone in that room really wanted sea time, but the goal was to successfully accomplish the exercise – not be popular. Surround yourself with the right people, as they’ll ensure that the vision, processes and decisions you make are correctly implemented. Ensure that they have a wide range of essential skills, because they will be the ones to drive changes on a daily basis. Without them, you won’t succeed. 

2. Understand your environment

With the crew chosen, the next step was to plan the route. Weather, currents, waves, wind and tides all had to be considered, so gathering all the necessary information was key. Here I used my second in command, discussing the information we had gathered before making final decisions. Part of the consideration was to ensure we were able to navigate without any use of technology.

I had seen first-hand, during previous training sessions, where the GPS had failed and we were left having to navigate blind. Ocean conditions can change quicker than you think and I needed to ensure we were best prepared before heading out. 

You cannot make correct decisions without gathering all the information. All too often I have worked under new leadership, who arrive and make sweeping changes within their first few weeks, without taking the time to understand the internal dynamics, the people, their skillsets and the culture. Just because a company may not be doing well financially, doesn’t mean everything must change.

3. Take your time

When you have a station commander scrutinising your every move and decision, the clock ticks faster than usual. For this reason, I started to rush the launch. I fell into the trap of believing that the quicker I did it, the better I would look to my peers. Instead, I found myself missing important steps along the way.

I did not check to see if we had the correct number of blankets on board or ensure the pontoons were sufficiently inflated. These oversights became clear when I was quietly pulled aside by my superior and reminded, The extra five minutes you take now, will save you in the long run’. I took a deep breath and started from the top. I had one chance to do this right and I did not care if it took me the whole morning, I was not returning back to land for anything.

Rush the process and you will find yourself alone. What I thought would take me six months actually took 18. Everyone across the business needed time to understand my vision and only then could they adapt.

4. Maintain a macro view

It was time for the tractor to pull the vessel out of the shed, unhook itself from the trailer, turn 180 degrees and re-hook itself from the front. During this procedure, the crew struggled to re-attach the tractor to the trailer. I immediately moved in to inspect and help. Instead of advising on possible solutions, I took it upon myself to find tools and fix the problem.

Whilst hammering away at the bolt that wouldn’t budge, again I heard a quiet voice in my ear, ‘Why are you doing this yourself when you have a team of people standing around who could be doing this for you?’ Only then did I realise that, while being so focused on this one issue, everything else that needed to be done had ground to a halt.

Your job is not to fix the problem, but to steer everyone in the right direction. Always be front and centre, with a clear view across the entire agency. Keep a macro view and leave the detail for your leadership team.

5. Take complete ownership

There we were: the vessel lined up facing the ocean; the tractor in position and in gear, ready to run us into the oncoming waves; and all crew on board, holding on tight, waiting for my command. This was the most dangerous part of the entire exercise, as so many things could go wrong. It was the moment I had to take complete charge of the situation and be 100% clear in my commands. I was definitely not going to be the one to damage this R800,000 vessel!

I ran through all safety checks in my head and gave the command. We moved swiftly forward with the roar of the tractor engine behind us. At exactly the right time, I signalled to apply the tractor brakes so the vessel could slide off the trailer safely into the water. I ran through each crew’s responsibilities and we were given the go-ahead to exit the bay and commence with the exercise. The launch was complete – but the journey had only just begun.

Take complete ownership but always be open to feedback. Being a leader is not an exact science, it is about having the ability to take control while recognising and accepting that some decisions can be wrong. Consult regularly with your leadership team and stay connected with your staff. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. You chose the team, so you take the responsibility. 

As time has passed, I have really begun to see these five principles as essential leadership skills and, for this reason, I believe they can be used to help solve any challenge – no matter what company or industry you are in.