The Captain’s Table: An 18th Century Idea for a 21st Century Issue

Russell-crowe-master-and-commanderI have the privilege of running a large technical group. The group is broken out into four key areas and is mostly comprised of computer scientists and mathematicians that are matrixed out to support the company’s various missions. I wish this wasn’t so, but where I work can be a bit impersonal. It has a tendency to lack in things that humans crave at work: recognition, gratitude, feedback, play, empathy and compassion. Worse yet, it’s easy to get lost in the matrix aspect of our work environment where affiliations can tend to cross over to the client served. As a result, even senior people can feel minimized despite how important their mission truly is.

Each of the four group leaders are focused on their own areas and cherish their own independence. That’s the good news. The not so good news is that independence carries a built-in limitation. How could we be truly effective as a group if our efforts are so diffused?

That’s when it hit me…

What if I thought of my leaders in a different light? And took a page from Admiral Horatio Nelson, viewing them as captains of their ships engaged in a common action?  How would things be different? How would we even meet to discuss common strategies and goals? What kind of meeting would that look like?

Nelson himself provided the answer. He had an uncommon habit, even for his time. Any chance he got, he had his ship captains rowed aboard his flagship. Over good meals and a lot of fine wines, they talked, laughed and told stories. They got to know one another so well –this “Band of Brothers”– that even the ones who disliked each other were bound by Nelson’s “Touch”. Without the semblance of an actual planning meeting, they spoke in stories of what would happen when it was time for action. And Nelson always let them know what was in his mind—even as he was working it through with them. When the day actually dawned, there was almost no need to give orders. All knew what to do.

Could I use this Captains’ Table to the same goal?

I tried it. It wasn’t as exciting as rowing to the Admiral’s flagship in search of great food and wine. But…it did start to have the effect on company that his did. We met outside work. And not for drinks. For breakfast. The agenda: anything and everything on their minds.

Immediately they all started to sense an inclusion in a special group: my band of brothers and sisters. We talked about tackling bigger org issues and how we as a group could make a difference.

It’s still early yet in our Captain’s Table formation but the early results are promising. This new venue is already building back some needed humanity. And the lieutenants can all feel it as do I. Who knew an 18th Century idea could be re-purposed in a 21st Century solution? When I look back on it, it seems obvious since no matter how old the concept, recognition, gratitude, feedback, empathy, play and compassion are all timeless human needs.

Trish Damkroger

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