Managing Marina Managers, and Those They Manage

There is no question that attracting a great staff is becoming more difficult, and managing staff at all levels has become just as arduous.

There are numerous books written on the subject, and every company with a human resources department has written guidelines and requirements to be followed. Put a panel together of “HR” experts, and you will find a lot of advice, most with common general themes but with some differences, and many emphasizing the ever-growing number of requirements for dos and don’ts.

The latter are growing exponentially due to the number of federal and state requirements. We also live in a world of ever-changing technologies and communications, with changes, such as artificial intelligence (AI), coming faster and faster.

So, is there a right or wrong approach to managing?

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Highly Complex Process
Managing managers and those employees whom they manage is highly complex, as it involves people with differing backgrounds, educations, training, expectations, desires, phobias and pressures. The list could go on and on.

The truth is that all managers and employees have their own style or approach that ranges from autocratic to understanding, overbearing to empathetic, oppressive to educational. If we are willing to admit it, there are ingredients of all of those and many more intermixed in most managers and employees.

Part of the jigsaw puzzle is to be clear in what one is looking for in a position. A good job description helps, but, more importantly, employers should be sure to include expectations as well as issues, and not only relate the opportunities, but also the various problems that will be or could reasonably be anticipated.

I was recently asked what I do in my job as a consultant. I explained that I try to solve problems and tell clients what they need to hear versus what they want to hear, and while I try to do it tactfully, it is not always received in the most diplomatic fashion.

Different organizations have their own style and approaches to follow. This is true whether a facility is independent or one of multiple facilities belonging to one entity. The larger the organization, the more potential there is for bureaucracy, more procedures, protocols, priorities, performance goals and reviews. There are reasons for them – including presenting a unified brand to the customer throughout the organization as well as legal compliances, but there are times and circumstances where the controls seem to go too far.

In my travels and in talking with managers at all levels, I often find some common threads in terms of likes and dislikes.
Likes include:
Ease of communication up the line
Feeling empowered and appreciated
Having assistance available when various problems arise, including information on how others have solved similar problems
Having the resources required to meet expectations
Dislikes include:
Feeling like there is a lack of delegation of authority or an atmosphere that does not promote decision-making responsibility
Overly burdensome policy and/or budget controls for the operations
Hard to make suggestions on reporting approaches, forms and other recommendations
Long turnaround time for decisions on capital investment recommendations and/or for implementation of approved improvements
Not feeling like a valued part of the team

Establishing Some Flexibility
Some time ago we were asked to help set up a multi-facility organization and outline various issues and structural approaches. As part of the assignment, we were given a basic outline document. In going through the document, what stood out was the very rigid proposed structure, with little authority being passed down to facility managers and various levels of staff. Basically, almost every decision was made by the CEO and CFO, and the operational guidelines for employees did not leave much room to breathe. When I asked them who had prepared the outline and what was the reasoning behind the outline, I was told that the people who prepared it were the assistant to the head of the organization and a professional human resources firm. Our suggestion was that there was little room for initiative, flexibility and being part of the team with a two-way street in communications. The original approach was focused on compliance with all the various regulations, which is needed and meaningful, and being in total control over running the organization. What was missing was the human element and the reality of running various operations.

With much back and forth, we suggested a much more flexible approach, giving the regional managers as well as individual facility managers flexibility to make and implement decisions and operational approaches, while still emulating and promoting the brand that was desired. We also included elements that promoted the ability for staff and managers to encourage suggestions up the line for cost benefit approaches, operational enhancements and improving service to customers.

The fact is that managers have their own style, and a good manager is one who not only understands his or her strengths but also his or her weaknesses, and, more importantly, understands how to interact with others to help challenge them to broaden horizons, encourage initiatives and foster innovation, while always feeling they are part of a team.

Some say leading by example is a great quality, and there is a lot of truth to that.

Not long ago, I revisited a large facility with wet slips, rack storage and a significant boatyard repair operation. I had been there years earlier and was impressed with the size, but not the operations or its aesthetics. This time there was a new general manager. During our visit, I was impressed that on our site walk he would stop and pick up a piece of paper or other debris found along the way and place it in the covered trash receptacles. He related that when he came in, he brought the staff together and explained what his vision was to turn the facility around. He outlined what his concerns were and that what he wanted was their input on how to improve customer service and perceptions. He emphasized that they were the most valuable part of the team and probably knew more of the intricacies of how to improve many of their operations, but that in the past they may not have been given the opportunity to discuss or implement them. When I commented about his stopping to pick up debris, he told me that everyone was required to do that, and how it visually helped transform the aesthetics, along with cleaning up the yard, fresh paint on the buildings, etc. He also knew every employee by first name, and as I watched his interactions with employees, I was struck by the fact that, while brief, each interchange included something going on in that person’s life.

When I talked with many of the employees, the feedback included that they had finally been given the opportunity to make changes and improvements, and that they were now allowed to spend money to achieve them, provided they could justify long-term improvements in operations, safety and/or customer expectations. Each employee also knew what his or her job required, and employees felt that they were part of a team and were trying to promote the team effort.

Building that team these days can be a bit of a challenge, with the hiring pool tending to be limited, and many marinas competing for the same employees. A suggestion that seems to help includes having a meaningful interview with prospective employees. Take the time to explain the good, the bad, and yes … the ugly. The more realistic that discussion and interaction are, the better the understanding is from both sides. Have the interview include others at the facility who are in the same or similar position as that which the interviewee is considering. Interacting with others can be a meaningful part of interviewing and getting to know the people on both sides. It is a good way of managing expectations and providing insight as to whether it would be a good fit for both sides.

Adapting with Technology
On all these fronts there is also the role of technology, and its role is significant and most always expanding. There are innumerable programs and devices that can and do make our work and life easier and mostly more productive. We are also close to having useful smart marina monitoring systems that promise to take care of many of the more laborious tasks and reporting that marina managers face. The key lies in how we incorporate these tools at our facilities, and for us never to lose track of the fact that it’s the people, not the tech, who make the team work.

Along these lines, I am very familiar with a computer software consulting company that specializes in assisting businesses in choosing and implementing new or upgraded software systems. When I asked the CEO to what she attributed the company’s success, she summed it up as follows:

“Before purchasing the new or overhauled computer programs, we talk with the various employees who will have to use them – not just managers or department heads – and we listen intently to what they have to say. We then go through the same process again but bringing in the target software provider to see if and how the program(s) can be tweaked to meet the needs of the user company, or whether it will end up being a non-useful, expensive bust. We include all employee levels every step of the way. We also make sure adequate training will be available. Most all software companies have “training” as part of the sales program, but most are limited or superficial and not aimed at using the program in the most beneficial way for your specific business.”

Keeping your people involved and in mind takes on even greater importance when it comes to the new frontier of AI, which is promising to expand technology’s role immeasurably, and in ways many of us may not imagine. When AI tools like natural language processing are used to support your employees, one will likely end up with happier employees. The same resource deployed as a punitive “Big Brother” observer is not likely to have the same outcome. Happy employees lead to happy customers, and that’s ultimately what it’s all about.

Dan Natchez, CMP, is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES Inc. He can be contacted by phone at 914-698-5678, by email at or online at