Leadership bei hohem Wellengang - Interview mit Bernard Warner, von 2005 bis 2011 Commodore der RMS Queen Mary 2, Cunard Lines

Situation: Als Commodore des Luxus-Transatlantikliners Queen Mary 2 war Bernard Warner für eine international zusammengesetzte Crew von 1250 Besatzungsmitgliedern und 2620 anspruchsvolle Passagiere verantwortlich. In dieser Top-Position bewältigte er mit großer interkultureller und emotionaler Kompetenz und natürlich mit jahrzehntelanger Erfahrung als Kapitän von Passagierschiffen größte Herausforderungen nautischer und zwischenmenschlicher Art.  


GF: Mr Warner, I’d like to know something about your Leadership Principles: What do you do to ensure the trustful, cooperative atmosphere amongst your crew which is essential for dealing with life-threatening situations?


BW: All new crew are put through an induction period that deals with health, safety, security and the protection of the environment. An important aspect of the induction to all new crew is a personal address from the Commodore/Captain. From the outset they can all see and hear the man in charge. They are told about the chain of command, and provided they follow the correct procedures they are entitled to be seen by, and have a conversation with the Captain. Crew are also advised that for serious offences they will be disciplined through a court chaired by the Captain. This can result in the case being dismissed, a formal warning or in extreme cases dismissal from the ship. So the induction is a combination of revealing who is in command and has charge of everything that occurs on the ship; but on the other hand they can see he is approachable and fair.


Whenever I am not involved in the direct operation of the ship, I can be found walking around the ship conversing with passengers and crew as they go about their duties. Most importantly, I go behind the scenes and into the inner workings of the ship – from engine room, to the main laundry, all the galleys (kitchens), restaurants and through the hotel offices and storerooms or wherever crew may be at work. To engage in conversation with a dishwasher or someone peeling the vegetables is just as important for the welfare of the ship as having a chat with the Hotel Manager or Chief Engineer!


Whenever invited, I attend crew functions to offer support – they’re often surprised to find that you’re a fairly normal person! When making announcements for the benefit of the passengers I often include the crew so that they can be kept informed about where the ship is and what the plans are for the day. They can also become familiar with your voice so that in any real emergency this is the same voice that they will hear. This is the philosophy that I follow in the weekly emergency drills for crew, when the Captain makes the majority of the announcements.


In the same way as the crew become aware of your presence, interaction by the ship’s senior officers is equally important. The executive command of the ship includes the Chief Engineer (responsible for all technical maintenance), Hotel Manager (responsible for all aspects of passenger wellbeing from cabins to food and drink), and the Staff Captain who is the second in command and responsible for shipboard safety, the Bridge teams and the deck crew who maintain the external fabric of the ship. A close-knit command structure is imperative to the efficient functioning of the ship. It is therefore important to meet frequently to ensure that all areas are functioning well and impress upon them that their staff are the ones providing the platform for the success of the ship.


GF: The Captain of the Queen Mary 2 has a specially multifaceted role when it comes to customer relations: 

- You are host to a very rich, often famous and sometimes fastidious clientele.

- You are the representative of Cunard Line on board.

- You are the one who has to make sure that everybody knows you, trusts you and follows your instructions in case of danger.

- You are responsible for crisis communications if anything important goes wrong during the sea voyage. 

Do you apply communication strategies or an attitude towards customers that might be inspiring for other companies?


BW: Most passengers on every ship want to meet the Captain! The joy of being on Queen Mary 2 was that all passengers would get the opportunity at the Welcome aboard cocktail party to shake hands and say hello. Other cruise ships on which I have sailed do not give this opportunity and the Captain remains a face in the distance, if ever seen at all. With QM2 being such a large ship, personal interaction is difficult unless there are prearranged functions. So if passengers cannot see you all the time, they should at least hear your voice over the intercom once or twice a day. As an example, when the ship is at sea, I will make the noon announcement, giving them a navigational update. Certainly, in any kind of emergency it is the Captain’s voice they expect and should hear - not that of the Cruise Director or some other officer. Unfortunately, on ships with Captains whose native tongue is not English, they often have someone else to make the announcements. Passengers then might say, “Where’s the Captain?” or “What’s the Captain doing about it?” At the outset, for the passenger emergency drill at the start of the voyage, it is my voice they will hear taking them through the procedures for keeping safe on board. The passengers need to be told by the Captain about events that occasionally happen during the voyage and might give them cause for concern.


An example of this would be if the ship suddenly slows down or stops for no apparent reason. The passengers need an explanation as rumours can quickly spread. They should be given sufficient information to satisfy their curiosity, and if it is a prolonged incident whether it will effect the next port of call. Throughout the incident make regular announcements. An uninformed guest could become an uncontrollable guest!


Another way to inspire the passengers is by simply walking around the ship for several hours a day and chatting to them. This might seem quite laborious at the time, but by merely engaging with a few passengers each day the word will quickly spread that the man in charge is approachable and wafts an air of authority! Cunard Line are unique in that at dinner on formal evenings there is a Captain’s Table. Unfortunately it is impossible to entertain everyone in this way, but the fact that it is a large central table in view of others, is sufficient to send out positive signals to those in the vicinity.


There are many different nationalities both among the passengers and crew. Perhaps the United Nations should sail with us to see how easily everyone works in harmony! During the summer, the German guests are the largest influx of passengers who are not from either the USA or UK. It is tricky to get the balance right, so that all nationalities feel that they are being treated equally. In cases such as the above, the Captain’s noon announcement is translated and spoken immediately afterwards by an interpreter. This immediately gives the feeling of “belonging” to the guests but is something that should not be done all day long for fear of upsetting the English-speaking guests! I have always wished that I were multilingual, which would make life so much easier!


Concerning crisis communications I often chose the strategy of a positive spin. Let’s take the example of the ship on a cruise around the Caribbean. She has to make a fast run from New York down to St Thomas, and 24 hours into the cruise she develops engine problems, bringing the ship to a near halt. It’s about 11 am, so I go up to the bridge and call the Chief Engineer. He tells me that there has been a mechanical failure, but hopes to have the systems back to normal within a couple of hours. Having run up to the bridge via nine decks from the public areas, it takes a few moments to catch your breath. Before making any announcements I ensure that my breathing has returned to normal. There is nothing more worrying for passenger and crew if they hear the Captain’s voice in anything but a calm and confident manner! I have taken the intervening moments to check whether the ship will be late into St Thomas, and find that if she is two hours late arriving, I can extend the call by two hours and still arrive at the next port on time. This is the information which I give to passengers and crew, therefore turning the negative of being late due to a technical malfunction into a positive that no time will be lost in the port. 


After the two hours have elapsed, I again talk to the Chief Engineer, to be told that problems are more serious and we are going to be on reduced power until St Thomas where spares will be available to fix the problem. The Navigator rechecks the schedule for the cruise and determines that with now having to reduce the call in St Thomas even more, we would still have time to put in a morning call at another island not in the original cruise programme. Again a positive has been made from a negative.

On arriving after lunch in St Thomas, and further examination of the problem, it is found that we will have to operate on reduced power for the remainder of the cruise. This severely disrupts the number of ports we will be able to visit and despite the passengers up until this point remaining in a positive frame of mind, it will require considerable skill to get out of this one without protest and much dissent! Throughout the saga I have been in touch with Cunard Head Office, and suggest to them that we complete the cruise as best we can, but then offer all the passengers 50% off on another cruise to be taken within the next two years. Hopefully the final negative to a positive!


This strategy is agreed. Most of the passengers are happy with the outcome and buy the Captain a very nice case of Veuve Cliquot Vintage champagne, which ends up putting his head into a positive spin as well!!


GF: How do you solve conflicts with the passengers or between passengers? I read a story about a millionaire couple you asked to leave the ship because they had started a fight with other passengers and had treated your crew members badly.


BW: Under maritime law, the Captain has the right to remove from the ship any passenger who is affecting the safety of the ship or wellbeing of any person on board. Asking a passenger to leave the ship is a very rare occurrence; and I can only remember a couple of occasions when this has been necessary.

The case to which you refer came about because their selfish actions were making life intolerable for other guests in the Queens Grill restaurant. After the complaint was made, the Hotel Manager interviewed the couple and warned them that unless they changed their ways, further action would have to be taken. Complaints continued after this and the Hotel Manager eventually referred the case to the Commodore. The couple was advised by me that any further violations would lead to them being asked to leave the ship. Furthermore they were not permitted to purchase alcohol anywhere on board. As they continued to upset passengers and ignore the warnings, in conjunction with advice from the legal team at Cunard Head Office, they were asked to leave the ship and were escorted ashore by the Security team.

Their influential status lead to them appearing on television shows in New York and they attempted to smear the name of Cunard. After their short-lived time in the spotlight and threats of legal action, I received the support of the Chairman of the Carnival Corporation and they faded into obscurity! 


GF: What are your main Leadership Principles?


BW: Lead by example, be both seen or heard whenever you can and put a positive spin on every situation. Keep passengers and crew informed! Earn everyone’s respect – that’s the only way to run a happy and efficient ship.