Entrepreneur Educator, Program Developer, Facilitator

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“If You Are Here, Who Is Driving The Ship?”

I ran an entrepreneurial mindset program for the ESCP business school months ago. One of the participants was Carnival cruise ship Captain Crescenzo Palomba. I was able to chat with him about what it’s like to be responsible for 7,000 passengers and what people misunderstand about the work.

Crescenzo looking dapper in full regailia

18 Years of Training

What do people get wrong about your work? What does the rest of the world not understand about what it is like to be the captain of a cruise ship?

It’s something that happens quite often with my position as Captain where mostly guests and crew believe my position as Captain is only to ‘drive the ship’. An all too common question from guests is ‘If you are here, who is driving the ship?’

Sadly, many crew do not know the impact of my position in our organization. Higher management ashore as well as shipboard leaders are more aware of what the true role of the Captain is.

To be a Captain of a mega cruise ship is not a simple task. It took 18 years of hard work and dedication to reach the position of Captain with intensive trainings and assessments.

The Captain is in charge of the entire ship’s operation and makes the ultimate decisions. He/she oversees all compliance of the vessel to local and international laws as well as to company, flag and state policies and regulations. The Captain carries the ultimate responsibility of the health, safety and security of all crew and guests onboard (About 6,000-7,000 people) and the effect of the ship’s operations on the environment. Of course it is a team effort where we share our decisions and concerns.

On Leadership

Sound leadership skills are vital in our business. There is so much more to my day than being in charge of safely bringing the ship from one place to another and docking/undocking the vessel.

The Captain mentors and coaches young officers and supports the management and senior leaders in providing the best possible guest experience and continuously striving to improve quality of life onboard for all. I work closely with our onboard and shoreside HR departments to ensure our company remains an employer of choice. Many good or bad aspects of the vessel are directly related to the actions and behaviors of the Captain, which plays a vital role in the successful operation of the vessel and ultimately the company.

On Making Tough Decisions

Looking back on your career, what do you think—in terms of how you made decisions or approached the work, or led your team—had the most impact on making you successful?

Making decisions at work and being the most popular person rarely go hand in hand. You cannot please everyone, but you have to make the best choice considering the interest of the safety of crew, guests and the company’s reputation. Leading a team of 1,400 crew is not easy, but so far in my career I have made difficult and successful decisions.

Of course probably I made mistakes along the way, but hopefully never negatively impacted the team or the company. I define mistakes in terms of experience and learning. You learn and you grow. [note to self: I should have pushed Crescenzo to describe specific failures. Will do in future interviews]

Was there anything that stuck out to you in a major way when you compared your work life to your ESCP (business school) classmates?

In my executive MBA journey with my classmates I noticed that my job had given me the opportunity to learn how to effectively manage a very large team, with different ranks, positions, levels of education, nationalities, cultures and backgrounds.

This was not something my classmates necessarily knew. They also did not all have the same opportunities to work extensively as a team. Operating a mega cruise ship requires a massive group of people to work together towards a single goal. I cannot do it alone, and getting more than a thousand people to successfully do it with me, is something I am very proud of. Especially considering that it is almost every week a different group of people as we change crew or ship.

Many thanks to Crescenzo for sharing a glance into the leadership involved in a field most of us know nothing about.

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