“Steering the Ship:” The Watch Officer

In the first of this series of posts, I discussed the purpose of the Navigator, relating it to the planning of a the journey where the ship will need to be steered, and also as a function that constantly measured the progress against the plan.

This post is a discussion of the Watch Officer, which would be the term used on a merchant vessel, or on a Navy ship, this would be the position titled the Officer of the Deck (OOD). I’ll use these titles interchangeably with this added distinction: On a Navy ship, there is most often a Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) on duty as well. Quickly, the JOOD is there for two reasons in most all cases: They usually are the one that has the “Conn” (the authorized person who can issue rudder and engine orders legally). They are under the direct supervision of the OOD and are in a training mode to learn the skills of managing a ship at sea. Don’t lose that point in your organizational plan, even when the merchant ships economize down to one Watch Officer.

From the moment the vessel begins the voyage “taking all lines in from the pier and are legally underway,” the watch officer is continually stationed on the bridge until the vessel is anchored or moored. There is but one person assigned and it is a formal process of shifting the watch to the next person on duty and it is entered into the Ship’s Log.

The OOD is an experienced officer qualified by the Captain to perform this duty. In the merchant Marine, it is a licensed position, in the Navy, a formal letter of designation is entered in the Officer’s personnel record, indicating the authorization to stand this watch. In the Navy, despite any one captain signing such a letter, if there is a change of command, or the officer transfers to another vessel, they must have a new letter signed by the current captain, in order to stand the watch.

Here’s the function within your business: This is your Office Manager. The Office Manager, or in the case of the analogy, the WO/OOD make the moment to moment decisions that affect the “steering of the ship.” Whether they make a course correction, call down to Engineering to make sure the hot water heating in the berthing compartments is being repaired, or if to rig the decks for heavy weather, they are the on station eyes and ears of the person ultimately in charge.

This Officer is the one, in this case with a very formal legal authority, who can issue orders to the people who actually affect the steering of the ship. No one else can, or if they do, they are to be ignored by the person directing them, who does not have the “Conn.” Even when the Captain desires to directly override the steering of the ship, which I witnessed once, even the Captain must make a formal announcement of taking the Conn and it is also entered in the official record.

Is your Office Manager in a similar position? Have you granted them the autonomy to make sure every little detail is, in fact, directed and carried out with accuracy? Do they keep tabs on all of the operations to ensure the seamless management? Do they check with the assigned work force, or subcontractors to make sure the project plan is on track? If things are not happening correctly, what do you have in place to ensure you are contacted?

Captains have “Standing Orders.” Think of these as a set of policy notes, with the responses to circumstances that can be foreseen happening, both in good and bad circumstances. On a ship, it may be: If the baraometer drops more than X milimeters per hour, notify me. If someone is injured, notify me. If you sight land when it is not expected, notify me.

What things in your business do you want to be notified about, and in what manner? What if an employee in a company vehicle is in an accident? If a customer calls to demand a refund? The accountant calls and says the bank account is out of balance? Even if you work in the office with the office manager, there may be issues you desire to be informed about, and if you indicate this in your policies, whether you are in the office, out of the office, at lunch, or on vacation, it will be clear what you want to know.

Not only in a negative way, your policies can also be a platform for indicating, not only to the Office manager, but the entire workforce, who has what authority to make crucial decisions, either when you aren’t reachable, or at all times. From a legal standpoint, this clarifies all sorts of things for those unpleasant moments as well, when you may have to consult your lawyer. Obviously, it’s best to have such policies so everyone knows what to do, rather than, at the least, having a work stoppage, or at the worst, a major issue that goes unaddressed so long it endangers either the business or the reputation of the business.

Summary: The Watch Officer is always there, like your Office Manager, ever vigilant and the routine voice to keep the operation on track, and with that comes tremendous responsibility and accountability.

Back to the JOOD: If you believe you have to either build redundancy into your operation, or as someone news retirement, putting the JOOD “on the bridge” allows the experienced voice of the OOD help train them. The JOOD is an internship position. Use it effectively to make sure the business can continue.

The Watch Officer/Officer of the Deck don’t steer the ship, either, but they have the voice to make it happen.

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