My wife and I were recently watching a Netflix program related to the sophisticated logistics required to operate a giant cruise ship, and somewhere around the middle part of the show the cruise director discussed his role.

As you might expect, he was an upbeat person, and he had a unique way to balance both humor and professionalism. For most cruisegoers, the cruise director is the face of the company, and his voice is often heard throughout the day making announcements related to key activities and events taking place on the ship.

I was surprised when the cruise director mentioned that he frequently practices the best way to interact with passengers.

He said, “My interaction skills were learned through rehearsed spontaneity.”

This was an interesting comment that caught my attention. What does he mean he needs to practice or rehearse how to be spontaneous? From my experience, I thought spontaneity meant things just happened … without any preparation whatsoever.

I observed as the cruise director ensured that he met as many people as possible.  He interacted both with the passengers and crewmembers. He greeted them with a smile, engaged in small chat here and there, and he strategically made his way through the ship.

Practice Matters

I find myself naturally introverted, and I’ve had to work hard at becoming a more outgoing person. I am happy today that I have made progress with my social skills. Of course, as a professor, I am fortunate to meet many new people, which means I’m constantly practicing and rehearsing this skill set.

However, for many years, I made excuses and would intentionally avoid making new acquaintances. I felt comfortable staying on my side of the room, and largely ignoring others. I learned quickly that this isolation approach was counterproductive to personal and professional growth.

Focus on Engagement

A mentor once shared with me that I would have more success meeting people by merely being myself. He also said humility would go a long way toward making other people comfortable around me. In other words, it is far more important to shine the spotlight on the people I meet and worry less about over-talking about my accomplishments.

I’ve worked in many companies and universities over the years, and unfortunately, some people get hung-up on the status of their title. As they progress up the corporate ladder, they seem to think people “below them” are less important. That is, they no longer want to interact with them.

When a manager, director, or executive feels they are superior to their subordinates, it can lead to a culture of distrust. I understand that titles matter and that roles and responsibilities will differ depending on where one falls in the hierarchy.

However, respect and professionalism should always be practiced with everyone.  As in the cruise director, successful leaders are willing to put in hours of practice to be able to spontaneously create a positive and engaging environment. 

When we lose the ability to carry a meaningful conversation with other people, regardless of where they fall on the totem pole, we are one big step closer to failure.