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“Deadliest Catch” Captain Keith on Teamwork, Leadership and Safety


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Captain Keith Colburn is no stranger to high-stakes endeavors. As the Deadliest Catch captain of the fishing vessel Wizard, he manages a crew on the Bering Sea that fishes for Alaskan king crab, and as the show’s name suggests, the experience is nothing short of harrowing. Battling surging seas and stormy skies, the crew’s wellbeing often hinges on life or death decisions they must make every day. 

Throughout it all, and no doubt as a result of his dramatic sea adventures, Captain Keith has come to understand the necessity of leadership and the fine-tuned art of running teams under stressful circumstances. What’s more, he has come to know the critical component to ensuring success, whether on a boat or a jobsite: safety.

In one of the sessions at Procore’s annual Groundbreak conference, Captain Keith recently discussed leadership and teamwork in the midst of chaos. Jobsite sat down with him to talk about safety, mitigating risk, and the parallels between crab fishing and construction.

Jobsite: In your session at Groundbreak, you gave the analogy of a table and talked about how each leg represents success (one leg is the captain, one is the crew, one is the ship, and the last is the support staff). Can you explain that in more detail?

Keith: In any industry, you’ve got the captain, which is your leadership: your CEO, your CFO, or your management. You've got your crew, which are your employees. You've got your product, or what you're doing. In my case, it's a boat. Then the last thing is the support people outside of that core that help take care of things. So without those four things, any business is not going to work. If you don't have good people working for you, you can't do anything. If you don't have a good product or you don't have a good platform to work with, you've got nothing. If you don't have the support to help all those things work, you're not going to be successful. The last thing is the captain, the CEO. It's that guy that makes things happen. At the end of the day, he's got to take responsibility for everything.

Jobsite: Both crab fishing and the construction industry rely heavily on safety measures to avoid potential disaster. What lessons have you learned about safety in your endeavors aboard the Wizard and during Deadliest Catch?

Keith: Everybody says safety first, but if they’re just preaching it and not actually living it, they’re going to have issues. On my boat, if somebody gets injured, it could cost me days going back to town to drop them off. Same thing on a jobsite. If someone gets hurt, or something happens, it's going to slow things down or shut things down. It's going to cost you more money and time for that one injury than if you didn't just prepare well to think about safety. It's something where we drill, and we drill, and we drill, to the point where I have to finally just make the drills more entertaining or do something different so it doesn't just become ad nauseam. But ultimately, you keep drilling, and you keep practicing, and you keep doing everything you can to be safe. Once safety becomes habit, then the chances of success are much better.

Jobsite:  Has technology helped improve your safety measures? How is it changing the industry of crab fishing?

Keith: It helps with weather forecasting. We used to listen to Peggy at 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Peggy was on the radio, and she gave the weather for years. Now, I can download weather in real-time for my specific area. So I can plan in advance how I'm going to set my gear and do everything. But then it goes beyond that for safety. You don't think about it, but radar is there to warn you whether you might hit a landmass or another vessel. It all starts with safety. You kind of look over it at times. But the radios and the GPS are tools to help you do your job safely.

Jobsite: When you have one of those chaotic or dangerous moments aboard the Wizard, how do you run teams under stressful circumstances?

Keith: Slow down. That's it. When things get a little stressful and chaotic, just slow down so that you can work in the environment or in the situation safely. Yesterday, in Peyton Manning’s keynote here at Groundbreak, he said that one of his coaches told him, "Plan, prepare, and take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.” That's really true.

Jobsite: In your talk, you spoke about the necessity for teamwork in the midst of chaos. Can you give us a little bit of background and your personal experience as to why teamwork is so important?

Keith: On any jobsite, you've got a chain of command. You need to be able to delegate to those people to make sure that everything works properly. When you get a good group of guys working together, it's seamless and it works well. If you get short-handed or somebody’s not doing their job properly, it can create chaos for the rest of the crew. When some guys are trying to pick up the slack for somebody else, not only is it more work, but it creates an unsafe working environment.

Jobsite: How can team members be better leaders to help prevent disaster when stressful situations do occur?

Keith: The best way to lead is to listen. Understand who you're working with. Communicate with the people you're working with. If you understand your workforce, your crew, and everything else really well, you'll know how to work with them, how to push them, how to get the most out of them. It doesn't matter whether you're the boss or you're the new guy—the number one thing is communication.

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