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Maritime is shifting from transactional to transformational leadership

Article by Phil Parry, Chairman, Spinnaker. Published in Riviera Maritime Media on 5th June 2023

In the ever-evolving landscape of business leadership, the concepts of purpose and a positive culture have taken centre stage.

While everyone acknowledges their importance, these terms often remain elusive, akin to jelly that is hard to grasp. Put simply though, they are conspicuous by their absence.

In a recent wide-ranging conversation with the chief executive of a prominent shipowner, it became clear that people-related issues are harder to get right than industry-specific strategic issues. This is not unique to the maritime industry; post-Covid, every business sector is grappling with the consequences of a shifting landscape. The talent shortage, commonly referred to as the ‘great resignation,’ has led to a wave of early retirements and career changes. Factors such as Brexit, immigration challenges, and changing attitudes towards work have further exacerbated the situation, making recruitment, retention, motivation and performance management more complex than ever.

To truly understand purpose, I cannot help but recall the famous story of John F Kennedy’s visit to NASA in 1962. While touring the facility he asked a janitor about his role, the janitor proudly responded, “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” This exemplifies the power of purpose, both on an individual and organisational level. Purpose may encompass lofty ideals, but at its core, it is what drives people out of bed every morning. It can be social, ethical, consumer-driven, or people-driven. Attempting to articulate purpose through some kind of strapline is commonplace, but ultimately, it is about how and why people come to work, the intrinsic motivation that fuels their actions. Plenty of organisations that really believe motivation breeds good outcomes in all sorts of ways, have no formal description of their purpose.

Moving beyond theoretical discussions, I invited the audience at Spinnaker’s 2023 Maritime People & Culture Conference to share their perspectives on their own jobs. The response was telling. While most liked their jobs, fewer loved them. The distinction between liking and loving work is significant. It represents the difference between mere contentment and a deep sense of fulfilment and purpose. As leaders, it is our responsibility to at least to attempt to inspire such devotion in our employees, creating an environment where they feel valued, psychologically safe and integral to the organisation’s mission.

The conversation with the chief executive highlighted several key issues leaders need to juggle. Balancing internal promotions with external hires is crucial for infusing fresh perspectives and diversity into a company’s culture and, of course, its decision making. While promoting from within fosters a cohesive atmosphere and provides incumbents with evidence of possible career paths, it also risks breeding an echo chamber that potentially hinders innovation and change. Additionally, the challenge of toxic high performers can present itself; highlighting the need to recognise and address those who excel in their work but erode trust and negatively impact the team.

Gender diversity emerged as another pressing concern. This individual was passionate about the fact that more women, particularly in senior positions, are needed. It’s encouraging that this genuine sentiment is ever more commonplace.  

I feel strongly that chief executives must actively engage with their staff, including younger members, to gain insights into the organisation’s culture and identify areas for improvement. If you’re willing to ask – and if the staff trust you – you’ll soon find out who the troublemakers are.

Throughout the discussion, a recurring theme emerged: authenticity and trust are the foundation of effective leadership. Creating an environment where relationships and trust can flourish is essential. Leaders must also cultivate psychological safety, where employees feel comfortable raising concerns and challenging the status quo. It is important for leaders to encourage dissenting opinions and empower individuals to voice their thoughts without fear of retribution.

I recall a chief executive I recently spoke with who expressed his desire for people to disagree with him more. He acknowledged that employees often hesitate to voice their opinions, and he recognised the need to create a safe space for open dialogue. In one instance, a new hire apologised for speaking up and disagreeing, which surprised the chief executive. He wished more people felt confident enough to express their opinions openly and constructively. This highlights the importance of building an environment where diverse perspectives are valued, and employees feel secure in sharing their thoughts.

The Covid-19 pandemic served as a prime example of how trust can shape outcomes. In the face of uncertainty, leaders who demonstrated trust in their teams experienced remarkable results. When the pandemic hit, businesses were forced to downsize and make rapid decisions. Key individuals were identified, and others were placed on furlough, resulting in smaller teams. This necessitated decisive leadership and immediate empowerment of employees, granting them autonomy and the authority to make quick decisions.

The purpose became clear: to keep the business afloat during these challenging times. With a shared sense of purpose, individuals became highly motivated and worked tirelessly to save their organisations. The concept of “autonomy, mastery, and purpose”, as advocated by Dan Pink, is well known as the key to motivation. New-found autonomy allowed employees to excel in their roles and contribute to the business in ways they had not previously been able to do.

Experts in leadership, including Simon Sinek, emphasise that purpose must be clearly defined, must provide direction for the entire organisation, and be authentic to truly motivate individuals. It cannot be a mere marketing gimmick orchestrated by the company’s marketing department. I do disagree with part of this. Authenticity is crucial, but I’m not sure that clearly defining purpose is. As I’ve mentioned above, not every organisation that seems to get this right has a formal description of their purpose. Think of it this way – having a purpose means being purposeful. A trustworthy leader or leadership team that is authentic and fosters the psychologically safe environment that I’ve talked about can create a purposeful culture where individuals feel that they have purpose and they wake up in the morning happy to go to work. If your staff lose that spark, that motivation, then you’re like a sports manager that’s lost the dressing room.

When purpose is authentic and aligned with the values and vision of the organisation, employees find fulfilment and personal satisfaction in their work. This sense of purpose fosters engagement, teamwork and improved performance.

I see these dynamics at play at Spinnaker and even in a small classic car restoration business that I part own. When communication is effective, and everyone feels that the environment is fair and aligned, the businesses thrive. However, the moment trust erodes, when people feel that things are not fair, that others are not pulling their weight… and if issues go unaddressed, a decline in atmosphere and performance follows. It’s very clear that a leader’s role goes beyond the daily operations and that it’s not just about being a ‘nice leader’ but a consistent and communicative one that addresses the concerns of their people and constantly corrects the course to keep them pointing in the same direction. To achieve this, it is essential in larger organisations to engage with middle management and those they manage; they set the tone for the organisation daily and if they are watering down the ethos and the message then the game is lost.

Creating an environment of trust and authenticity requires communicating and aligning expectations, decision-making, recruitment, and internal promotions. One of our recent conference speakers pointed out that young workers nowadays say the most important thing to them is career development. Therefore, transparency is crucial when hiring externally rather than promoting from within, making it clear why those decisions are made. Addressing cultural issues or the need for new skillsets within teams will sometimes require bringing in new leadership from outside the organisation

In the financial sector, purpose and culture have traditionally revolved simply around making profit and regulatory compliance. However, a shift is occurring, driven by the understanding that healthy cultures, characterised by inclusivity, diversity and safety, lead to improved outcomes. Regulatory bodies, such as the Financial Conduct Authority, are recognising the importance of these factors and placing much greater emphasis on and promoting the importance of purposeful organisational cultures during their inspections.

Companies like Slack are a useful case study for the maritime industry. Here, leadership recognises the significance of culture and actively works towards improvement. The walls are adorned with the slogan “work hard and go home on time.”

Embracing empathy, work-life balance, and fostering a supportive environment has become a priority because in the present business environment. Staff have a choice and attitudes change. If their job makes them feel like they don’t want to get up in the morning, they will realise that purpose is missing and go elsewhere.

You can read the article on Riviera Maritime Media via the link below

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