A Fish Out of Water
Over the past decade, the shipping industry has witnessed an increasing trend towards shore-based roles where many experienced personnel, particularly chief engineers, are looking to bring their technical skills from the ship to the office and become tomorrow’s superintendents or fleet managers.
However, Tony Browne, Course Director at Lloyd’s Maritime Academy, believes that caution is needed. Although prized with outstanding technical and analytical skills, these engineers often lack the interpersonal skills needed in a client-facing environment. Browne highlights the key attributes required to ensure we plug the middle management skills gap the industry is facing sooner rather than later:
Over the past decade, the shipping industry has experienced many struggles. Following the 2008 financial crash, consolidation and undercutting within ship management companies was rife – understandably so given the situation. However interestingly, the companies that survived were not the cut throat types, but those that delivered a good quality service. As rates became comparable, shipowners had the opportunity to decide who they wanted to work with and managers who possessed strong ethics and customer empathy would be the ones that would survive and thrive.
As we see more and more jobs moving ashore, there is still a distinct lack of focus on those superintendents and fleet managers that need to further develop their interpersonal skills. For example, fleet managers who have spent their formative years in a hierarchical working environment on board a ship will be accustomed to working alone and their analytical skills will be second to none, but they have few opportunities or in fact, a need to develop their interpersonal skills. Overseeing an engine room of a cargo ship is the antithesis of a client-focused environment. When moving ashore, the social norms of the fleet manager’s role becomes a completely different experience and predominantly focused on managing internal and external relationships – something that is unfamiliar territory for the seasoned engineer.
But how does that manifest itself? Although highly skilled and keen, HR and senior management within shipping companies often comment on the marine superintendent’s inability to listen to others or accept new ideas. These people can make very good decisions, but if those decisions are questioned, their defense barriers come up and they are likely to take it personally because they lack the emotional intelligence to deal with it as simply another viewpoint.
Furthermore, shipping is one of the last industries where there is still a very low proportion of females, and when you work in such an environment, it skews your human relationship skills to the point where confusion ensues. Many would argue that although considered a traditional market, the shipping industry should be way ahead of this archaic type approach but worryingly, it still exists – particularly within the merchant navy.
The industry expects transparency from their managers and requires them to take personal responsibility for their actions and to flag up problems that may arise within their area of responsibility at an early stage. The fear of losing face or of being blamed for an error can be a serious impediment to operational efficiency.
Managers need to hold people accountable for their actions but avoid blaming individuals for errors reasonably made within their skill set and role. This is defined as a Just Culture. A Reporting Culture combined with a Just Culture creates a Safety Culture, providing the basis for all valuable analysis.
An organization should use a Safety Culture as the basis for operations as it can help to reduce accidents, claims and misunderstandings, whilst increasing operational efficiency. The organization will also understand the importance of soft skills including communication and emotional intelligence when talking to shipowners, charterers and office staff. In all cases, there is a need for diplomacy, empathy and consistency. If for example, a customer contacts a ship manager, an immediate response is required – even if this is simply a holding response.
Having taught hundreds of mariners and managers, it becomes clear that whilst a personal sense of importance is the strongest underlying motivator, the individual’s need to be respected is a requirement of an individual’s self-worth.
We must also ensure that before we lay the responsibility on the managers, we help them to understand the different character types, of which there are three – X, Y and Z. The Z type Manager for example, takes personal responsibility for the actions of the organization and presents a positive attitude in ensuring customer satisfaction. The Z type will be lauded and trusted by stakeholders, and the focus for them is always on a quick resolution of any problems the customer might be facing.
Staff will also approach such a manager knowing that guidance will be given in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This type of manager is an organizational leader who cares about the health and happiness of his/her staff and as such, trust and loyalty in the relationship is felt.
People aren’t necessarily born managers, and just because someone was an effective chief engineer doesn’t mean that he or she will make an effective superintendent. You must invest in the right training to ensure they are equipped with the right skills. That said, advice given as part of a U.S style management training approach will have little relevance in the 24-hour maritime world and will therefore, fail to resonate. Development for such managers needs to be down to earth, effective and usable, and critically, it needs to focus on practical, real life problems that are likely to happen in everyday type situations.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.