This article is an interview with Spinnaker Consulting’s Chairman, Mr. Phil Parry. We have discussed the role of the superintendents and the variety of skills and experience they should have to perform in their position. What is needed in order to get a cooperative instead of combative relationship between ships and office? The answer is training – leadership and management training.
Interview with Phil Parry, Chairman, Spinnaker Consulting
Why is it important that superintendents develop their leadership skills?
It is a fundamental truth that well managed people deliver better results, stick around longer, enjoy their work more and are developed and are developing themselves. In short, in shipping, superintendents – with good leadership skills – are therefore the key to organisational health as well as safety – guiding the safety culture, cost control and the maintenance and quality of ships.
What particular skills should they develop?
It’s not just about skills, it’s about knowledge and understanding. We need to educate them on the commercial, legal and ethical consequences of their jobs and on man-management issues.
Many seafarers and former seafarers have little grasp of salvage, charter parties, the commercial consequences of MARPOL and MLC and the absolute need to toe the company line when it comes to sticking to company QA systems. It’s not their fault by the way, but I come back to that later.
Most superintendents are former seafarers. While climbing up through the ranks, officers are seldom given any kind of management training. As one shipping CEO (from whom I am plagiarising shamelessly in these comments) put it to me recently: “It is Monkey See, Monkey Do and the only role model for many is often a set of equally poorly trained senior officers and superintendents with poorly developed communication skills.”
So many shipping executives have told me that they have quickly seen new superintendents conditioned by their peers in the office to be screaming and shouting down the telephone line to their ‘juniors’ on board. It is only with new blood with different training and personal development that a cooperative instead of combative relationship between ships and office starts to develop. The result is better-run ships, good communication and happy owners who see the asset value of their ships go up.
We have talked a lot about the responsibilities of the shipping companies, but looking at the superintendents themselves, for example, what is their own responsibility in your opinion? Do they recognise that they need more leadership training in order to handle the issues they face in their jobs?
I would say that probably the single biggest problem is lack of self-awareness, followed very closely by lack of understanding of the consequences of doing their job badly. I think that a very important aspect of starting the process towards leadership training is helping them to become self-aware. It’s a generalisation of course, but it’s a commonly held view that seafarers are not particularly open-minded. As I see it, there are two main ways of promoting self-awareness. The first is to receive direct feed-back from colleagues; the other is to work with an expert of profiling. Psychometric profiling is being used more by employers nowadays. They often use certain tests for recruitment, but you need to use a tailored test to understand someone’s leadership competencies and motivation.
To sum up on this, too many lack some or all of the following: negotiation skills, presentation skills, including for presenting a clear case, leading a meeting and leading a room full of yard people. Lacking these skills also prevents them from getting maximum cooperation out of yard/contractor middle management and from communicating clearly to get the result they want. Furthermore they lack commercial awareness and willingness to share information. And not enough play a big enough role in retention and promotion of sea staff through mentoring/thinking with/assisting the sea staff. Oh, and we all need better time-management skills don’t we!? To repeat myself, it’s not necessarily their fault – lots of experts such as lawyers, doctors, professors are not good leaders because nobody has taught them how or shown them where they need to develop.
How can we then make sure that their (leadership) skills be developed?
I think it is up to individual employers to take the leap of faith and invest. The pressure is increasing. For example, insurers have cottoned on to the fact that the root cause of accidents is frequently poor leadership and procedures that are not adhered to; and, TMSA element 2 shines a light on shore based management and recruitment.
But there is no professional qualification or minimum standard for becoming a superintendent and this is something we have been investigating with partners including Green-Jakobsen. Meantime, we work alongside professionals like Green-Jakobsen to train, coach and mentor where we’re allowed through the door!
What is stopping shipping companies investing in leadership training?
There are many reasons: Human nature, apathy, heads buried in the sand, too much focus on assets and on technical issues, a tick box approach by authorities to the Manila Amendments to STCW (HELM – human element leadership and management). I could go on. We all know that prevention is better than cure, that preparation is the key to success, but only ‘the enlightened few’ have grabbed this particular bull by the horn.
There is another answer to this question: because this kind of investment is intangible; there is no guarantee that you will get results. It is like asking why you should give up smoking – there is no guarantee that smokers will get cancer, but we know it is a good investment to stop smoking – it reduces the risk of bad things happening.
In Green-Jakobsen we constantly discuss how we measure these things – how can we prove that leadership training will actually make people perform better and how do we measure that. Performance is hard to measure – could that be one of the issues as well?
Indeed. One of the main issues with any kind of investment in people is that they treat it like they do many training courses and don’t build-in follow-up. They don’t even build measurement of improvement in the area into their appraisal process going forward. If leadership development is worth investing in, then logic says it should become some kind of a KPI or personal objective, which is measured through or monitored through an appraisal process.
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