December 10, 2008

Hubris and the Passion to Inertia index

(Authors foreword: Once upon a time, the kind of thinking put forward in this article was used by me in a software company I was responsible for, in India. In one particularly good period of four months, using these strategies, revenues at one office quadrupled as a result. Yes, four times)

We often talk about a lot of critical changes we need to make within the shipping universe to make it work far better. We talk of workable industry and seafaring bodies, practical regulation, government support, protecting seafarer’s welfare and enhancing their working conditions, officer shortages, criminalisation and the need to improve the maritime world’s profile in the eyes of the world. We talk about new ways of increasing profitability. We make grandiose plans and hold eloquent seminars and think we are furthering our cause.

In my considered opinion, we are banging our heads against the wall here, because what we do not do is address the one issue that is fundamental to making any of our initiatives work. That issue is, simply, the two contrasting attitudes of inertia and arrogance that simultaneously exist across the industry.

Most of us are bad actors in stereotyped roles here, hamming it up as we go along. Like the actor, we strike the right attitude, but it is often the weary attitude of surrender and inertia, or, if we are senior managers, arrogance bordering on hubris. Until we overcome these attitudes, we risk running into the same brick wall time and again. We see programmes and initiatives fall by the wayside of short attention spans and lack of spirit on one hand and a mandated authoritarian thinking on the other. We still persevere, though, because we are the salt of the earth, or at least of the sea. What we don’t realise is that doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result is folly.

The participants in this endless drama are many, and I will be the first to say that most of them are well meaning. Unfortunately there are too many who are not: we have our share of the fly by night ship owners hidden behind flags of convenience and post box addresses and managers stripping maintenance budgets bare to help project lower annual budgets and increase their fleet sizes. We have the usual suspects, including mariners who are satisfied working badly in poor organisations because they are birds of a feather, flocking together in mediocrity and disinterest. Let’s leave these folk aside; the taste of wine is never in the dregs.

Let us address the majority of interested professionals instead. Why do we see so many initiatives peter out into mediocrity at their hands? Excellent beginnings are made and fall by the wayside. Agendas are born, nurtured into plans and murdered during implementation.
It is obviously not due to lack of hard work, for many work long hours at sea and ashore. Oddly enough, though, the flesh seems willing but the spirit seems weak. There is no passion at the workplace.

This weakness of spirit plagues us in our working lives and eats away at our souls. Aboard ships, it translates into bored watch keeping, poorly motivated crews and sloppy maintenance. Ashore, it translates into uncaring attitudes, uninterested managers and short term blinkered thinking. Like the actor, we are going through the motions. We are choosing mediocrity over vision, even over greatness.

I am convinced that part of the reason for poor motivation and dreary attitudes at sea is, simply, diminishing pride in seafaring as a career. The clear attitude among many seafarers is that no longer is there much to be said in favour of a seagoing career except the wages; shore leave bans, fatigue and criminalisation have seen to that. This feeling is across nationalities and is reinforced by the fact that company structures and managerial disdain ensure that a seafarer feels excluded from the organisation he is working for. Clearly, the seafarer is looking for something more than wages; something is missing from his life, and that something is passion.

Shore establishments display similar fault lines too often. I can’t recall when I last saw a shore setup which was passionate about the firm or the industry they were working for. Whether in booms or busts, most of us are efficient at best. We are usually not enthusiastic, though, and rarely are we ablaze and impassioned about our jobs. Seamen may come and seamen may go, but ship management and owners go on, sometimes lethargically, forever. Thoughts limited to salaries, bottomlines, profits and efficiencies do not transform businesses; they just squeeze out more dollars and cents from the existing ones. To transform a business one has to think beyond the mundane and execute beyond the ordinary. Where are the organisations which will transcend the routine and leapfrog into the future? After a few decades connected with shipping, I can’t see many.

It is my clear belief that organisations should involve their personnel, ashore or afloat, in transforming themselves. Shipping, perhaps because many of its managers are ex seafarers, tends to operate in rigid hierarchies, although there is some improvement at sea in this regard. Officers and crew are much more involved, perhaps because of often threadbare manning and overregulation, in what was earlier, traditionally, a Master’s domain. Mess, management and safety committees have democratised ships, though they don’t work well as often as I would like them to. The need to disseminate voyage, technical and administrative information coming in from shore (often too much of it) means that a Master risks going crazy trying to do it all himself. More people are involved in decision making than ever before. This process is in its infancy, sure, and is not half as strengthened as all of us need to make it. However, imperfect as it is, it is well underway.

Unfortunately, democratisation has not really taken off ashore in a big way. Too many managements are too top heavy in structures and in thinking. With regard to ship/shore affairs, too many of them separate ‘the ship’ from ‘the office’, (unfortunately, seafarers do this too) ignoring the fact that the organisation is nothing without the ship and shooting themselves in the foot because they ignore the hundred odd years of collective seagoing experience that the crew of each of their ships can bring to the table, if seafarers opinions were only asked. They discourage a Master’s suggestions for systemic changes. They ignore their own shortcomings, a potentially suicidal trait in any manager, by tuning out the fact that many of them have no recent seagoing experience. Finally and critically, they ignore the concomitant advantages a more involved relationship with seagoing staff would yield.

In the relatively short experience I have within maritime shore establishments, and in the many I have additionally seen at close quarters, this despotic attitude is not unusual. Scattered offices across many continents is really no excuse as our industry is hardly unique in this regard. The fact is that most other industries are much more inclusive today, except perhaps some old time labour intensive manufacturing ones. Many encourage employees, even relatively lower ranking ones, to come up with big ideas. Not just the ‘we could save money by switching off alternate lights’ ones, but much bigger, entrepreneurial ones. In fact, some of the more forward thinking companies even fund in house mentoring programmes towards this end, encouraging employees to branch off on their own. Our industry is light years behind in comparison.

If I were sitting in my old fictional office as CEO of the fictional Differentship Pvt. Ltd., I would be spending a fair amount of time trying to involve my employees in the company. I would be particularly thinking of ways I could involve my contractual employees at sea, but I would pay almost equal stress to my shore colleagues, even if they were permanently employed. I would encourage passion and discourage inertia above all else.

I would not demand loyalty, or even call bonuses ‘Loyalty Bonuses’; in any case, how can one have loyalty when one’s employees do not even feel attached to the company and even sometimes feel alienated from it? I would invite seagoing staff in their off times to act as ‘short time consultants’, encouraging them to come up with ideas, big and small, to transform Differentship economically and otherwise. I would invite all my employees ashore to do likewise. I would pay for the ideas that raise profit and profile; in fact, I would involve people in the execution of their own ideas.

I would involve those without big ideas in smaller ones or the ideas of their colleagues; nobody should feel excluded and everybody would get ample opportunity to get passionate about their work. Promoting employee growth would be high on my agenda; with it would come the collateral advantages of employee satisfaction, higher company profile and excellent word of mouth. I bet a lot of people would be talking about us. I bet the word would be out that if you are a ‘business as usual’ person, Differentship is not the place for you.

And I daresay each one of us at Differentship would be making more money. Ideas, passion and the efficiencies thrown up by employee involvement would see to that. After all, and especially if I gave them stock options to boot, it is their company. I bet employees would think twice about leaving the company; after all, they are having more fun here, and they are growing, personally and otherwise.

That, folks, is loyalty. It is not the subservient loyalty peddled by our industry today; this is much stronger. Other companies demand loyalty and are mocked. Differentship invites it and displays, without a shadow of doubt, that it values its people. Because it does so, it commands loyalty.

No improvements will take place in Shipping unless many of us have passion and a vision. Vision can be shared but the passion must emerge from within. It will emerge when senior managers encourage it instead of stifling it. It will emerge only when some of us dismount from our high horses and listen to our employees. It will emerge when employees grow in ways beyond just economic. And it will flourish when the vast majority of employees, whether ashore or afloat, discard their old snake skins of inertia and bored efficiency and come to work with a spark in their eyes. We will win when the passion to inertia ratio is high in each one of us.

Plodding along is not an option. We are already perceived as a backward industry; if we continue to trudge on the same beaten path we risk continued stagnation and being shut out from the consciousness of the rest of the world, with all the resultant disadvantages that we see already.

Although pride can be constructive, arrogance is self destructive. Arrogance bordering on Hubris, as the Greeks will tell you, leads to downfall.

And mixing inertia with hubris is a fatal cocktail.

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