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  • Melvin Mathews

Does chronic "Founderitis" prevent innovation and disruption?

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

In the shipping industry one thing that is broadly apparent is the inherent resistance to change, lack of major innovation and the almost absent drive for disruption. For a long time, this lethargy was attributed to the industry being strongly steeped in tradition and by nature being extremely conservative. After being in numerous meetings with several companies of all sizes, some being current partners, customers or investors and others being prospective partners, customers or investors. Something striking about shipping is the somewhat uniform leadership skills across the board.

There is this profound realization that most of our leaders suffer from chronic 'founderitis' or variations of it. To put it simply, it appears that most of our leaders are themselves the industry’s biggest roadblocks to change and innovation. Allow me to elaborate.

Our leaders and CEOs have highly developed skills adept at executing a singular vision with persistent resolve, this involves leading a top-down structure with firm departmental boundaries. This is a model that has been time tested and has always worked, as it means consistency, efficiency, ease to monitor performance and progress. Successors have been consistently hired or have been groomed to be leaders exactly like themselves. Consequently, everybody in the company constantly looks up for vision and direction. This also makes things quite predictable within a company with everybody involved usually knowing what to expect and what is expected.

In family run companies (which predominantly most companies in the shipping industry are) this is even more pronounced. The ‘family’ and the ‘family perspective’ is viewed with so much awe that outside voices are either submissive, subdued or often bluntly muted. Everybody else is an absolute follower. Common here is – My way or highway. Oddly within the industry this behaviour is not just limited to ship owners alone, but also to most companies that support shipping with material, equipment and services.

In a digital world, the future will not be about command and control, which was necessary to be effective and improve continuously. This method was a historic necessity to sustain the company for the next decade or more, while maintaining a competitive advantage or for protecting an IP or create barriers to entry, etc. While competitive advantage in any area was important in the past when it came to your competition, it’s not that relevant today when information is freely available and you can be disrupted by any anybody, anytime. Competitive advantage has different connotations now, it means agility and flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing market, technology and world around us.

With digitalization and digital disruption, the highly-valued skills once considered the prerequisite of corporate leadership have suddenly become either less important or almost meaningless. In a digitally enabled world the leaders most likely to be successful are the ones that:

-      Readily admit they don’t know everything, so easily seek opinion inside and outside.

-      Effortlessly break down barriers and structures.

-      Are naturally flexible, and are prepared to adapt and evolve.

-      Attract, recruit and retain the right people for the right job and not for their loyalty.

-      Nurture a culture where it is ok to fail, but it’s certainly not acceptable not to try.

It’s no longer enough to have an awesome strategy and pursue it, but have a conscious strategy to continually change as the world rapidly evolves around you. A leader must be constantly aware that disruption might be right around the corner and they could be anybody – startups, competitors, partners or an entity from another industry.

Modern leaders incubate, nurture and facilitate, devolved and autonomous multidisciplinary teams with the freedom to be imaginative and creative, with a vision to disrupt. They are also tactically prepared with a culture of flexibility and agility to adapt quickly if and when disruption eventually comes. Such leaders appear to behave and act less like traditional leaders and perform more the role of a facilitator. They are creating organisations with greater chance of survival when they get disrupted externally, but more importantly are creating a culture where there is a greater possibility of being the disrupter themselves.

Let me know your thoughts.

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