3 Lessons learnt from working in the biggest shipping line

Even though I studied in Rotterdam – one of the biggest shipping hubs, I never imagined to be working in this industry. While pursuing my MSc degree, I was dreaming to work in the FMCG sector for big brands, because somehow it was associated with a successful career. Who doesn’t want to be successful, right?

After graduating, I exactly got what I wanted. A cool job at Philips HQ Transformation team. I was kind of proud of myself and I really had good time there. 

After working for more than four years at Philips, suddenly a recruiter called me and asked if I would be interested in switching my career to the shipping industry. When I heard that it was for one of the biggest Shipping brands, Maersk, I thought; why not? 

I remember talking to my fellow colleague whose girlfriend was working for Svitzer, which is part of the Maersk group. We were both very proud to be at Philips, but after hearing from him about his girlfriends’ development and cool journeys around the globe at her company really made us think that maybe shipping isn’t that bad after all? 

Anyway, cutting a long story short, I ended up at Maersk and set sail (pun intended) into the wonderous world of shipping and would like to share my key lessons learnt from my time there.

Always go to GEMBA especially in shipping

Before joining Maersk, I was not too worried about understanding the business. At Philips I was working for one of the most complex healthcare modalities (i.e. magnetic resonance) thus shipping didn’t scare me. They only move boxes from A to B. What can be complicated there?

Well, very quickly my opinion changed. I remember attending the cross functional daily stand up meetings, where functional representatives were sharing key operations information. For a couple of months it was hard for me to understand what they were talking about. I mean really hard. They call ships in female names, they have so many service codes, an overload of technical lingo. It felt so alien. 

This made me realize that I need to do some homework. So I started to go to gemba. Do you know what gemba stands for? If not, I’ve got you covered; the word comes from Japanese and refers to the location where the real value is created.

One thing’s for sure, gemba in shipping is double as exciting. I had the privilege to sail on a container vessel from Felixstowe to Rotterdam with the whole crew. The experience was eye opening and exciting which made me learn so many things including leadership. This has helped me to connect with staff and truly made me understand what people where talking about at those aforementioned stand up meetings. I won’t consider myself a shipping guru, but after two years in the operations “kitchen” I had a really good view of end-to-end operations.

Wherever you are working, especially if you are new, don’t jump to conclusions too fast. Always go to gemba and experience the real thing under real circumstances. More importantly, it’s the only way to earn respect from seniors.

Don’t use fancy HQ like lingo

You remember me mentioning that I used to work at Philips HQ? Philips is an amazing company, it’s so innovative, faces lots of disruption from new companies, thus plays in competitive markets . Naturally many people working there are engineers, highly educated masters or even PhDs. This means we are comfortable using the fancy lingo, which doesn’t really translate well to all other industries.

When joining Maersk and a few weeks into my new job, it frustrated me that I had no clue what they were talking about. This made me decide to focus and rely on my strengths. This means doing the HQ stuff. You know, those conceptual models, good looking slides or “smart” presentations.

Preparing for a presentation and adjusting your lingo for your audience is key
Always adjust your lingo to your target audience

If things only were so easy… I quickly I realized that I simply lost my audience with whomever I was working. They were looking to me like I was from a different planet and the question that always followed; “Are you from Copenhagen?” This question was not a compliment in Maersk’s operations kitchen. If you want to drive change, you need to be one of them, so the dear HQ girl really needed to change her lingo.

What did I do? Whenever I was preparing for an important meeting or presentation, I always looked back to my gemba notes and insights. Whatever sounded non-shipping like, I simply changed and used simpler wording and didn’t use too many conceptual words. I explained and used many business concepts, methodologies but explained it in very simple human language. And it worked!

It was very funny to receive a goodbye message from the most difficult stakeholder I ever worked with in my life. He wrote me “Thanks Agne.. By working with you I have finally changed my opinion about Maersk Operating System (a bit..)”. This was one of my biggest compliments I have ever received in my life. That “a bit” can sometimes be very big.

“Thanks Agne.. By working with you I have finally change my opinion about Maersk Operating System (a bit..)”

My most difficult stakeholder when I was working at Maersk

You better be fast and agile

One thing which I have never missed at Philips is slow pace, especially in the healthcare business. It takes at least a few years to launch a new healthcare product, mostly due to various regulations, which of course makes sense.

If you are a bit impatient and like to move fast, shipping operations is a good place to be. Vessels are sailing 24/7, containers are loaded and discharged 24/7 and we even have 24/7 teams working in the operations office. There are always some issues and you always need to act NOW or very soon. This means that very often you simply don’t have much time to think it through. 

I remember when my boss told me that he would like to offer me a promotion. Before I even told him my decision, I already needed to facilitate a workshop with the leadership team. I got to know about it two days in advance during my business trip, which meant I have a full calendar blocked. This is just business as usual in shipping operations. 

Stay fast and agile
Stay fast and agile

Your flexibility, agility and speed to adapt to new things really helps in shipping. Sometimes I also think that just being a woman is also an advantage, we are considered to be strong in multitasking after all 😉 

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