This week brought the launch of the UK Government’s Maritime 2050, the joint 30-year strategy paper launched by the maritime industry and the Department of Transport. Ninety-five percent UK imports and exports pass through our ports, with 60 million passenger journeys made, whilst the fishing industry and marine leisure sectors also rely on easy access to the sea.

UK ports enjoy various different ownership structures and levels of corporate governance, ranging from trust ports through to larger ports groups and multinational businesses. One thing they share in common is an ever more commercial approach to business and this comes directly from the leadership around the Board table. 

It used to be common for a pilot to become the Harbour Master, then the Harbour Master would transition to be the MD or Chief Executive, invariably remaining in post for many years, sometimes regardless of commercial competence. But times have changed, and the UK port sector currently benefits from highly professional, dedicated and deeply experienced leaders. 

But looking to the future, leaders of UK ports face a number of challenges – around technology, automation, and expansion in a global market. It’s far from clear, for example, if or whether the industry can continue to grow its future leaders or whether a one-time pilot might still expect to be a future Chief Executive. Does skilfully piloting a supertanker or car carrier alongside in an ebb tide with offshore wind in low visibility, equip someone for the challenges of digital transformation, accelerated automation, global customer relationship management and producing board papers?

In a recent survey of UK port leaders, set against the prospect of Brexit, an overwhelming number of ports said investment in physical infrastructure and technology was their top priority. However, the vast majority said finding top people with the right skills and capabilities to lead in the medium to long term was also a key concern.

Of course, there will still be some pilots who make it to the top of the tree. They will quickly gain commercial experience and exercise different leadership skills to those seen when afloat.  But the demands and expectations made of the senior management within the sector are only set to increase. People with extraordinary talent are needed for the future, in what is set to be ever-evolving, challenging times.

So where will the future talent come from? The challenge is to attract global talent that is also much sought after in other walks of life and competition is tough. Whilst Brexit uncertainty is causing overseas candidates to pause and adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to potential relocation to the UK, a thriving port sector will always offer an enticing, fast-paced career opportunity, where an entrepreneurial flair, commercial aggression, compassionate and inclusive leadership, and genuinely good communication skills are highly prized. 

Whatever the Brexit outcome, the UK will always be a trading nation, affirmed once again in Maritime 2050. We have the second largest port industry in Europe, but we must be flexible, adaptable and inclusive, to attract the very best talent.

Paul Butterworth

Paul Butterworth is a Partner and Head of the Maritime & Shipping Practice, based in London. He has 23 years' experience of the maritime sector, ten of which have been in executive search. This bui...

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