SPECIAL REPORT: How to rise to a board-level position at shipping companies

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, talks to Inna Kuznetsovaon about the need for more gender diversity and what it takes for women to rise to board-level position in our still male-dominated industry.

INTTRA Inna Kutznetsova

The statistics of women holding management positions is dismal.  As recent as 2017, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that for maritime onshore-based jobs, women hold 55 percent of junior-level positions, but only nine percent of executive-level positions.

Looking at the big picture of a male-dominated industry, with biasness, little interest to change the status quo and coupled with a lack of information and education to encourage young women to pursue a career in maritime, it makes Inna’s rise to the top so much more extraordinary.

But we can all take heart in the steps, albeit small, that the industry is taking now to include more women in top roles.

Inna’s story is compelling.  Her advice is inspirational.  She has shown us that there is already a way to the top for women.

Slowly but surely, as more and more women are joining in the fight for equality and fairness, breaking down the glass ceiling, it will not be long before we see more women in the boardrooms.

Inna Kuznetsova is currently a mentor, advisor, technology entrepreneur and board member of a number of companies and organizations, including as an independent non-executive director and chairperson of Remuneration, Nomination Committee, Global Ports Investments Plc (LSE: GLPR).  She was previously in top management roles in INTTRA, CEVA and IBM.

Blazing a trail for women in management

Corporate Fair Trade Community (CFTC): We know there is a need for more women in leadership roles, especially in the shipping industry.  In your opinion, how should we go about doing that?

Inna Kuznetsova (IK): First of all, we need more role models and champions in the boards and senior executive team.

When joining a company, women look at organizational charts and feel more comfortable if they include women at top levels, especially in line roles, such as sales or operations.

It is more common to find women heading legal, marketing and HR, so we end up having more women working in these functions.

Once, I had a chance to bring a few senior company executives to the women network’s breakfast. Later, one of the male peers admitted to me that he felt a bit intimidated walking into the hall full of women and asked if this was how I felt every day.

All of us feel more comfortable if there are other people like us around who can understand us, offer advice and stay unbiased.

Attracting more women to the industry and a company across all levels, expands the talent pool and builds a stronger pipeline.

Second, we should look hard at our hiring philosophy and stop limiting the source of candidates to the immediate internal pipeline or the same level at competing businesses.

Ask instead, what skills and qualities are required to do the job, and consider looking at different industries.

Innovation often crosses the industry boarders. A candidate who never worked in shipping before may, for example, bring a different approach to global account management or setting up a consulting practice, used in her prior company, thereby helping you to differentiate in the marketplace.

Other things a company may do include having a woman on every slate of candidates for a new role, establishing mentorship programs, celebrating International Women’s Day, and offering flexible hours.

Keeping more women requires taking a hard stand on the internal climate and promoting respect within the company, fighting not just the explicit harassment, but daily biases, such as women being more often interrupted in meetings than men, or singled out systematically for keeping notes.

CFTCWhat is your advice for women aspiring to board-level positions?

IK:  Women are often advised to start small, joining a small non-profit board, then working slowly towards their aspiration. I think one should avoid joining a non-profit unless one is truly sharing its goals.

Do it only for passion, not as a stepping stone.

Becoming a director requires two things. First, it is getting the skills and experience that are valued by boards. Second, it is growing your visibility to people who can open doors, such as the current board members, private equity partners and recruiters from board practices.

The first usually implies a C-level position reporting to the CEO, and being exposed to a broad range of decision-making beyond a particular function, such as investments and divestitures, reshaping an organization, updating the strategy, and answering disruptions or acquisitions.

The second requires old fashion feet-on-the-ground networking, even if you are already supported by social networks and other new age tools.

Being a board member implies a personal financial liability for the choices made by the company; a constant need to maintain one’s level of expertise on new requirements for governance, such as trends in remuneration or disclosures; and a lot of work.

It is not uncommon to spend weekends reading hundreds of pages of board material, jumping on early or late calls, and committing to additional travel.

So, my other advice is to join a board for a right reason. It is not a pinnacle of one’s career but an opportunity to make an impact.

CFTC: In your opinion, how do we ensure that we are growing professionally? 

IK: It starts with defining what a professional growth means for each of us personally. Some choose an administrative career path, where the success means moving from running a single function to full P&L responsibilities or increasing the scope of business managed.

Others are more comfortable with an expert’s road, striving to become the best specialist in a certain technology, technique or discipline.

Last, there are people who avoid building lives around work, using it rather as a source of income, while excelling in arts, caring for families or engaging with their communities.

Understanding the personal aspirations helps to select the right sequence of jobs and roles, seek developmental projects and mentors, in other words, make better choices.

Next, getting out of one’s comfort zone creates a powerful incentive to master new skills. It forces us to try something we have not done before and become comfortable doing it, building a foundation for the next step in professional development.

Last, but not least, all of us need mentors. A mentor can offer advice, open a door through introductions or help a person to understand his or her shortcomings, all of each is very important for career growth.

CFTC: To you, what is leadership?

IK: Leadership is taking a group of people, whether an organization, a team or a tribe, to where it won’t get on its own.

Good leadership is doing it in a collaborative manner through setting the common goals, aligning on values and a strategy, working together towards the same target in a way that once reached, people would be happy to do it together again.

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