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The Shipbuilder


By: Chris Ferris

The Shipbuilder

As we all know, 2020 was an eventful year, one that had lots of loose ends and repercussions that we’re still dealing with. To prepare myself for the challenges of 2021, and to refresh the intentionality with which I approach leadership, early this year I reread one of my favorite books on leadership, The Shipbuilder, by Jack Myrick. I read it for the first time as part of a leadership development program fairly early in my career, and again this year after one of my senior managers sent me a copy out of the blue.  While it’s not the most well-known text on leadership, it’s stuck with me since that first reading; its impact was enough to make me excited to pick it up again.

Perhaps some of its appeal comes from its digestibility; it’s a short book that tells the story of Marcus, a (fictional) struggling shipbuilder who learns that happy employees make the best employees. Like many fables, the story is a simple one. In Ancient Greece, Marcus is frustrated with his no-show workers and afraid of missing a looming and career-defining deadline. Fearing that all is lost, he seeks advice from the older and more successful shipbuilder, Barnabas, who teaches him five basic principles of leadership.  Marcus applies these principles to great effect; using them, he rallies his team, and together they’re inspired to cross the finish line in time.

 The principles that Barnabas shares are:

  1. Make them feel appreciated
  2. See the potential, not their flaws
  3. Lead with influence, not power
  4. Love them first
  5. Make them feel like they are part of something special

I doubt anyone will be shocked to learn that by the end of the story, Marcus has learned to appreciate each of these principles individually as well as their combined impact on his business and, importantly, on his relationships with his employees. (If you’re interested in reading The Shipbuilder yourself, you can buy it here.)

I turned to Myrick’s Barnabas and Marcus for inspiration because I was sensing the fatigue in my team after an intense year. I knew we’d be continuing to face challenging and uncertain times, and felt that in order to be the leader my team needs and deserves— always, but especially when things are tough— I needed to recenter myself. It’s part of my job to be effective at getting things done while keeping Fidelity Bank a happy and whole organization. That means finding ways to keep people energized, motivated, and excited about their work, even when they’re tired. I knew that Barnabas’ 5 principles would provide me with some inspiration.

I knew it, because the first time I read The Shipbuilder, I recognized that Barnabas was coaching Marcus to be the kind of leader I wanted to work for. After all, who doesn’t want to feel appreciated and have their contributions noticed at least as much as their mistakes? Who doesn’t want to be given the benefit of the doubt and to feel like they are part of something special? And don’t we all perform better when we’re able to understand what we’re working towards rather than just being told what to do? Early in my career, The Shipbuilder resonated with me because it helped me recognize the kind of leader I’d want to work for; today it helps me act like the leader I want to be. It can be easy to forget how important it is to prioritize Barnabas’ Five Principles when things are going well, and even more so when things are challenging— but it’s when things are tough that they’re most impactful and necessary.

Those of you who have read my blogs from 2020 will be aware of how many good reasons I have for sincerely appreciating my team and the incredible, hard work they do. And, those of you who do business with us will (I hope) also recognize that every member of the Fidelity team is part of something special: our consultative approach combined with personalized client service is special. It’s special that we have a definition for what that personalized service should look like— and we believe it leads to a world-class client experience. We have a relatively unusual structure for a financial institution; as a mutual, our shareholders are our deposit account holders, so we are owned by our clients. Personally, I think that being a mutual financial institution is special, so when you combine these factors with the fact that as an organization, we measure our success by the success of the communities we serve— well, that’s rare and I believe, extra special. I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way; people have taken the initiative to tell me that they’re proud to work at Fidelity for these exact reasons. But, it’s one thing to know intellectually that you work for a special organization, it’s something else entirely to feel motivated and inspired by this knowledge every day.

Accordingly, one of the most important take-aways I got from my rereading of The Shipbuilder was that saying it is not enough. I wanted to start the year off with a focus on making everyone on the Fidelity team feel appreciated, valued, and trusted. I wanted them to know that they are more than just their job title to me, and to feel excited about the work we’re doing as a team on behalf of our community. This an ongoing process; you’re never “done” showing appreciation. But to fulfill my objective of really doubling down on Barnabas’ Five Principles, I’ve tried to be conscientious about a few things that I hope are making the team feel good about how integral they are to the success of this organization.

First off, I try to be consistent. Consistency is key to, among other things, credibility. If I hope to lead with influence rather than power, I have to show that our mission and vision are not so fragile that they change with the winds. I have to show faith in myself, my policies, and my decisions so that others can have faith in me. During some of the most difficult moments of the past year, I had several members of the Fidelity family reach out to say how much the leadership’s team consistency—  in terms of goals, priorities, expectations, and processes— empowered them to do what they needed to do without fear of consequences down the road. I’m very proud of that.

At Fidelity, ensuring our team members feel appreciated, empowered, and valued as human beings is part of our culture. It’s baked into our marketing, our HR processes, and of course our executive leadership decisions. We encourage feedback and conversation, valuing the input of team members with hands-on experience— their perspective helps us to do an even better job. As CEO, I strive to lead with influence, not power as Barnabas coaches Marcus to do. But I also recognize that influence is not one-directional: it is even more of a priority to me today that everyone who works at Fidelity feels empowered to share their input and experience. Moreover, I want them to understand that whatever the final decisions are, their input has been taken seriously. I believe that because people know we respect their voices and are grateful for their feedback and suggestions, our executive team can avoid the trap of leaning too heavily on authority to get things done: people buy in to our collective success when they feel there is collaboration.

Another tangible take-away that relates to Barnabas’ Five Principles that I’ve been more cognizant of recently, is to actively demonstrate trust in my team’s judgment calls and to be clear that we don’t expect perfection, especially when it’s obvious that decisions must be made quickly, and in volatile situations. Nor do we expect employees to sacrifice everything else in their lives to be successful at work. Recently, I took time off to spend a week with my family. Of course the primary reason for my vacation was the family time, but I was intentionally open about my plans to take time off because I don’t want my team to feel afraid to do the same. As I’ve said, we measure our success by the health and success of the communities we serve— and our employees are part of the community. It is not healthy to feel tethered to work 24/7. Furthermore, it’s bad for the health of the organization when its employees are exhausted, resentful, and disengaged from the community.  We show our appreciation for the folks that work here by respecting their time away and having faith that they are capable of making decisions about what is urgent and what can wait.

Fidelity aspires to be a place where people come to work excited about making a difference in our community. While no job is perfect and everyone has bad days, I think we do a pretty good job, and right now, it is a priority for me to do an even better job. By prioritizing the culture of this company, by committing to being the kind of leader that Barnabas would be proud of, I believe I am investing in the future of our organization: any expenditures are sure to be offset in the future as our healthy company continues to grow and reach further and deeper into our community. I can’t do it alone though, and I’m grateful to everyone on the executive team for helping me to be the kind of leader I strive to be and keeping Fidelity focused on effectively living up the mission of being “here for good.”

Now, I invite you to give me some input and feedback: what’s something that’s made you feel appreciated, trusted, and part of something special in your career? What have you done as a leader that’s inspired those around you to be even better? Send me an email to [email protected] with your thoughts and ideas, I’m looking forward to reading them!