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Steering the Ship: Applying Principles from The Shipbuilder in Uncertain Times


By: Chris Ferris

Each of the updates I share with you, the Fidelity family and community, starts with me doing a little reflection on what’s changed since the last update.  As I gathered my thoughts to write this update, I thought back to the last blog, and the combination of optimism and excitement I felt writing it. That blog is an exploration of The Shipbuilder, by Jack Myrick, one of my all-time favorite business books.

To recap, the book is a fable that outlines the five core principles of effective leadership:

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

Part of the motivation for writing that blog came from knowing, as CEO, it was my job to lead with influence, not with power (principle #3). I was, and remain, committed to living these principles, and I wanted to make that commitment clear. My team earned my trust and my gratitude with their exceptional work and fortitude throughout 2020. It was important to me that they knew I’d noticed.

As the vaccine rollout proceeded full steam ahead and local numbers improved, I began looking forward to the moment it would be safe for the Fidelity and NOLA Lending family to be reunited and to demonstrate my commitment to the five core principles of The Shipbuilder in person. A “return to work” felt like more than a return to operational normalcy; to me, it felt like a chance to engage more fully in the unique and wonderful aspects of the culture of this bank and the community we serve.

Once, I took in-person meetings and impromptu conversations with my colleagues for granted; now I have a whole new appreciation for face-to-face interactions that do not rely on webcams and internet bandwidth. It was uplifting to think about being able to share these experiences with my colleagues once again.

As an institution Fidelity Bank survived, and even thrived, during the first year of the pandemic. But after a year of restrictions and remote work, I was eager to reap the benefits of the increased creativity, energy, and morale, that would come from being able to gather together in person in our new company headquarters. I was also excited to reconnect more fully with our clients to take time to hear what they needed from us as their banking partner at this stage of the crisis.

For a year, I’d been CEO to a team that was largely scattered and working in shifts. In the moments I had the pleasure of my colleagues’ in-person company, we were too lost in the weeds to do anything but focus on managing the immediate need. I was eager for a more complete reunion and assumed my feelings were shared by the majority of the Fidelity Family.  It turns out, this assumption was somewhat naïve, a fact I discovered as we shared our return-to-work plans.

Initially, I was surprised to learn some folks had gotten used to, or even preferred pandemic-style operations. I also have to admit, given the culture of our organization, I was momentarily stung by this discovery. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for me to realize, as I’d feared, the impact of the trauma we’ve all endured since the spring of 2020 made for a rough transition back.

Amid the turmoil we’ve all experienced across so many personal and community-wide fronts, no member of the Fidelity family escaped completely unscathed. Some folks got sick, some got very sick. Others lost loved ones to COVID-19 or other accidents and illnesses. These losses were especially hard as so often we were forced to grieve in isolation. Some folks were displaced, others had to make room in their homes for extended family. There was economic hardship when partners or roommates lost jobs, there were cancelled weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. For the numerous parents who work at Fidelity, there was an endless series of decisions regarding the safety of their children and the balancing act of being a working parent during a pandemic. All of us, myself included, were forced to reckon with challenges we’d never considered in our wildest dreams.  Accordingly, we are all— to varying degrees— different versions of who we were in March of 2020.

For me, the prospect of returning to the office was one that filled me with joy— for others, it was a cause of stress and anxiety. So how are we moving forward? In my opinion, one of the most valuable lessons of the past 18 months has been the art of combining flexibility with purpose. I’ve had to be flexible to integrate new information into my plans and accept things aren’t going to look exactly how I’d imagined. At the same time, my goals remain unchanged: I still look forward to walking around the Fidelity HQ, to visiting our branches and ops centers, and to seeing—in person— the folks who make Fidelity and NOLA Lending what it is. I still look forward to the energy of in-person leadership meetings, and to getting to shake (and sanitize) hands with new employees. But I’ve embraced the fact that the vision for how all this will look cannot come from me—it has to come from everyone.

There are no easy solutions, and there are as many opinions on how to proceed as there are members of the Fidelity family. However, I believe it is possible to do this collaboratively, and I’ve applied the principles of The Shipbuilder to the challenge. For example, making people feel appreciated now isn’t as much about congratulating them on good work as giving them the time and attention to share their concerns and ideas about how to move forward. I’ve told my leadership team to make room for people to share their concerns, and where appropriate, to contribute to solutions. Together, we can problem solve the issues that come up, whether it’s rearranging an office to allow for more social distancing or creating options for parents who need to be home with remote learners or quarantine cases. 

In 2019, I might have interpreted principle #2 (“see the potential, not their flaws”) as especially helpful in identifying and nurturing alent: what unique skills and talents are being underutilized? When team members make mistakes, how can I turn them into teachable moments? In 2021, it also means not judging those who are hesitant about returning to in-person work, but rather inviting them to contribute ideas to the plan.

It’s clear for some members of the Fidelity family, the normalcy of 2019 was burdensome. The pandemic has forced me as an individual and society overall to let go of the standard operating procedures we’d taken for granted— procedures that might have been holding us back without us even being aware of it. I’ve tasked myself and my senior management team with finding ways to reduce unnecessary burdens on team members in the organization while finding ways to prioritize the in-person interaction I think is vital to any organization’s health and I KNOW is integral to the Fidelity culture. Together, we’ll find new paths forward, knowing there will be times when we have to change direction— we’re not out of the pandemic woods yet, and we’ve all learned to expect the unexpected. I have faith we’ll get there, and the changes we make will strengthen our Fidelity and NOLA Lending family: internally, with our customers, and within the communities we serve.