The Changing Faces of Leadership

Ports are embracing diversity in gender and background experience, creating new opportunities and outlooks, especially at the port leadership level. Many of these new executives share one more thing: they happen to be women.

* By Sandy Smith *

Accountants. Business strategists. Environmentalists. Real estate experts. These are just some of the non-traditional routes to port leadership that recent appointments have had on their resumes.

Many of these new executives share one more thing: they happen to be women. And just this summer, two more were added to the list as the Port of Redwood City (CA) and Duluth (MN) Seaport added new executives who are women.

It is part of a shift in port leadership – one focused beyond gender on a difference in backgrounds and skillsets.

“There was an era when the majority of port directors came to the job with sea time experience and academics from merchant marine academies or the Coast Guard,” said Kristin Decas, who became CEO of the Port of Hueneme (CA) in 2012. “Over time we’ve seen a shift in credentials based on different challenges and opportunities facing the ports. Today, ports feel pressures from regulators and environmental and social justice groups, and consequently make sustainable growth a high priority. Equally important, ports strive to cost compete and increase their market share. As result, I’ve seen a wave of ports starting to hire people with commercial backgrounds and/or environmental degrees. I don’t think there is necessarily a specific requirement that you must have – a business background, an environmental background or a shipping background. It’s more focused on, ‘What is the priority for that port complex?’ that is driving hiring decisions.”

Susan Shey Dvonch, partner at the executive search firm Shey Harding, handled many of these appointments. “We’re pretty proud of the record of phenomenal women coming into those leadership roles in the industry,” she said. The shift has been somewhat accidental, she said, with the best candidates – who happened to be women – rising to the top. “Now, we’re seeing more of a trend to not just include women and diverse candidates in the candidate pool, but more of a commitment to actually hiring qualified women and diverse candidates.”

Some of that has come as the industry has opened to experience outside of maritime, Dvonch said. “That allows for people who are exceptional leaders, who are extremely smart, who are brilliant marketers, who have the ability to put these small ports on the map on a national scale,” she said. “There’s an understanding that somebody who brings those other qualities – whether leadership or financial acumen or business development or marketing savvy – is going to be critical for a port.”

Women are coming into port leadership from a variety of backgrounds, part of a generational shift that allows for more diverse careers. “People today – not just women – don’t expect their career to follow a linear path,” said Lisa Wieland, who became port director at Massport in 2016. Wieland was recruited to Massport – which also oversees airports in the region – from Bain & Company, a global advisory firm. “They will find opportunities in places they never imagined. If that continues to be true, we will see more people with diverse backgrounds in port leadership.”

Kristine Zortman, who became executive director of the Port of Redwood City (CA) in June, says her route to ports was “circuitous.”

She began her career focused on land acquisition for a large home builder before moving to the Port of San Diego to focus on commercial real estate. She also had a stint at Civic San Diego, though she always “kept my finger on the pulse of what was happening in maritime,” she said. “I knew I would come back to the maritime industry.”

Despite the lengthy focus on real estate, Zortman – like many of the other women port leaders – has had a varied career that began with an undergraduate degree in biology. She also has experience in permitting and hazardous materials. “Being able to bridge from where I started in biology into a couple of different disciplines has allowed me to grow, and that’s what has allowed me to come to the port.”

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