Linda Styrk’s job as the executive director of the Puget Sound Pilots includes some typical leadership duties, such as preparing for board meetings and ensuring the organization’s finances are in order. There also is a sense of history and adventure in overseeing a more than 80-year-old organization dedicated to the protection of Puget Sound’s marine environment, economy and security.
The Puget Sound Pilots play a unique role in Washington state, which requires pilots on the bridge of every large ship sailing into Puget Sound ― from cruise ships to container vessels. Ship pilots are highly trained, expert ship handlers who use rope ladders to board vessels while they are underway at speeds up to 10 knots as they enter the Sound. The pilots are licensed by the state to guide the vessels through challenging local waters and dock safely, without harm to the marine environment or surrounding infrastructure.
Prior to joining Puget Sound Pilots as executive director in 2015, Styrk’s career touched nearly every corner of the maritime industry. She served as first female managing director of maritime at the Port of Seattle for nearly 10 years, and has held numerous leadership roles in international logistics and container transportation.
Her start as a mariner at sea and subsequent rise to executive roles highlights the many career pathways that women and men alike can chart in the maritime industry. Styrk offers some insights about the challenges faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
After nearly 40 years in the maritime industry and 20 different roles, I’ve found that strong values like integrity, respect for others and trust are the most important characteristics of a good leader. If you put faith in others, you can earn their trust in return. I also strongly believe in leading by example — guiding and even inspiring others through your own words and actions. As for overrated traits, the experience that comes from relevant work and determination matters more to me than, say, academic backgrounds and other credentials. Ultimately, the growth that stems from first-hand experience is what will enable future success.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
Networking in male-dominated industries can be a challenge. Although this has improved, there have been more frequent and natural opportunities for men to network with one another. Group settings and environments may not always feel as inviting or flow as naturally when you’re the only woman. To become the leader I am today, I focused a lot on adapting my game plan to each workplace environment so I could increase visibility for me and my work. My first job and game plan as a marine superintendent managing ship operations and longshore labor was certainly a lot different than my role as the head of Port of Seattle’s seaport.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
Be confident while maintaining a strong value system (trust, integrity, respect) and work ethic. Take initiative and raise your hand for interesting projects or roles that expand your skill set. Continuously work to make things better in your current role, focus on quality of work over quantity. Everything you produce has your signature on it, so make yourself proud.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
Be honest with yourself about your capabilities. Be confident, but humble, in what you know and do well. Be collaborative and learn from others. Everyone has knowledge you can apply to your own career. When managing or working with others, be sure to coach for improvement and curb the urge to criticize, complain or disparage. Encouraging environments produce better results.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
Early in my career, I was working for an international company that held a “women’s” leadership seminar that all women managers were expected to attend. At that time, I felt strongly that advancement should be based solely on merit. I was never crazy about activities which singled out women in the workplace, and I was not very enthusiastic about attending. The seminar was led by the first woman CEO of a major U.S. Bank. With her strong German accent and firecracker personality, she believed that the best employee in the world will go unnoticed and struggle to be promoted if no one knows them or works with them closely. People default to who and what is most familiar. It was a good reminder that even though I was working hard, networking is an important piece of career growth that I undervalued.
What would you do differently in your career?
I appreciate all the experiences I have had throughout my career. However, there is one item that always comes to mind. After years working as a company employee, I accepted an executive position under an employment contract. It did not even occur to me to hire a lawyer to review the contract before signing. I was so excited about the role that I put blind trust in the company and boy did I learn a lesson the hard way!
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
At home hanging out with my family, making homemade granola or out riding my beach cruiser on Alki.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“The Calm That Weathers the Storm.”
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Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.