Boudewijn Siemons (Port of Rotterdam): ‘Safety Is Something You Owe Each Other’

Boudewijn Siemons (Port of Rotterdam): ‘Safety Is Something You Owe Each Other’
‘Safety is a top priority in the port,’ says Boudewijn Siemons, COO and interim CEO of the Port of Rotterdam since last summer. He corrects himself immediately, ‘No, that is not true. It is not a priority; it is the foundation.’ If not everyone comes home safely—physically or mentally—we experience it as failure.

Siemons enjoys spending his free time in nature. With friends or his family, preferably in the most primitive way. Backpack on, hiking in the mountains for days, with a tent or staying in huts. But even during those moments of relaxation, Siemons, with a laugh, admits that he always includes a ‘safety moment’ at the start. ‘At the beginning of such an expedition, I always feel the need to cover a few points. Is everyone okay? Does everyone know what they are getting into? Are you watching out for each other? Do you know to make sure you have three contact points in difficult passages? Yes, my kids laugh about it, and some of my friends do too. But in others I see recognition. Often, those are people from the port; they grew up with this safety mindset.’

Boudewijn Siemons walks along the banks of the River Maas daily. He is well acquainted with the Port of Rotterdam, knows every square meter of it, knows every company there. He lives on Katendrecht and has been working on the Kop van Zuid, in the impressive office building that houses the Port of Rotterdam, since 2020. A map of his work area hangs in his office, ‘a country of its own – 3,000 companies, 180,000 people.’ But from the executive floor on the 16th floor, he can also oversee a significant part of the port and the city. ‘A view that never gets old,’ he admits. He has been the COO for three years, and since this summer, Siemons has taken on a new role: following the departure of Allard Castelein as CEO of the Port of Rotterdam, he was asked to become ‘interim.’ He did not hesitate, but made it clear: ‘I will not only ‘mind the store’ during a time when so much is happening; we need to move forward.’

You have been the interim CEO of the Port of Rotterdam since summer, in addition to being COO. How is that going?
‘I really enjoy it. Being a CEO is quite different from the COO role. As COO, I am mainly focused on the life cycle of the port: I am responsible for the departments that deal with spatial planning, expansion, and maintenance of the port, as well as the safe and smooth handling of shipping. As CEO, I handle the big picture, strategy, relationships with the entire stakeholder community, both inside and outside the port. I talk to many parties and meet a multitude of new people. We are mainly working on the energy and resource transition. It is very interesting and enjoyable. I was already part of the Port of Rotterdam’s executive team, and I previously had considerable experience in general management. I have also seen a fair number of ports in my life, so I do not feel uncomfortable in this dual role. On the contrary.’

The COO role was probably already more than a full-time job—you added a second full-time role to it?

‘Yes, they are two more than full-time roles with two calendars that are not easy to combine. We as an organisation really need to work this out soon. Fortunately, I have been able to delegate many tasks. Some of the COO’s work has been taken on by colleagues. For now, it is going well, but it is not ideal. It is gratifying to work in a company with so many professionals. Colleagues know what to do; they handle it together, and they only call me when absolutely necessary. I am also getting fantastic support for the CEO part. It is great to see how we are managing the situation together.’

What did you foresee as your biggest challenge?
‘When I took over from Allard Castelein on July 15th, I had breakfast with the staff. A colleague then asked me what I was most concerned about. I thought that was a great question. I had to think about it for a moment. But then I said, ‘What I am most concerned about is that you will no longer tell me when you think I am wrong.’ I need feedback just like anyone else. I believe in an organization where everyone treats each other respectfully and where you can discuss everything with each other. The CEO should not be an exception to that. So, colleagues should definitely tell me if they disagree with me.’

Is that characteristic of the culture here at the Port of Rotterdam?
‘Yes, there is a pleasant openness and receptiveness here. We dare to address each other. The first word that comes to mind when describing the organization is ‘professional.’ And proud too. Everyone who works here is seriously proud of the port. That is a great starting point for working together. The engine runs by itself; you do not need to energize anyone here. We can also throw very good parties, by the way.’

When you talk about ‘safety’ at the Port of Rotterdam, what kind of safety are you primarily referring to?
‘When I talk about safety, I primarily mean occupational safety, whether in the office, on construction sites in the port, or on and around the water. Ultimately, it is about everyone coming home safely at the end of the day. That is what we are all working for. If we fail in one place, we failed together. That is how it feels. The goal is to have zero incidents. Zero is possible; I am absolutely convinced of that.’

But apparently not everybody assumes that it is possible to have zero incidents.
‘I find that difficult to accept. In the past, I experienced situations where it was said: this year, we assume two LTIs (Lost Time Injuries, serious accidents leading to absence, ed.). I could not accept that we were assuming that at the outset. Show me where it goes wrong and who it happens to, I said. It is unacceptable. I have, regrettably, experienced several incidents in my working life. Too many. An analysis was made of each incident. And believe me, the outcome was almost always, ‘this could have been prevented.’ An incident seldom is due to an insurmountable accumulation of bad luck.’

The key question then is: how could it have been prevented?
‘I very much believe in hardware, software, and mindware in the field of safety. All three need attention. Hardware means working with safe equipment. Software is the procedures and rules. And mindware is the safety culture. How open are you with each other? How much interest do you have in each other? Safety is something we owe each other. You also have to want to look out for each other. You have to dare to speak to each other.’

Do you evaluate often?
‘Yes, every incident is evaluated. Incident analysis is extremely important. We want to learn from what happened. But it is also good for processing incidents. It is reassuring to know how something could have happened and how you can prevent it. We also have a good deal of personal attention in the evaluation. For example, we have a Team Collegial Assistance. We use it when bodies must be recovered from the water—something that unfortunately sometimes happens. Mentally that is tough work. Our team then has a conversation with those colleagues. What did you experience? Are you okay? What do you need? We take it very seriously because the impact can be huge. And the time of tough talk about incidents really is over. I also try to go on patrol with our patrol boat a few times a year, also to chat with those colleagues. We also talk about these kinds of things.’

Do you see differences in safety between the old guard of the Port of Rotterdam and the new recruits?
‘I cannot say that. There are differences within all generations. You always need to ensure a good mix of age and experience. That is also in safety extremely important. People with extensive experience and those with very little experience often pose the greatest risks. I once spoke to an American naval officer about this. He worked on an aircraft carrier and had the same experience. Pilots with either little experience or a great deal of experience is the biggest risk on an aircraft carrier. Someone who has made between 4,000 and 5,000 deck landings does not make an accident. They are just nervous enough when they land their aircraft. You see the same paradox in the industry.’

How do you view psychological safety? And what is the Port of Rotterdam doing to ensure psychological safety?
‘Without psychological safety, there is no safety at all. That is my firm belief, so we pay serious attention to it. It covers a wide range of issues. It starts, for example, with a very active and clear D&I policy—diversity and inclusion. It is based on the idea that, ultimately, every individual here should feel safe and valued. They should feel free to be themselves. That is where safety begins. That may sound like something trendy now, but it has in fact been our guiding principle for a long time. So, it is something we actively promote, something we have conversations about. We put considerable focus on our people’s well-being. For example, we organized our office according to three states: rest, noise, and bustle. This means there are places where you can meet each other, but also quiet spaces. Everyone can find what suits them.’

How do you know the state of psychological safety among employees?
‘We measure it through employee surveys, among other things. We conduct at least two surveys per year. The most recent figures show that only a very small percentage of our employees ever feel psychologically unsafe. About two percent. These are decent numbers: 98 percent feel safe, which is something we are proud of. But still, two percent out of 1250 people... that is 25 people who do not feel safe. I find that too many. That should also be zero. I want to do something about that.’

How do you deal with that?
‘Such a survey is anonymous, and every situation is unique, so I do not know who it is. If I suspect that something is going on with someone, I start a conversation to hear their story and understand what the challenge is. Also, to learn from it myself, because often the other person did not intend to hurt anyone: a bad joke at the coffee machine, a silly remark. That is why it is always essential to evaluate yourself, to be open to feedback, to understand how the other person works. Because we all have different backgrounds, we will need to take even more care of each other, adjust our tone to the situation. A joke that lands well with friends in a pub might not be suitable at the coffee machine. You need to understand each other, hold each other accountable, and sometimes be forgiving. Openness, respect, and trust are, I think, the three most critical conditions for safety.’

To what extent does this conflict with the Rotterdam motto of ‘less talk, more action’?
‘I do not think there is a conflict at all. I think ‘less talk, more action’ goes very well with openness, respect, and trust. You can say whatever you want about Rotterdammers, but they are usually quite open.’

Do you get enough of the feedback you desire yourself, also to prevent unsafe situations?
‘Yes, I believe so. I try to be open and invite feedback. I will always check with others – if I did well, how I came across. Just last week, someone came to me and told me I had been quite assertive in a meeting. Well, then we discuss that.’

What happens when you become ‘quite assertive’?
‘Well, this need not be exaggerated. I am not hot-headed or anything, not coarse. I do not boil over at the slightest provocation. But I can be clear. Direct. Sometimes it is over, and everything has been said, and I want to move on. You can quickly see from me whether something does not sit right with me. I have been hearing for 40 years that my non-verbal communication is stronger than I realize. I can look quite intense.’

Are you a leader of few words?
‘I do not want to talk too much. It is not my intention to do all the talking. It sometimes happens that I was in a meeting for an hour, and afterward, I think, ‘Hmm, I think I may have taken up too much of the time.’ As a leader, I want to think about what the other person needs from me, instead of what I want to say. You need to adjust your energy level to the other person. You are in the service of the other person. That is not always easy. And it does not always work. But nobody is perfect, so I also say sorry. I am quite self-critical. At the end of each day, I evaluate myself. As I walk home, I reflect on the day. What happened today? Have I been honest? What could I have done better? What went well? You do not only need to receive feedback from others; you also need to be willing to give yourself feedback.’

You have been the interim CEO for a few months now. You come across as enthusiastic, with a lot of energy. Do you still have the ambition to remove the word ‘interim’ from your business card?
‘I have been asked that question a hundred times, of course. Look, it is not that complicated: I am not here as an interim CEO just to keep an eye on things. That is not what where we as an organization is at the moment ask for at all. So, we are pushing forward with the same momentum and at least the same level of ambition. I now get to lead the port for a while. I find that wonderful and an honour. Our supervisory directors and shareholders are dealing with the succession issue. I am not concerned with that, and I am not worried about it. Together with all colleagues, I get to take care of the port. And that is what I am doing. I want to ensure that the port remains relevant in 10, 20, or 40 years. And where I stand in a few years? I will see.’

Interview by Marius de Bruin, business lead safety & integrity at LTP. Published in Management Scope 08 2023.

This article was last changed on 03-10-2023