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What’s it actually like managing a workforce that’s oceans apart?

The travel perks are nice, but what is it actually like to manage a workforce that might be ocean’s apart? As head of HR for the largest Australasian cruise ship operator, Angela Howard talks about managing a workforce that is riding the waves.

Until she joined Carnival Australia in January this year, Angela Howard, the company’s new Vice President People and Performance, had never been on a cruise. But now, with a role as the head of human resources for Australasia’s largest cruise ship operator that has her managing a workforce of several thousand employees directly and indirectly, Howard has become a true cruising advocate. Within the first few months of 2016, she’s already hopped aboard two cruises and is heading for another one with 18 friends and family later in the year.

Australia and New Zealand is the fastest-growing cruise market in the world, with domestic growth in 2015 at 42 per cent.

“I joined Carnival Australia at an amazing and exciting time,” acknowledges Howard. “We have an excellent product, and growth over the last period has been phenomenal with more to come.” According to Cruise Lines International Association Australasia, 1.05 million Australians went on a cruise last year.

Carnival Australia – which is a division of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest leisure business – has benefitted from the cruise market’s skyrocketing popularity. Howard believes that its success has been underpinned by having a dynamic executive chairperson at the helm. Ann Sherry joined Carnival in 2007, originally in the CEO role, and has pushed the industry to double digit growth every year since.

Sherry speaks highly of Howard’s potential to benefit Carnival Australia’s human resources outlook and build on the company’s record of positive employee engagement.

“Angela is a natural communicator with a warm and engaging approach to people and teams which makes her ideally suited to an organisation focused on delivering great cruise holiday experiences,” Sherry says.

Howard is the first one to admit that she’s not your cookie-cutter HR executive and takes an informal approach to people management.

“I just aim to be real and authentic. I want to get other people to where they truly want to go. I tell them if they have the right behaviours and really understand the culture of the organisation, they can get there,” she says.

Nor is Howard reluctant to tell senior management what is happening in the organisation – and where change needs to occur.

“What I do is hold up a mirror to executives. I’m the one who reads all the exit interviews. I’m the one who reads all the employee opinion surveys. I want to understand why people leave a business and what makes them stay. And then I enjoy helping and coaching leaders to have a happy, motivated and engaged workforce and be a success.”

The early years

Howard admits she didn’t exactly follow her own advice about developing a career path and came into human resources by happy accident.

Her childhood was split between Melbourne and the Gold Coast, but she believes Melbourne had a bigger influence on her and still thinks it’s the most dynamic city in the world. “You can take the girl out of Melbourne, but not Melbourne out of the girl.”

Howard’s arts degree at the University of Tasmania was interrupted when she got a job at the Warner Village Theme Parks on the Gold Coast, where she adored working with members of the public in a fast-paced industry.

When the Sydney Olympic fever began to gather pace, she was swept along with it and secured an HR role organising the venue management, event and catering teams at the Sydney Football Stadium and Sydney Cricket ground, for football and road cycling.

“It was very long hours and a steep learning curve but it was worth it,” she says. “Over the years, I have come to realise that having a great brand and culture make all the difference to the success of the business. After the Olympics, I deliberately sought to work with companies whose values and culture aligned with my personal beliefs.” That guiding principle has seen Howard take on roles with Accor Hotels, Virgin Mobile, General Pants, and now Carnival Australia.”

Carnival colours

In her new role, Howard has set herself the task of reinvigorating Carnival’s diversity and inclusion strategy and, after consultation, a new policy will be released later this year. “More than one million Australians take a cruise holiday every year. That includes families, couples and retirees and it’s becoming popular with multigenerational groups, so our workforce should reflect that diversity,” she says.

Howard’s also keenly aware of the benefits of workplace flexibility in improving diversity. She benefits from Carnival’s policy herself, balancing her work around the need to spend time with her two daughters.

The biggest question, though, given that the workforce isn’t ‘under one roof’ is how human resources keeps in touch with employees who are constantly on the move around the world?

“Each ship operates as a ‘mini city’,” says Howard, with up to 1200 employees on board, led by the captain and supported by a strong shore-based head office in North Sydney. “There are a lot of sea-related puns – but we really do have to run a tight ship.”

Everyone who works on a ship is on a contract, the duration of which can be anywhere between four to eight months.

“The approach to hiring contractual team members is specialised, as we need to invest in educating any potential crew on ship life before they set foot on board,” says Howard.

“Understanding the living arrangements and behavioural expectations when our crew are with each other 24/7 is very important. We recognise ship life is not for everybody and we need to make sure, through the hiring process, all prospective employees understand as much about the experience as possible.”

With no formal commitment that crew members will stay on after one voyage, how hard is it to keep experienced employees on board?

“Just like any other employer, you rely on the employment experience, so it is important to get that right. For many, the on board team becomes like a second family. If the culture works, then the expectation is that individuals will want to return.”

Cruising the world for free, one might assume that sourcing talent is a relatively easy task, but Howard says that it is role dependent and that the industry is becoming more and more competitive.

“Our crew do visit amazing destinations; the perks of cruising are certainly appealing. They also appreciate the six to eight weeks off in between contracts and it becomes a lifestyle choice. As a result, standard attrition rates are actually very low and we have very long tenured crew of 10-15 years on average. In the past 12 months we have experienced the highest retention rates ever,” Howard says.

Nevertheless, the cruise industry has been beset by crisis in recent years. Virus outbreaks, collisions, and passenger deaths at sea – including people falling overboard – are all events that can’t be anticipated.

“Those are rare events,” Howard emphasises. “The vast majority of cruises are trouble-free. The comfort, safety and security of passengers and crew are the top priority in all training and every action we take. We have numerous robust policies to ensure that.”

New wave

With a global recruitment strategy, Howard is now in the process of setting up a worldwide learning and development platform for the group, starting with foundation courses and building up core competencies across the company’s different employment sectors. “I have looked at what some of our sister companies are doing, and learning and development (L&D) is an integral investment to build our company’s capability,” she says.

Looking to the future, Howard’s priority is to protect the current brand culture that has put the company at peak success in its eight-decade history. “I love my job,” she says. “I’m working in a make-it-happen culture which suits me down to the ground.”

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It would be great to understand how Angela sees the company managing an agile/flexible workforce as the needs of customers change and demand fluctuates.

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