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Swimming with Sharks: Leadership Lessons from Chief Officer Milli Koh

Chief Officer Milli Koh has certainly earned her stripes at sea. Her wellspring of self-confidence, disciplined long-term planning, and leadership style that is equal parts warm and no-nonsense has propelled her up the seafaring ranks relatively quickly. Below, we highlight some of the more poignant and interesting soundbites from our chat with Singapore’s seafaring golden girl.

1: “[I’ve] always felt girls could do [the] things that guys could. So knowing this was a male dominated industry made me want to go in and prove a point – that I could survive and thrive in a male dominated industry.”

Milli shared that she was always outgoing and athletic, and that the physical aspect of seafaring wasn’t particularly daunting to her. Although being one of the few women in a so-called man’s world did leave her rather apprehensive at the beginning, she decided to go for it. The competitive salary and travelling perks were definitely a motivating factor, and furthermore, she knew she was never going to take a typical 9 to 5 job anyway (take a look at a few ways to know if a maritime career is for you!)

2: “I set my standards. When work is given, I do my best so people see me as being able to do my job. So I maintain this standard, and the way I portray myself.”

Working her way up the ranks, Milli has always made the extra effort to meet every standard expected of her. But as in any industry, sometimes the old hands tend to doubt if the young guns can truly pull their weight, especially in a competitive and challenging job like Milli’s. She recalled how this was the case when she handled a mooring operation – considered to be one of the most important and dangerous tasks on the ship – as a Chief Officer for the first time. Nevertheless, she took charge of the crew and successfully completed the job.

All in all, her earnestness has helped her transition into a leadership and management position without facing as many of such issues (check out some of the other skills you pick up while seafaring). “So because of [how] I was before, my performance being consistent since I started [as a junior cadet], I don’t have many such problems now as an Officer.”

3: “Once during a dry dock, I had my Fitbit with me, and I actually clocked 15,000 steps per day, running up and down doing things. I still do jobs like painting with my crew, if we’re in a big hurry. But on a management level, I believe it’s not about doing everything on your own. You need to let people know that you trust them to do the job.”

Starting out as a cadet, and working her way up from 3rd Officer to Chief Officer, Milli knows what it’s like to get down and dirty. While continuing to do so as a Chief Officer can be motivational to the crew (how often does your boss in the office help out with the ‘lesser’ tasks?), it can also be seen as micromanaging. There’s always a balance between leading from the front and giving responsibility to your team members, and while no one always gets it right, Milli certainly tries.

4: “I like to look for places to eat when i’m ashore at a foreign port. If I’m familiar with the place, I like to wake up early and go for a walk, go for breakfast by myself.”

Professional as her work ethic may be, Milli isn’t all business of course, and her Singaporean habit of hunting high and low for good food surfaces when she gets some time off ashore. She cites Japan as a favourite destination for the food (the Chief Officer part of her emerges when she makes an offhand remark about how professional Japanese port workers are!) and the US for the shopping.

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