Going, going, gong: Five minutes with King's birthday honours recipient Brian Johnson

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency chief executive has received a CBE for services to the maritime industry. CSW meets him
Brian Johnson

By Civil Service World

21 Aug 2023


What does being recognised in the Birthday Honours List mean to you? 

It was a huge surprise and obviously a massive honour. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has delivered a great deal over the last five years, becoming more customer-friendly, substantially improving HM Coastguard capabilities, keeping shipping operating safely and influencing maritime decarbonisation. The team have pulled strongly together, so although this is an award made to an individual, I very much hope that the whole MCA team can rightly see this award as a reflection of their superb work. You can see some of this work each week just now in a documentary series at 9 pm on Channel 5.

What did your role involve?
I was leading the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It is a fascinating organisation that encompasses the following:

  • One of the UK’s four emergency services (responding to as many incidents at sea as the fires responded to by the UK fire services), HM Coastguard calls on the services of 3,000 of its own volunteers, and more than 5,000 manning lifeboats in the RNLI and other lifeboat charities. It contracts in the biggest fleet of helicopters and aircraft outside the armed forces.
  • Ensuring that pollution incidents of all sizes around the UK coastline are dealt with.
  • Maritime regulation – it is like the Civil Aviation Authority of the sea. It manages the facilities of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the only United Nations body in London and represents the UK on the IMO body. Its surveyors ensure that UK ships meet safety standards and that ships entering the UK are inspected as part of an international regime.
  • UK seafarer training – setting the standards and examining officers as they progress through the ranks.
  • Running the UK Ship register – providing services to all sizes and shapes of shipping, from small leisure craft to the largest container ships.
  • Attracting shipping into the UK economy.

How did you end up in that role?
It was a bit of a dream come true. As a young boy, I spent all my pocket money on books and magazines about ships. My grandfather had been a shipbuilder on the Clyde, and other relatives had been at sea. I was obsessed with ships.

When I went off to university, I studied chemical engineering and worked in the chemical industry for 15 years, latterly very involved in designing and commissioning the first large chemical plant making ozone-friendly refrigerants. I then worked in Remploy, a company employing thousands of people with disabilities in all sorts of manufacturing – I found the challenge of fulfilling a social purpose and running a successful organisation both stimulating and hard. From that point, I was hooked on roles with a social purpose and then spent 13 years leading organisations running and building social housing.  

My last job in that sector was turning around a failing social housing company. When that was done, I wanted to do something quite different.
When the MCA chief executive role came up, I knew that I very much wanted it. To my huge surprise, I got through the interviews and was offered the role. I knew it would be my last role before retiring. It felt very fitting that I could finally indulge those childhood interests and perhaps make a small contribution to a sector that I always felt the strongest affinity for. I feel that I have been extremely fortunate.

Apart from receiving this Honour, what has been your proudest moment at work?
There were two moments. The first proud moment was the first day that I walked into the MCA to begin the role. As I said earlier, this was like a childhood dream come true to be doing this job. I remember getting to the MCA reception and thinking: “People will be watching everything I do today, and from now on.” It was quite scary but incredibly exciting. I suffer a bit from “imposter syndrome” – always worrying that I am not capable of doing the job. A surprisingly high proportion of capable leaders I have spoken to also suffer from it – I suspect it keeps us from becoming complacent.  
The second proud moment was the day that I retired from the role after four years. During that time, the MCA executive team had asked a lot from the organisation – we were in a hurry to make improvements. Often, changes had to be made that impacted people. A great performance was expected. It was a challenging four years in which a lot was achieved and during which external circumstances often worked against us. Despite all of this, a number of people talked about “kind and strong” leadership the day I left. I was genuinely surprised and flattered.

What does it take to do your job well?

It is like many leadership roles. I see the most important leadership behaviours as:

  1. Be open and honest. Speak honestly and don’t be afraid of saying difficult things or addressing hard problems – even when they affect people
  2. Be humble. These roles are never about the individual – they are about team performance
  3. Do the right thing. If you are being pushed to do what you know in your heart is wrong, challenge it

I always felt that my key responsibilities to the MCA were to make sure that the best possible senior team was in place, that the MCA was trusted and respected by all stakeholders, and that we had a clear, ambitious strategic plan to deliver the very best outcomes for the UK from the public funding that we were given each year.

Tell us one thing we might not know about your job...

The role has so many nooks and crannies that you discover. For example, the MCA employs the services of several hundred doctors around the world to ensure seafarers on UK ships are fit. The receiver of wreck (who decides who any treasure should go to) has to deal with the grounding of “whales, porpoises and sturgeons”, which are the property of the King. The MCA has a small police force to enforce maritime regulations. The MCA is involved in UK space launches. That is just a few small examples. Therefore, you might not know that leading the MCA is one of the most fascinating roles in the civil service!

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