Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: David Doe, VP Talent Strategy & Excellence at Shell.
David Doe has had an impressive and diverse career spanning 18 years at Royal Dutch Shell (or Shell as we all know it). David has held roles from HR Manager through to being an advisor to the Chairman of Shell UK and is currently the Vice President of Talent Strategy and Excellence. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about nurturing talent.
David has implemented significant change and transformation initiatives while leading highly effective talent development strategies at Shell. In this episode, we discuss his learnings, best practices, and predictions for the future.
"A business strategy that enables you to both be dynamic, but paint a compelling vision and a purpose for an organization is at the heart of making [it] successful."David Doe
If you’re looking to develop your understanding of driving talent engagement, then tune in, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.
Patrick Cournoyer: The actions we take now have the potential to affect perceptions for years to come. This statement was the closing line of a recently published article authored by my guest today, David Doe. David has had an impressive and diverse career spanning 18 years at Royal Dutch Shell or Shell, as we know it, which is one of the elite super majors in the oil and gas industry. He has held roles from HR Manager through Advisor to the Chairman of Shell UK, and is currently the Vice President of Talent Excellence. David has had great success implementing significant change and transformation initiatives while leading highly effective talent development strategies at Shell.
Today, we’re going to talk about his learnings, his best practices, and some predictions for the future. David, I’ve very much been looking forward to this conversation. Thank you for joining me today.
David: You’re very welcome. I’m looking forward to the conversation too.
Patrick: Perfect. David, let’s kick off and talk about this past year, but let’s focus a bit on some of the successes that you’ve had in leadership at Shell over the past six to nine months. As we were preparing for the podcast, you mentioned that you were in the process of planning and developing a new leadership strategy, and you’ve been able to implement that during the pandemic and with success. Let’s talk a bit about that. How did you do that?
David: This is part of a broader piece of work that we actually started almost 18 months, nearly two years ago. If you look at a company like Shell, and you look back in the past, emergent people strategy has basically been the norm. A lot of things that we’ve done have been reactions to the environment around us. That’s not to say we haven’t made strategic people choices in the past; we have. We’ve done things like introducing leadership potential assessments in the late 1960s, early ’70s. It’s an approach that actually the Singaporean Government still follows, has just recently updated because we’ve updated. There’s other things like our introduction of managed open resourcing in the early ’90s, our approach to diversity, et cetera.
The point is, we’ve never really had an explicit and comprehensive strategy that supports our business strategy. We set about looking at best practice, a whole host of things, and really understanding our business strategy, which is clear and stable. We did that for really a few reasons. The first is that we’ve had a very clear strategy and purpose as an organization, and we need to make more and cleaner energy solutions. That requires a very different future for our company. We know that our industry is likely to experience more change in the next 10 to 15 years than it has in the last 50. We also see the dual impacts of the energy transition and digitalization, meaning we will need different skills. Then we also see the half-life of skills dropping, so what people want from work and expect from their employers is changing.
Then finally, we’ve got a refreshed HR function because we’re going on a HR transformation as well. We’ve got a function that is increasingly ready and willing to lead through this change. As I say, we’ve been looking at this and there are several themes that emerged, firstly, that we need world-class leaders. There’s no surprise that in the current environment with a rapidly evolving set of circumstances, we’ve seen that this year, but equally with the challenges posed by the energy transition that we will need world-class leaders to lead through a period of significant uncertainty and change for our industry.
The second, fundamentally, is that successful [unintelligible 00:04:35] of change recognizes where you’ve been from, where you’re going to and what aspects that you need to change. It can’t suddenly be completely different to where you’ve been in the past. It needs to recognize your heritage, but it also needs to recognize the transition.
The third is that fundamentally, it will need supporting through hard wiring in all of our systems and it needs to be adaptive to all future scenarios. My God, look at what’s happened in the last nine months. That is a real test of how resilient and adaptive this strategy is. The good news is we do think it is adaptive. Actually many of the things we’ve been looking at in terms of COVID it’s actually an accelerance of many of those journeys. Digitalization, for example. Every economic downturn sees a massive leap in automation. The challenges posed by the energy transition are hurtling towards us even faster. That leadership piece has to come up and therefore we need more of a learner mindset, which is at the heart of this new strategy.
The fourth is that frankly, the value isn’t in an intellectual model, but it’s in how you consistently execute. How we’ve chosen to go about this is not only through a leader-led identity change. I’ll talk about that a bit later, but it is fundamentally about how you then pick use cases and consistently chip away at a consistent theme. It requires a much simpler landscape. In the past, when we’ve rolled things out, we’ve had safety leadership, we’ve had digital leadership. Actually, that becomes very confusing. It requires simplicity and consistency and chipping away over a period of time at a very comprehensive agenda. That’s what we’ve set out to do.
There are basically five themes to our strategy. The first is one around identity. What is identity? It’s not culture. That’s what exists in an organization. That’s the product of all the stuff that’s going on. It’s not an image, that’s how others perceive you. It’s what you try and do in the middle to influence those things. It’s where you want to go. If I talk about that heritage piece and what we need to change, this is that piece.
Then there’s a leadership theme around how do you actually get world-class leaders and what is leadership in this context? Let’s be honest, leadership is not new. It’s been around since the dawn of human existence. How do we get at that and get different leadership? Then, how do we hard-wire through talent, through leadership potential identification? How do we address aspects of our declining brand and perception of the industry? How do we get at total workforce management? How is D&I a truly differentiator in the marketplace? Because I believe it is.
Then things like upskilling, re-skilling, and future of work. Then there’s aspects around performance, how we drive the performance, not only individually leadership, but organizationally? Then finally, there’s aspects around capabilities. What is truly unique and differentiating for Shell and how do we uniquely arrange our people, our processes, our systems to create competitive advantage that’s what’s in our people strategy. You can imagine that’s quite complex. What we’re going out to the organization with is actually a leadership framework because it’s a leader-led identity change, which is hardwired through all the other aspects that I’m talking about.
Hopefully that gives you a bit of an idea and we were starting to roll that out, just as the pandemic hit. The core of that is this learner mindset. We started with safety, the safety refresh being how we rolled out aspects of this. We’ll talk about the identity theme. In there, at its core, is a learner mindset. This belief that you can learn things that ultimately is not being a ‘knower.’ That’s one of the things our industry, I think, has been accused of in the past, a degree of arrogance and we need a degree of humility going forwards. We can delve into a bit more.
Patrick: That is an incredibly clear six minute recap of probably which took years to put together or has evolved over years of learning and really understanding what the future needs to look like from a leadership perspective at Shell. I definitely want to peel into a couple of these, but there’s one point that you made a couple of times, and it’s not a priority point, one of the five priority points, but it very much resonated with me because I’m having conversations with many organizations today that are struggling with this idea of heritage. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, and it being a focus at Shell to be able to capture the heritage or celebrate the heritage that you have as an organization that people have within your organization.
Clearly you have had an incredible career, 18 years at Shell. I’m sure there are many people at your organization that have lifelong careers. There’s a whole new workforce that is coming into the world of work, and new generations that are coming in but there’s so much of this inherent culture, knowledge, ability, that is part of this idea of heritage. I’d just like to pause there for a minute because I think our audience would be super interested to find out how you’re tackling that challenge of capturing this heritage from maybe some of the older generations in your workforce, or that have been there for quite a bit of time and being able to capture that, celebrate that but be able to hold on to that as your organization grows and builds and moves into the next chapter?
David: Sure. I think there are a number of things that anybody in Shell would recognize. Maybe it’s some of the things that you see about the company from an image perspective externally. We have a very strong sense of ethics and a very strong safety mindset. There is a perception we have a strong consensus culture and we do. This is not a hierarchy, a top-down command structure, this is a structure where we have a very diverse group of people.
People have an ability to voice their opinions, they’re listened to and topics are debated, sometimes they are debated you might argue too much but nonetheless, this sense of doing the right thing, the sense of consensus, this sense of core values is something that is inherent in the organization. It’s not something we want to lose. That is why we have very low attrition rates. People used to think, “Well, the attrition rates are very low because you’ve got inflated pensions, but over the last decade, you just have to look at the way that that has evolved in the economies across the world, and that’s not the case anymore and yet the attrition levels are still where they are. People join and they stay because they like working here.
They like the values, they like the purpose. They like how they’re treated. Now that’s something we want to celebrate. We want to live our values and Goal Zero which is the safety bit is one of the heritage pieces as is the engagement and the inspiring elements. We have five themes and the two heritage ones are those, and we want to celebrate those. If we change those, people won’t want to stay in the organization.
One of the other things of course about Shell is we rotate talents and people move around, and it has quite a family feel. We’re not going to unpick that rotational model, and we shouldn’t, particularly given the fact that people learn through doing. It’s lots of different opportunities to work in different jobs but meet different people and constantly learn that is one of our strengths.
Going forwards, there are some things that we know we need to do better. That arrogance I talked about, that perception of ‘knower’ is built from being in an industry, which has very, very long lead times, which has been very asset and supply-led, and has to be that way to deliver safely. Equally, we know we’re going into a future which is faster paced, which is requiring us to change, which is requiring us to become ever more customer-demand led. This learner mindset is right there, needs to be there in terms of the future we’re going, but we also need to grow trust in the organization.
We need to move from inside-out thinking to outside-in thinking. It doesn’t matter, is it legal, is it ethical? Most importantly, is it wise? How will it be perceived? Then this outperformed mindset, we have to deal with performance in a different way. Now, our returns have been fantastic in terms of the last few years, in terms of cash generation, but we have to build confidence in our delivery for our investor community as well to be with us through an important change and to be a positive force in decarbonizing the energy system.
When the pandemic subsides, this is, I would argue, one of ‘the’ biggest challenges facing humanity right now. Being in an organization that wants to help and enable that, recognizing that with a growing population, energy demand is going up, energy demand is intensely linked to economic growth, to better healthcare, to better education. How do we deliver that, but deliver that in a way that decarbonizes the atmosphere, stays within the Paris Climate Agreements and builds a better future for society? That’s why I want to work here.
Those aspects are how we are trying to– People are wanting this agility and learning, they’re wanting the excitement, they’re wanting to build a better future, and we need to continue to be true to the organization that we are, so that’s at the heart of this.
Patrick: That is a complex model of what success looks like. I can hear your passion around truly being able to attain that and understanding that every employee at your organization is going to be part of that journey. This learner mindset idea, it’s quite interesting because to your point, empowering people through knowledge and empowering them to feel that they have a say in how they’re developed, what their growth looks like, you were talking about these rotational programs, those types of programs have so much added value and benefit to employees and super glad to hear that they’re working for you as well, and you’ve been doing them for quite some time.
How, in the current situation that we’re in, we talk about business performance. As I was reading some of the content that you’ve put out and looking at some of the success that you’ve had in passion areas, you’re a people leader, an HR leader that’s very connected and knowledgeable about business outcomes and understanding how people and people programs, the approach to talent development leadership, but how people truly impact the business outcomes of organizations. You’ve talked about how there’s a clear connection between the two and how important it is.
One of the areas that many organizations tie to effective business outcomes is employee productivity. Prior to January, February of 2019, productivity was something we talked about and it was always something that was of concern for a lot of organizations. Then we moved into this odd experience of detached work and people not working in offices and you, having a global organization as well, I’m sure the complexity of this is even higher.
The continuance of employees being productive without the pressure or feeling that productivity is being overly monitored now because people are working remote or away and for the foreseeable future will be, most likely, in some sort of a flexible work environment or not going back into the offices for a while, how have you managed to make that happen because other organizations that I’ve also been speaking with are struggling, where employees are feeling like they’re too much focused on productivity?
David: It’s interesting, productivity actually hasn’t been, I would say, something that we have worried about particularly, per se. When the pandemic hit, the things we talked about were care, continuity, and cash. Care for our people and the engagement piece I’ve talked about before is really important. We know that leadership drives engagement and engagement drives performance, we can tell that. We’ve had people survey scores, we can look at our business performance, we can correlate the two.
Now one of the great things is during the pandemic, actually, our engagement scores went up, our team leadership skills went up, so care was right at the heart of how we started this off. Continuity, in terms of being able to ensure that our customers were still able to get products, how we start to run manufacturing sites, offshore platforms, in the context of COVID, and retail stations. That was a learning curve and there are some amazing stories across the globe. Some in China are around people who walk for miles in order to get to their place of work because of their commitment to the customer. You just think, “My God, the level of discretionary effort that we are able to unlock is amazing.”
Then cash, clearly because and it escapes anybody’s notice, the oil price dropped off a cliff at one point because of the peculiarity, shall I put it, of the future’s market on WTI, it went negative. That’s at an incredibly turbulent time.
The industry overall is challenged as a consequence, and demand is coming back but we’ve had an issue around over supply and not as much demand. All of that was going on at the time. What I think is great, is as you go into these periods and you have a focus around engagement, productivity is clearly one of those things that you get from it. Now aside from that, we do look at things like workforce planning. We think about how we drive optimization, but that isn’t around productivity scores for our individual organizations or individuals. That’s at an organizational level, that’s about what’s been migrated to different locations, that’s about how we actually have efficient spans of control, how we use organizational health indicators to think about how you design the optimal conditions if you want, for success.
We worry about it organizationally, we worry about it individually, and we worry about it at the team level. We think about performance units, and that’s not just an individual asset, but how the matrix of our organization comes together, and how we make value at the interface. Again, part of that is of having had leaders, of this rotational model. There’s no perfect organizational model where you can command everything. The reality is that what we do is we move people around, such that when they end up at those leadership roles, where they’re making value at the interface, they know how the other bits work, and they’re able to make those judgment calls and recognize where the trade-offs are. That also gives us a good route into this.
Am I going to say we’ve cracked it? Of course, we haven’t. Find an organization that has, but I do think that the engagement levels, we’ve been surprised at how quickly people have been able to adapt and work remotely. It was surprisingly easy. The IT function has done amazing things. I think, however, the question is fatigue, at a certain point. How long can you go on with this? That’s going to be the interesting thing. The further we go into this, the second lockdown, what happens thereafter?
As people are joining and don’t have those strong connections and bonds to the organization, it’s harder to join an organization, which, fundamentally everybody knows each other; it’s a family. Yet, of course, we want to welcome people coming in. We’ve updated our onboarding processes, all of that stuff. It’s that extra effort when you’re not able to see sometimes the face or you’re not able to have the watercooler chat. That’s going to be something which I think we will need to pay attention to going forwards because that equal is going to be the discretionary efforts and I don’t have the answer for that right now.
Patrick: We talked at the start around the leadership strategy, and the success that you’ve had with the agility of the leadership strategy over the past couple of months. Your role, obviously, is about talent excellence across the organization. Switching a bit from leadership and looking at employees or the employee level, not individual contributors, maybe non-leaders, how are you helping those employees perform right now and have a feeling of excellence?
David: There are a number of different things. This year, we’ve rolled out two bits of work. We went live with the core offering and the talent modules, and we’re just doing recruitment and other aspects. Now part of that is the concept around development plans we went back and looked at it again. Actually, development plans hitherto in the company had been used a little bit in a quasi internal CV so yes, there’ll be strengths and development areas, and there’ll be actions, et cetera.
Actually, what you tended to get was, as people knew these could be pulled out and looked at, the strengths were like you’d read it, and some people could walk on water. Then the development areas would be really, really, really truncated and then the actions to do anything about it. Any form of vulnerability, any form of honesty, not intentionally, but the consequence of the way in which those plans were being used was just not helpful. As we’ve designed how we’re going to use the work they were offering, it was very important that the learner mindset that I talked about came back into how to get value out of development plans.
The fact that these now move back to annual documents, and we delete what’s been in previously, and it is a development conversation, starts to really focus people back in on proper development, “How are you doing? What can I do to help you?” All of that stuff, which is really important, together with a different approach to target setting. We have, again, laundry lists of how to get stuff done. Well, stick it in their goals and performance appraisal document.
Well, no, we’re not going to do that going forwards. Setting some simple foundational goals, maximum five business goals, and then really focusing people on the things, the bottom line that matters, connecting what people do to business performance. The dual aspect of simplified clear foundational goals, which are the hygiene factors, if you want around how work gets done, et cetera. Then the business goals, coupled with not only a different technical solution, but frankly, just a change in mindset around–
People were saying to me, “But I can’t have development areas on my strengths.” I was like, “Yes, of course, you can” because the reality is that it’s– not to quote a Disney line, accentuate the positives, eliminate the negatives, but ultimately, that’s what we all need to do. With the half-life of skills dropping, if you just deliver what you did last year, or you just rest on your strengths, this concept is then you’re a ‘knower’ because you’re not continuing to develop and over time your skillset erodes, your competitiveness erodes.
It’s getting that back into people’s mindset as well, at a personal level, not just at leadership level, but this learner mindset matters for all of us because with people living and working longer, you’re going to have to keep yourself competitive. You can’t just rely on an organization to do it. You have to be interested and so those are the aspects that we’re focusing on.
Patrick: Do you see that the world of work or the work that employees will be doing, will that change because as you were saying, at the start as well, there is a significant change going on in the oil and gas industry. You were saying that in the next 10 to 15 years that the demands on the industry will probably be more than they were for the past 50 years because of the change with decarbonization, as you talked about, and alternative fuels.
That work is going to change for employees at the organization. Fundamentally how you work in many areas will evolve and develop. That seems like it’s an exciting opportunity for your employee group. Again, putting that learner mindset or that learner-led mindset on to learn new skills, learn new abilities, to grow their careers maybe in different ways than they ever have before. A, Are you seeing that? and do you have a best practice or a thought? It’s still happening, but any ideas of how you’re going to connect those two things?
David: Yes, sure. I think you’re right, it is exciting but for many people, it’s incredibly daunting as well. We shouldn’t underestimate that. By the way, what’s going on in the oil and gas industry is no different from any other industry in terms of the impact of automation. This concept of will robots replace humans? No, of course, they won’t, but the pace of change in terms of what’s happening right now, if– and no industrial revolution is ever the same as any that have gone before it.
If you were to pick one that it’s most closest to, it’s this aspect of the first industrial revolution, and the gap between how income is distributed, and just all of the stuff we’re seeing going on in the external world. I can understand why it’s incredibly daunting. There’s two things I would share. I think there are aspects here around now getting– and we’ve had skill pool management for decades in the company to manage how we move people around. It’s now getting down right to that skill level, and understanding skills. Of course, everybody’s out there at the moment externally talking about skills, upskilling and reskilling. The debate is around ontologies and all the rest of it. There is no such thing as a silver bullet for an ontology.
In the end, it is about a great machine learning. It’s about a great data training set but it’s also about how you get value out of it. In many aspects, it’s about helping people to understand their employability. It’s helping them to understand which aspects of their skills are in demand within the company. It’s not about self-certified or peer-certified skills. We’ve been down that route in the ’90s with competence. Unfortunately, we’ve had instances where people have injured or been killed, where they have signed themselves off, or even a manager has signed them off. For us, competency is something that you demonstrate, and we can certify you’ve demonstrated it within a particular context.
Skills, it’s almost on a CV level, where you’re helping to understand. It’s a bit like I need to understand the context and the experience, the length of the experience, the recency of the experience. Then helping people to understand what aspects of those skills are in demand, which are lessening off, which new skills are emerging. The adjacencies of their skills to what they currently have to things they could learn. You can do this. The fact that we move you around means that we know you manage transitions regularly, so giving them confidence on that.
I think one of the greatest pitfalls around strategic workforce planning has been people that have said, “Oh, yes, I can tell you what skills you’ll need in 15 years.” If an organization comes to you and tells you that they’re smoking something because the reality is that economic forecasts are not robust beyond about 18 months. Look at what’s happened. I’m going to quote from Tetlock of Gardner who say, “The accuracy of economic forecast around three years is about as accurate as a chimpanzee throwing a dart at a dartboard.”
The reality is you’re going to need something that’s dynamic, that helps people to understand how they stand, helps them to understand adjacencies, and can match internal gigs in the organization to their skill strength, but also some of their development areas because we know that the majority of learning comes through doing. It’s 10% classroom, 20% coaching, 70% doing. The challenge with development is giving people projects or cross-functional learning that you want. Then the more strategic stuff around the longer-term direction, yes, you can start to talk about the direction of travel, you can talk about how you will think through the re-skilling.
Again, recognizing that you don’t have a crystal ball, so some of that is about interim transitions. You can lay out broad views around how that will work, but where it comes into most kind of certainty is where you lock it in, in terms of your asset of the future. We build things, we make investment decisions and we invest a huge amount of capital, and the project only stands up and starts producing three, four, five years down the line because of steel in the ground and all the rest of it. There, because you’ve committed to that or because you’re laying in a big IT infrastructure, you know that the skills are going to change, and there you have certainty and there you can manage transitions and you can help people through that process.
It is both dynamic, and there are aspects around strategy and direction. Then there is certainty when you’ve made investment decisions, and it’s playing those off and then really understanding the link between at the task level, how you disrupt jobs. We’ve done a lot of work around task disruption, and some of the stuff that you will have seen through the Oxford Martin School work where they deconstruct jobs into tasks. Then just because something could be automated, doesn’t mean it should. Then you think through the whole systems aspect of it, what’s the impact of D&I? What’s the impact on fence-line communities? Our license to operate? The development pathways? You design jobs which are interesting and meaningful, and that’s your certainty pathway in terms of where individuals might go.
It’s a fascinating area. It will need investment from our side in systems. It needs both investment and understanding at the skill level, but also this task and process level, and I don’t see many solutions out there that do that at this moment in time. It requires a really clear articulation of the philosophy to your workforce. This is a journey that we’re embarking on. I think you can see the potential and the excitement, but unless you get this right, actually, that daunting aspect that I started with is what’s going to be reality for most people. You have to put in the support pathways around this, and so that’s what we are intending and starting to do. We’ve got a long way to go.
Patrick: Let’s all work on moving the daunting perception to an excitement perception, that’s hopefully.
David: Yes, it’s an exciting world. It is but you have to help people to see it.
Patrick: That’s a lot of work. I love your correlation to a bit of an industrial revolution right now, an automation industrial revolution in a lot of ways. Because you’re right, the amount of automation that is coming in. I just recently read a piece of Forrester Research that was talking specifically around AI and similar to what you say, AI is not going to take over every job in the world, but it is absolutely going to be part of how we effectively move into the future of work.
It’s here to stay and it’s going to grow, but it’s going to be incorporated into the way we do work. That is also an exciting time. Again, daunting because it is a lot of work, but at the same time, it helps to provide quite a bright future for where so many industries are moving to. I also really liked your perception or your perspective on being able to predict anything over three years.
I think you’re having any type of predictions that are– 15-year predictions. You look at organizations today, they’re looking at three-month predictions, the budgeting for 3 months, 6 months, not 10 years like it used to be.
David: Yes, indeed. I think this is why you need to do both. It is the art of genius, it’s having in your head the reality that you need to be dynamic and yet, some aspects of planning and strategy are still actually in things that are going to keep you winning. How to marry those two things in a talent strategy and a business strategy that enables you to both be dynamic, but paint a compelling vision and a purpose for an organization is at the heart of making, I think, us being successful. How you treat your employees during that is what will make them stay.
Patrick: David, you have a large amount of passion around this. I celebrate that. I appreciate it. Thank you for all the work that you’re doing at Shell and the work that you have been doing over 18 years. I’m incredibly excited to see how your leadership strategy unfolds over the next couple of years, this learner mindset. We’ll be keeping in touch with you on this learner mindset.
So many organizations are shifting to this, struggling to shift to this, and are looking for best practice and ideas around how we can effectively do that, so it’s very good to see that you’re putting out content and you’re are writing articles and sharing your best practice and learnings as you go through the process. Thank you for spending time with me today and for sharing your insights with the audience. I know they’re going to gather a lot of meaningful perspective from this, and we just appreciate you spending some time having a conversation with me. Thank you very much, David.
David: Thank you very much. It was really enjoyable. Thank you.