A well-oiled machine

The business  

BP is one of the world’s largest companies, employing 104,000 people in 108 countries. bpTT is an important part of the BP asset group since it runs both older oil-based offshore assets and newer gas platforms alongside onshore facilities. bpTT currently employs 700 people, and is growing and changing fast.

The challenge

This complex and challenging business environment has created a need for individuals who can help operational areas improve the way they work.

In bpTT, Charles Percy, vice-president of HR, recognised the need to create such ‘change agents’. He set about doing so from within the HR organisation itself, rather than relying solely on external consultants.

Not only was it necessary to develop the expertise, but also the confidence of the HR staff to enable them to work with the managers of operational departments. This has been done, in part, by installing an ‘hour-a-week’ coaching programme within the department.

The solution

When Percy was appointed in 2002, he identified three main aspects of HR practice that needed improving:

– The quality of the administration – HR discrepancies and policy had to be sorted out and a help desk installed

– Compensation – a substantial re-write of the compensation system was required

– Strategy – to work with the department to create a number of important HR-related programmes covering leadership development, industrial relations, recruitment and strategic staffing.

During this time, Percy also enlisted the help of an external consultancy to provide a structured programme of teaching and coaching for the department.

The consultants taught the theory of change management and performance improvement by directly relating it to the areas of improvement laid out by Percy. At the same time, these changes were underpinned by the development of a coaching programme within the department.
This meant that, in addition to his usual team meetings, Percy also spent an hour a week with each of his managers.

“Each of these weekly sessions was an opportunity for them to explore their challenges, identify opportunities and take responsibility for changes,” he says. “The coaching sessions were a safe environment for them to think new approaches through and to see around issues that were confronting them.”

The sessions were guided by the principles of non-directive coaching. Open questions were used to help raise awareness, create choice and develop responsibility. This straightforward approach – aimed at eliciting responses rather than issuing directions or giving advice – helped the managers commit to their decisions and increase their confidence.

These managers, in turn, were encouraged to enter into similar coaching contracts with their own direct reports. Using this cascade approach, all members of the department could learn, practise and develop their coaching skills.

“The role of HR as advisers to the operational areas has now developed substantially,” says Percy. “Each operational area has an HR adviser who has learned first-hand some of the theory and practice of management and has had some exposure to coaching.”

The outcome

Combining an HR departmental improvement effort with a formal learning curriculum has given the HR management team some knowledge and skills, but it’s the coaching programme that developed their confidence to bring this into the field.

The sessions have quickly reduced many of the ad-hoc interruptions that had previously taken up a large proportion of managers’ time.
“I am truly amazed at how much time this simple intervention has created for me during the day,” says Percy.

Coaching has also encouraged faster decision making in the department. By demonstrating support through coaching, rather than exercising more directive control, individuals have come to trust their own authority.

The employees’ view

The improvement initiatives and coaching practice have helped the HR staff feel better about their work. This is demonstrated clearly through the departmental Employee Satisfaction Index (ESI), which rose from 69 per cent to 76 per cent during 2003 (compared with the rest of the business, which rose only marginally from 58 per cent to 60 per cent).

The HR employees are clear about the benefit. “The coaching has helped us to feel as if we’re working as a team, and this helps us all to perform at a higher level,” said one.

Learning points for HR

– An hour-a-week non-directive coaching session drives staff to take more responsibility

– Combining this with an HR improvement programme and a more formal teaching curriculum develops useful skills and knowledge

David Brown worked with bpTT between September 2003 and April 2004. He is the managing director of HR consultancy, The Aurora Experience

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