Shell fishes for fresh ideas

Whiteley looks at why the oil producer is encouraging its young talent to offer
guidance to senior managers

is the newcomer who gives the freshest observations, for example, a new
employee will be astound-ed at the idiosyncrasies of an established team.

on this principle, Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has arranged a scheme in which
young employees give feedback on the leadership capabilities of senior

scheme has been running since February, and involves 22 senior executives at
Shell Expro, headquartered in Aberdeen. It involves a ‘shadow’ coach, who is a
young high-flier, giving feedback on performance and behaviour to an executive
whom he or she is shadowing. The idea is to capture the fresh insight from a
relatively untutored, intelligent individual.

had wanted to develop more authoritative and innovative leadership styles to
accompany its restructure. Margins had been falling in North Sea oil production
and, with heavy-fixed overheads, the firm needed to drive stronger performance
with existing resources. It needed more teamwork and innovation across
departments. It wanted more rounded leaders, with strong motivational skills
and self-awareness.

cannot just say ‘We’re going to look like this, with cross-functional teams’
and have it just happen on paper," says Linda Rich, coach at Delta
Partnership, which has been running the programme. "You have to have
people who have the vision and courage to say ‘No, we are going to do this


director Tom Botts recalled a positive experience, also with Shell, where he
had been shadowed by a much less experienced individual as an experiment. He
found this contributed greatly to his self-awareness.

decided to implement a structured process for all the executive team. He found
that an inexperienced person is less likely to think politically and more
likely to give honest feedback on behaviour.

is more than just a case of giving a few impressionistic observations. Each
executive has developmental objectives, and the shadow coach is briefed to
discuss the relevant behaviours with the leader. If someone is working on
communicating vision to staff, then the shadow will attend staff meetings and
comment on how the individual comes across, judging the communication directly
and trying to gauge reactions of the team.

two individuals – manager and shadow coach – will sit together to discuss the
skills that are to be developed. Delta provides the coaches with agendas and

is an initial meeting between the two to discuss overall objectives, and
one-to-one meetings are held before and after key events such as a staff
briefing or a board meeting.

shadow coaches are Shell employees, which the company says is an advantage in
that both shadow and the executive are learning simultaneously, so there is a
double advantage for the company. But there is the complication that, no matter
how you prepare and equip the younger individuals, they are still junior
employees at the same firm. Does this not hamper the extent to which they can
truly speak their mind?

you are first asked to be a coach it does put the fear of God into you,"
says shadow coach Elaine Harrison, offshore supervisor on the Leman Alpha gas
platform in the southern North Sea. "To go into their world and sit there
and talk to them and tell them what they have done or how they have behaved in
a meeting is scary; it made my heart race at the first couple of meetings.

it is a thrilling feeling to be part of the scenario that you would never
otherwise see," she added.

has intrigued her about the life of the executive? "I have been surprised
at: how quickly they have to change one topic to another; the amount of
information that they have to absorb and the speed with which they do so; the
demands on their time and how they have to have such stringent time management;
and how to prioritise workloads."

the company arranges for an experienced supervisor to be available for the
shadow coaches. They can bring any issue to the supervisor such as whether they
feel intimidated.

are able to talk to someone at a higher level than you would usually be allowed
to do," says Harrison. "As a member of the audience – I am like wallpaper
– I can observe purely what they are doing."

shadows Allan Hart, general manager of the gas supply group in Lowestoft. Hart
says that her forthrightness gives him ‘pinpoint feedback’ on specific moments,
which he can use to improve performance.

Ian Silk, an asset leader in the oil division at Shell, based in Aberdeen, the
most useful feature of having a shadow coach is the focus on his real
individual performance. "It better prepares you for the assessments. It
gives you a degree of preparation and professionalism that you take to every
other meeting.

would go into sessions trying to introduce new concepts and get people engaged.
If it had been just me, I might have thought that I was communicating my vision
because I spent plenty of time talking about it, but the shadow coach might see
it differently.

next time you would change the formula to something more participative. It is
extremely practical. It made me think about an event in leadership terms,
rather than a process of information flow."


cost: Main cost was consulting time, designing the process and supporting the
programme. Managers’ and coaches’ time for preparation and debriefing.

outcome: After three months, coaches are surveyed on their leaders’ progress:

50 per cent report high progress; 50 per cent, moderate progress

75 per cent of coaches indicate significant value for own development; 25
per cent, said moderate value

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