When I joined Shell, I came in amidst some of the most disruptive times in the industry.
Global oil prices were in free-fall: on my first day of work, I learned that the price of oil had tumbled by 50% – from US$110 per barrel to about US$55 per barrel. Today, as I write this, it is hovering at about $30 per barrel – a dip of over 70%.
Imagine having your bank account shrink by more than two-thirds, without having any ability to mitigate or effect change. And now, “the experts” are talking about prices remaining “lower for longer”, with this potentially being the new normal. For the industry, this has been a seismic shift.
And yet, there has been no better time to be in the industry. Amidst every crisis, there’s an opportunity.
Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to have front-row seats for transformation.
When I was in banking and finance – I led branding and communications amidst one of the longest-drawn, contentious mergers in corporate Malaysia’s history. When I was at Microsoft, the company was going through a transformation from its previous business model of selling enterprise licenses to selling devices and cloud services. Now at Shell, here I am again, finding a way forward to thrive amidst disruption yet again.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Be agile
This means being able to learn quickly, pivot strategically, and execute effectively amidst a constantly changing environment. It means being able to quickly identify and understand the industry, the forces of change, what’s happening, what makes your business viable, and more. Then taking all of that, to formulate a strategy that may involve dramatically and creatively pivoting from familiar terrain into a completely new scenario that becomes “the new normal”. Finally, mustering forward by executing against your strategy effectively (execution is everything, IMHO).
At Shell, this took the form of exploring new forms of energy beyond the traditional “oil and gas” model, which included exploring new frontiers in deepwater and integrated gas. It meant pursuing new and creative engineering solutions to extract more value more efficiently. It has even meant taking what some perceive to be gamble in order to preserve our place in the future of energy.
2) Prioritize ruthlessly
When things are being disrupted, you often don’t have the luxury of time or options – massive change is happening to you, whether you like it or not. Consequently, you need to prioritize ruthlessly – figure out what’s really important to propel things forward. This may mean taking a sober look and making hard choices regarding your budget, people, and even strategic priorities. It might even mean sacrificing your sacred cows.
At the same time, prioritizing ruthlessly means not getting distracted by the noise of everything that is happening. Think about it this way: during an earthquake, even if your valuables or sentimental possessions are crashing down around you, your priority is to ensure you and your loved ones remain safe.
For Shell, this has meant revisiting initial investment opportunities and even enacting divestments. I’ve even been challenged to consider, “What if we did nothing?” – which, admittedly, is an intriguing challenge for someone whose job function requires him to be proactive in “doing something”. And yet, that is the hallmark of prioritising ruthlessly: being laser-focused on what must be done and foregoing anything else that could distract and detract you from your objectives.
3) Stay Positive
When the world as you know it is tumbling down all around you, it can be difficult to remain positive. I hesitate to refer to pop psychology tropes, but I really do think that “tough times never last, but tough people do.” Having a positive outlook – call it hope or even being “cautiously optimistic” (as is the corporate-speak) – is strategically essential for survival.
Having a positive attitude can be underrated or overlooked, amidst all the other more business-like strategies. However, your “invisible” internal resources (whether it’s your own energy and state of mind or whether it’s the company’s morale) is often what fuels your “visible” external achievements.
If you’re going to navigate your way (your business, your organisation, your team, etc.) through disruptive times, you need to see be able to see the world that exists once you’ve been through the disruption and emerged successful at the other end of this journey. In doing so, you keep up the morale and energy to execute effectively.
This was where I was truly grateful for the leaders at Shell. Folks like my immediate supervisor, the Country Chairman, as well as other leaders throughout the organisation (locally, regionally and even globally) were great examples of how to remain positive during tough times. For some of them, they were the final decision maker when it came to making tough calls for the business – which included impacting thousands of jobs. It was tough and sobering, and I was humbled to see that they were indeed affected by the choices they had to make. Even so, they could still see the end-game and kept us all inspired for a world when all of this had passed and we emerged as a stronger organisation that was fit for the future.