Shell GM William Langin Offers Advice to Current Undergrads

BT: What advice do you have on how to make a good impression and get ahead when you first enter the workplace (similar to the advice you also shared with me and Joanna what not to do i.e. attempt to be a know-it-all, to develop strong technical skills, etc.)? 

Langin: The best way to get ahead is not to try to get ahead, or at least appear like you are not trying to get ahead!

What I mean by that statement is that young professionals need to be willing to put in the time and effort to develop the fundamental skills in their field before being too focused on being promoted into management positions. The best leaders that I have had the opportunity to work with have a strong base in their core field of expertise and develop the management and leadership skills to deliver the business successfully. The energy industry, like most technically-based industries, relies on fundamental science and engineering in order to succeed. Without strong fundamentals, no business or management practice can lead a company to success.

My advice for young professionals is to enter a job or industry hungry to learn, showing respect for the experience of their senior colleagues, and willing to put in the time and effort to develop a strong foundation, not just through training courses and projects, but also by leveraging the experience of others for coaching and mentoring. Most industries and businesses have at least a few highly-experienced, highly-skilled veterans who have a wealth of knowledge from which young professionals can benefit. Seek out senior mentors that have skills that you want to develop yourself. I had a few such mentors early in my career. I found out what types of problems and data really interested them and whenever I encountered those types of issues, I sought out their advice and help. In most cases, they were eager to help and took the time to help me think through and solve the issue myself, not just solve the problem for me. The learning that took place through these interactions was invaluable. Sometimes I also needed advice on other issues and I learned that I could lure them into my office by mentioning one of their areas of interest, and then switch the conversation to the other topic for which I needed help. If you take the time to develop the right network and show an eagerness to learn, you can create a group of mentors that is willing to help you build a technical foundation for your longer-term career aspirations.

After you develop that strong foundation, you must begin to understand the business context and strategic drivers for your project and organization. When you understand how your project fits into the company’s strategy, you can use that knowledge to focus and prioritize your work so that your project’s success is aligned with your group’s, and ultimately, the company’s success. If you take the time to understand the key drivers for success in your company, you may realize that your part of the current project is not critical. At that point, I always advise my staff to find ways outside of your core expertise to help the project succeed. You will continue to make meaningful contributions and potentially learn a new area of the business which can further enhance the strong foundation that I have stressed so strongly.

BT: You have held prominent managerial positions in your career at Shell; what is some advice you have for our readers about being a successful leader (motivating your team, making sure correct processes are being followed, etc.)? 

Langin: My experience thus far has taught me that good leadership is fundamentally about respect for people. Respect for people takes on many forms. In addition to common signs of respect such as understanding individual situations, backgrounds, and viewpoints, respect for people to me means creating an environment in which people enjoy coming to work, are motivated to deliver their projects, and can see a long-term place for themselves in the organization.

Secondly, making sure everyone is aware of and focused on common business objectives is a crucial element. Aligning my organization around the key drivers for our work ensures that everyone is working toward the same goals and can work together to meet those objectives. To create this clarity, I communicate the goals at every possible opportunity so that most of the staff can recite them by memory. When everyone is motivated toward the same goal, they tend to work together more easily, willing to contribute outside of their core job, and put in extra effort when required.

I also try take a deep personal interest in my people. I try to understand their personal and family situations, as well as their professional aspirations and do whatever I can to support them. For instance, on the personal side, I always emphasize the importance of “family-first” and try to understand the commitments that my people have outside the office so that I can be conscious of those issues when I assign projects with short-term deadlines, schedule events outside of normal working hours, or require business travel. On the professional side, all of my employees have a professional development plan that helps to guide their career development. In that plan, we agree on what types of technical or leadership training and experiences are needed in order to help them achieve the types of positions to which they aspire. I treat this plan as a contract. I also hold my leaders accountable for implementing that contract with their own employees. I think that personal and professional interest in the employees conveys a level of respect for their time that they appreciate and helps to lead to a high-performing organization that is capable of delivering successful results.

I also believe in respecting employees’ time by making sure that the work that they carry out is important for making impactful business decisions. I try to focus our efforts on the critical data and steer away from checklists and standardized requirements. I want my people to know that I value their time and efforts and I do so by eliminating work that does not significantly impact the decision being made.

BT: What challenges have you faced as your career has spanned several continents and different cultural landscapes?

Langin: I have certainly had to learn how to adapt my personal preferences and style to work with people from diverse countries, backgrounds, and cultures. My core values such as developing strong fundamentals, being willing to learn from others with more experience, coaching and mentoring, and respect for people have continued to form the foundation of my approach. However, the way in which I approach and implement some of these beliefs has adapted to fit the business or culture I was working in at the time. Each time that I have started in a new business or country, I found that observing and listening before deciding on my approaches has served me well. Doing some research on the cultural tendencies in a new landscape ahead of time can be helpful, however I have found that discussions with others that have worked in that culture to be the most useful.

BT: When we spoke on the phone, you had some very interesting views on technology and innovation. Can you share them with the Business Today community, specially tailored to young people entering industries that rely on science and engineering to succeed?

Langin: I strongly believe that technology and innovation will continue to be key enablers to supplying our world with more and cleaner energy. However, I have noticed that sometimes we rely too much on “technology” to deliver solutions. For instance, you can find a computer program or app to do just about any analysis, computation, or simulation. I see many young graduates simply trusting the output of these tools without question and not testing whether the output really makes sense for the problem they are trying to solve. While today’s energy challenges are complex, the fundamentals of science and engineering still apply. I want to encourage people to see these types of answers as points in “connect the dots” pictures from our childhood. Sometimes the answers are sound and the dots are close together and easily connected in a logical way to make a clear picture. However, many times the problem is complex and the dots are more widely spaced and may even be able to be connected in different ways that reveal different pictures or solutions. Ask yourself how your dots fit together. Could a dot be in the wrong place – i.e. the computer output is wrong? Does your picture make sense for your problem? By the way, I think this thinking links perfectly with my earlier comments around developing a strong fundamental knowledge base in your chosen field.

Also, I frequently hear the buzzwords “innovation” and “transformation” used when significant improvements are needed. While radical changes can certainly bring success, however I’d also assert that innovation and transformation can also mean delivering business fundamentals better than anyone else. I am all for changing delivery strategies if they improve the business, but I always challenge myself and my staff to question whether we are executing the fundamentals as best we can before embarking on a change program.

BT: And lastly, Business Today strives to be an avenue for communication between leaders and students. What are some messages you would tell the current generation of undergrads as we begin to enter various industries? (Here, you can also include any advice geared specifically towards entering the Oil Industry).

Langin: My advice to graduates as you enter the workforce reiterates several of the themes that I have mentioned previously. First, develop core technical skills and understand the foundations of your industry, no matter which one you have chosen. Use those skills to think through complex problems and find solutions. Second, respect and utilize the experience of the more experienced people around you. Thirdly, understand why your job is important to your group and your company. Finally, respect for people, in all its forms, is paramount to success.