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New Straits Times (Malaysia): Pearls within Shell

13 Mar 2007

Who doesn’t want to find the perfect company and work there happily ever after? Shell’s Gourami Business Challenge provides its participants and SHANNON TEOH an intimate look at how things would be if you were an employee in just such a company.

SET for life — isn’t that everyone’s dream? And short of coming up with an idea like clickable icons on a computer screen, or striking the lottery — including the rather morbid wish for an inheritance — how does someone achieve that fantasy of a retirement spent playing golf and going on cruises?

For the salary person, it definitely means finding the right company where you can spend the rest of your working life secure in the knowledge that this is a place that’ll appreciate your talent and efforts and reward them accordingly. And by the time you’re wrinkly and bald(ing), the 20 per cent of your paycheque you’ve saved every month, ought to take you on a boat from here to Guam and back.

These days, company loyalty is about as common as the Sumatran rhino. Thankfully, efforts are being made to save it. Company loyalty, I mean — okay, the rhino as well, somewhat… one or two, yeah.

One such place is Shell, the petroleum company. One of their most impressive efforts is the Gourami Business Challenge. By the way, it is fairly common to hear various Shell employees describe themselves as “babies” in the company despite being there for eight to 14 years.

The gourami, in reality, is a fish. In the vocabulary of Shell, it’s an oil-rich, quasi-democracy run by a Sultanate, as described by finance major, Roger Loh.

“It has a population of 10.35 million and is facing a supply crunch in terms of natural resources. Shell Gourami is here to work with the country on this problem. Our closest export market is Singapore and tourists will be interested in the pebble-spotted hippopotamus, a very rare and endangered species,” said the well-drilled 24-year-old Singapore Management University undergrad.

Back to reality, the location is Pantai Dalit, just off Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, gives us the impression of a tropical yet somewhat Middle-Eastern Asia-Pacific island. Here, 49 students from six different nations (Malaysia, both as host and as one of Shell’s biggest hubs, has 16 participants, making our contingent the largest) including, in order of descending number of participants, Australia, Singapore, China, Philippines and one rather jovial chap from India, have come to be part of a business simulation exercise.

The scenario is straightforward. You’re here to send up a business proposal to both the government and Shell HQ to secure a US$1.5 billion (RM5.3 billion) investment.

The actual challenge simulation though, is not so simple. The 49 “challengers” are divided into regional teams and centralised sales & marketing and manufacturing departments along with HR and finance reps from each of these teams.

They then have to apply both technical knowledge and soft skills to work within their teams, liaise with the other teams and also prepare for meetings with various agencies and ruling officials including the Sultan himself.

Add to that mix, last-minute issues and emergencies that are randomly introduced and you’ve got a formula for a nervous breakdown. Oh, did I mention? They have four days.

Loss of sleep was part and parcel of everyone’s experience and even though I have an honours degree in engineering, a lot of the technical jargon was Gaelic to me.

Maybe that’s because some of the gobbledegook was not just about the oil & gas industry, but financial as well.

So, imagine the learning curve if you were a technical person trying to comprehend financial speak and vice versa.

No Shell spokesperson would confirm that any amount of sadistic pleasure was gained by mixing each team up: different nationalities, gender, ages, disciplines and preference of meat.

Ultimately, this forced the participants to not just learn the jargon but also to communicate across borders of culture and knowledge.

“Some of the dominant people learnt to slow down and give others a chance to voice some ideas. There was a compromise especially since the Australians were overall, more fluent in English.

“Together, we learnt a lot of communication skills and time management,” described Amie Amir, an ebullient geology major from UKM.

“When I arrived, I had zero knowledge of oil & gas but after just four days, well, the learning curve has been exponential but, I’ve learnt so much about the industry,” said an overwhelmed Amir Aripin, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student from UTM Skudai.

“It’s amazing. I come from a business background but I was placed in manufacturing. So it’s all about crude oil, and now I suddenly know about things like alkalisation and hydro-sulphurisation!” said Carmelo Cancio, a 21-year-old Filipino.

Sounds like reality TV meets the Discovery Channel, doesn’t it? In fact, there are prizes at the end of it all and not just for the “winners” since there are no winners and losers, just whether you meet a benchmark or not.

Gourami is just one of three main recruitment methods utilised by Shell to tap into new talent. The others are internships and Shell Recruitment Day, where they descend upon a campus and grill applicants, which can number by the hundreds.

For Shell Recruitment Day, they get about 24,000 applicants per year in the Asia-Pacific, which are whittled down before the event itself. However, only 30 per cent of those who are actually interviewed meet the benchmark for hire.

Gourami only attracts about 5,000 applicants. Shell figures that the commitment involved might be a deterrent and those who do apply tend to be more serious and confident.

Eventually, out of this number, between 40 and 50 are selected for Gourami and this results in a 75 per cent success rate in terms of meeting the benchmark.

The last Gourami in the region saw 36 out of 47 participants meeting the benchmark with 16 finally joining Shell.

One of them, Gan Wei Sheun, is now a process engineer based out of Singapore. The 23-year-old believes that Gourami allows for two-way interaction.

“Too often job interviews are just about the accessing interviewer figuring out if you fit the job. But at Gourami, because we’re exposed to how Shell does things, we can access if the company fits us. When you look for a long term career, it’s an advantage being through Gourami and knowing the work culture.

It’s also great already having a network of friends who joined Shell after Gourami,” he said.

And that’s basically how Shell keeps its talent. And how this talent is set for life. Genius idea, no?

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