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By former Shell executive Paddy Briggs: ‘Thrusting mediocrity rises to the surface in almost every sphere’

This is a quote from Tariq Ali who was writing about characters in Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” – but it struck me immediately as being very true of Shell today.

When I left Shell after 37 years back in 2002 there were a number of colleagues much younger than me who I rated and respected and who I thought were the future of the oil giant. Almost without exception they have left the corporation over the last few years. To illustrate the point I will pick out two of them but, to spare their blushes, I will keep their names anonymous!

Michael

Michael is twelve years younger than me but before he was fifty he had already run four big Shell businesses – three as Chief Executive overseas and one global business. Michael is seriously bright, well-educated (MBA etc.) and creative and original. He performed exceptionally well – all of the businesses he ran delivered good results. He left because of his growing contempt for Shell’s senior management who he saw as greedy, short-sighted, conniving, unprincipled and not very competent. Michael now runs a FTSE 100 level company in the UK. In a few years he could have been running Shell – but he isn’t mediocre enough!

Charles

Charles is almost a generation younger than Michael but, like him, very clever and ambitious. When I first got to know him he was in his twenties and already MD of a Shell subsidiary in the Middle East. I worked with him when he was in this job and admired his originality, hard work, loyalty to his staff and superb relations with stakeholders in a difficult environment. He was pitched in at the deep end in this job and did exceptionally well. I thought Charles to be one of the highest potential young people I had seen in my time in Shell. But, like Michael, Charles become disillusioned, and for largely the same reasons. In addition he did not feel that his career was being thoughtfully managed and as a high flyer, and still only in his thirties, he felt that the prospects outside were better and he too left. Like Michael he was not mediocre enough to stay.

The point about both these stories is that Shell should have bent over backwards to look after two very able people and they didn’t. And they should have realised that the changing culture of the company, which so alienated Michael and Charles, would be likely to alienate others as well. I hear that it has – and I know of at least ten other examples of good people who have left prematurely because they couldn’t stand it any more. Very sad.

© Paddy Briggs February 2008

Paddy worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Brand management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. Paddy retired from Shell in 2002 to form the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ and to write and speak on brand and reputation matters.

http://www.brandaware.co.uk/

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