INTERVIEW: Michael Coates, head of legal UK and associate general counsel, Shell and Alan Buchanan, global vice president for HR - global functions, Shell
Michael Coates and Alan Buchanan talk about the importance of D&I to Shell, and how company leadership (of which legal is a key part) is driving and supporting this.
G C D I V E R S I T Y A N D I N C L U S I O N I N T E R V I E W
GC: Are there any diversity and inclusion initiatives specific to the legal team at Shell in the UK and globally?
Alan Buchanan (AB): We have a corporate top-down philosophy which starts with our CEO through our organisational construct. A lot is driven centrally, and the translation and application occurs in the businesses and functions. In terms of energy and commitment to D&I, we do a very strong job. The tone from the top, because of people like Donny Ching (the global legal director), and the whole leadership team, through their commitment, helps make sure we have diverse panels, diverse candidates on shortlists, support for employee networks and for external and internal events.
Michael Coates (MC): It’s up to us as legal managers to advance the agenda. In legal, we do the best in this area over the whole Shell organisation – nearly 40% of our management-level employees are female. We are leading across the business functions. We look to be a group to emulate.
GC: Why is the legal department leading in this area?
MC: We have great staff, male and female, and a talent pipeline over the years, represented at every level. We really work on attraction and retention because there’s no point attracting great people only to lose them because you can’t offer a good balance of life and work. We are represented in over 70 countries, which requires a diverse workforce. In legal, you need to be qualified in the jurisdiction you are working on, so that further drives diversity. The top lawyer in Shell is Malaysian and this shows that the company is walking the talk.
GC: I heard anecdotally that increasing gender diversity can improve the overall safety rates within construction and mining companies – do you have any examples of similar things?
AB: On the Pearl GTL (gas-to-liquids) project, where a large proportion of the workforce were local, they were told to speak out if anything was deemed unsafe. You only create that culture if you respect the views and values of your team. You need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable, or you won’t improve your safety or business performance. People have to connect with their environment, and we make sure we hire a localised footprint. Legal has an advantage in that we directly hire lawyers out of law firms, not graduates, because they have a different proposition to offer and it’s about targeting a richer supply.
GC: Is there a business case for D&I? From a Shell legal point of view, what are the strategic benefits?
MC: Recruitment is one of them. In regards to our future talent base, we have to get up to speed with what they are after. You don’t want everyone from the same background because then you don’t get the breadth of thought and decision making. I haven’t heard an argument against diversity; it’s almost accepted wisdom.
AB: Shell is a collaborative organisation across many geographies and we’ve built an environment where you feel you can share ideas and translate that in the local environment. What is our competitive advantage? The quality of our people, their ideas and contributions. It’s about who we can attract, from which varied backgrounds, and how we can retain them.
MC: The legal issues Shell is up against are cutting edge. They cut across different legal systems and jurisdictions, so we need people to understand how these systems operate over multiple countries. Having diversity is very important. It is a clear business driver. Overall, our number of employees as a group is relatively small compared with our asset base. We need to make sure the people we attract are right over the countries in which we operate.
GC: How important is it to have role models within the company to promote diversity?
MC: You need your leaders to stand up and say ‘I believe in this’. I am about to deliver a diversity pledge, and that process is about getting someone leading to say that it is important.
AB: We all look to role models and look to relating to the individual. If you don’t feel your authentic self can be at work, you won’t stay. But you need the tone from the top, role models, and networks to create the right environment, to share ideas and best practice, to enable you to talk about your own experiences.
MC: We had a flexible working policy before the law came in. People work flexibly in legal, some work at home, which reduces commuting time. I am all about delivery, and we know very quickly if they aren’t delivering – we get complaints from clients. We trust them to deliver. It’s not about facetime in the office. We have very good retention rates, so people are voting with their feet.
AB: We are trying to create a brand, a reputation; lots of our people come to us by word of mouth.
GC: What role does the legal team have in promoting diversity and what could it do better?
MC: I am on the board at Shell UK, as a director as well as a lawyer, and the legal team is asked by HR to stand up as leaders, not just as lawyers. On the Country Coordination team, as functional business leaders, we all have to stand up and say ‘here is what we believe as leaders’, not just reverting to our job role. There is that call upon us when we reach a management position, speaking as a leader of a community. I have the responsibility to promote what legal has been doing back into the business, and there is an interest in what we have done. The picture is complex; engineering fields have a lower representation of females and we are trying to get more females into STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects during their education. We try to be realistic, knowing it takes time, but building the ladder.
AB: Over a ten-year period, targets are one method, but it’s not about quotas; it’s more about making sure we create an environment where people perform to the best of their ability. Because we fill the pipeline, we have the talent and the choice to always select the strongest performer, irrespective of gender, etc.
MC: We want to bring everyone on the journey. We don’t want to alienate anyone because of D&I. It is still a meritocracy, or you lose people.
AB: The tone from the top, the culture, our policies – all these can change behaviour and mindsets. We have D&I ‘lunch and learns’ which help in building awareness of being respectful of difference, understanding of issues, allowing everyone to flourish. We have lots of different tactics and avenues.
MC: We will have a woman’s network lunch where I will talk about my career background. My mother wanted to be a doctor and certainly had the required grades, but scholarships weren’t offered to women at that time. Now I have a daughter – I look to that, and think it should never be an issue again. I will hear their experiences at the lunch as well. It’s important to get feedback, and always ask ‘what could we be doing better?’ Shell has a women’s network, a cross-function network. We also have an LGBT group and other different diverse groups.
GC: What are some common challenges for D&I initiatives?
AB: You need to create the environment that allows people to establish their own networks, so they feel comfortable to speak up. It’s about reframing and changing belief systems and behaviours, although you have to be careful: targets are good for measuring, but shouldn’t drive decisions and skew other groups so that they feel misrepresented. Don’t be slavish to KPIs; develop the environment instead.
MC: Most companies know they have to do something on this; they have to act and implement this at all levels rather than just saying the right thing. Even the most junior managers should be encouraged, and it could be a performance issue for them to make sure it happens and to ensure that they pick up inappropriate practices. None of this is an immediate fix; it’s a series of steps. Focusing only on management positions isn’t the whole picture. You need to make sure people are comfortable and have bought in at every level.
GC: What’s next for Shell on the D&I front?
AB: We will continue our progression, work on our networks, tools, processes and policies and flexible working. We’ll start to offer choices such as virtual homeworking. Employing new staff is always a challenge. What is the best environment for new people so they feel a part of things? Also, we will look at different generational needs.
MC: Shell is organic, it changes, so you have to keep abreast and look externally. We should be focused not just on our own data, but on what other companies are doing. We are well staffed and well resourced, so we can create teams to help us as managers. We have invested time and money into this.
AB: We are externally recognised as being good in this area. The Times named us one of the top 50 employers for women. To be an employer of choice for women is a great achievement.
The future of work is something we have to wrestle with. I have children, and they might have jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. We should be abreast of technology, how people are deployed. How work gets done in the future might be very different.
MC: Everything will change with disruptive technologies so we have to be flexible and adaptive.