Much of my career has been in the oil and gas sector of the UKCS and I’ve felt extremely privileged to have worked with some amazing leaders over the years and some equally outstanding engineers, scientists, HR professionals.
With the oil majors taking an evolutionary path to chase greener endeavours, the risk taking and financially adept independent oil companies have moved in to fill the void and heroically keep the lights on with the aging infrastructure in the basin and continue to make profit and thus keep people employed. Could it be any better?
The merger and acquisitions market, up until Covid-19 struck, was powering ahead with names such as Marathon, Exxon, ConocoPhillips and Chevron all but disappearing from Aberdeen (some of these firms have retained a few non-operated interests here and there).
What we must never forget is some of these big names did some amazing work on building organisational cultures where employee engagement wasn’t only measured but linked to business success whether it was financial or safety related. The efforts to create such a “cultural sausage machine” often took a small band of inspirational leaders, HR professionals and external consultants to make this happen and sustain the continual journey.
So where are we today? How are the independent companies approaching culture? And I don’t just mean employee surveys and staff parties (Do you remember those in the good old days?).
Many of the independent oil companies have new pressures on cash flow and keeping their investors fed and happy rather than the shareholder models of old. Is there the same drive to engage employees, manage change and focus on the link between employee well-being and profitability and even the holy grail of safety?
There are some small glints of hope out there in this community who appear to make great efforts to drive diversity, inclusion and develop their leaders and engage their workforce. There are also some out there who may be regressing back to the 1980s with echoes of “alpha male leadership” and the fit in or go away culture.
I’m the eternal optimist that most leaders don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘how will I piss off my employees today?”, but instead are under so much pressure to deliver that this often overlooks the bigger picture of how organisations work as an intricate system of moving parts.
Metaphorically I think of Newton’s third law in which he states “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I think this applies to leadership behaviours, especially those leaders in the most senior roles whom people look up to, listen to and sadly, on the odd occasion, fear.
Culture to me has always been about the leaders and how they communicate the values of the organisation, which without a doubt is not easy, were only human after all.
Leaders are one of the key vehicles of communicating culture. Senior leadership teams, through their behaviours and actions, are judged every day with every action they take and every word that leaves their mouths. Who would ever want these jobs knowing you’re constantly on trial by a jury of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of employees judging and debating your every decision.
So how do you know if you’re a leader who promotes a culture that believes that employee engagement has a clear link to organisational success? Here are some questions to ask yourself.
1. Do you know where you want to take the organisation? In old money I’d call this a vision. Having a clear vision of where you’re going can be very powerful. Employees who get behind a vision can be almost invincible and countless case studies have proven this. A vision that is simply words for the website and is not believed in can work against you. Beware the “Hollow Vision” that is simply window dressing.
2. Who is really running the show? Is it the leadership team or the investor? From chatting to a few colleagues in the industry it appears this is a crucial interface in determining the future success of the organisation and how its managed. How clear are the boundaries between how this relationship actually works? Hands off or hands on? What implications does this have on your ability as a leadership team to steer the ship, culturally, in the direction that will take you to the success you desire? Having never met an investor I’ve no idea what their thoughts are on employee engagement or culture but suspect they are simply focused on getting a good and fast return on their investment by any means legally possible.
3. Why are we here as an organisation? We cannot do something without understanding “The Why, The How and The What” Simon Sinek puts it so well that most leaders understand what the organisation does and how we need to do it but do leaders really understand and communicate why their organisation exists? Articulating the why can be a huge asset to helping take employees with you and generate the unsolicited effort we need at times from all employees to make an organisation truly thrive.
4. What brings you to leadership? How often do senior leaders take time out to reflect what brings them to the role they are in? Did they land there by accident or is it the money, power, an inspirational drive to help others or something else? What are senior leaders’ beliefs and how often are they at odds with current thinking of employee engagement and its impact on organisational health? As humans we get trapped in patterns of behaviour that serve us well but they don’t work all the time and in every situation.
Being a senior leader in the current UKCS is certainly not easy. Being a good leader is harder still but that shouldn’t stop leaders from striving to continually develop their practice, challenge their thinking and look more towards the simple ideas that surround culture and its impact on their business, especially when they are the main constituents of the culture. Do they realise the good they can do and ,conversely, the damage they do, not just to their business but to the people around them?
David Sherrit is an independent consultant with David Sherrit Consulting offering culture change, change management, employee engagement, employee well-being and executive coaching.