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Interview

The boom days of the British oil and gas industry in the 1970s and 80s seem like a different world. Today, extraction is hard won, and the tougher it is, the further and deeper the exploration, and the greater the reliance on technology and science. The Oil and Gas Authority’s role is to regulate, influence and promote the UK oil and gas industry in order to maximise the economic recovery of domestic resources, attract investment – and, with that, jobs.

Stuart tell us about your early life and how you decided on a career in HR?  

I studied experimental psychology at York, was looking for a summer work placement and randomly picked up a Shell brochure from the careers service. I’d never been to Scotland, knew nothing about the oil and gas industry, but I filled in an application, was called for an interview and accepted a summer placement working in Aberdeen. My supervisor and mentor from that placement were both hugely influential on my career from that point forward and have remained friends for life. I was impressed by them both as individuals, they were professional and inspired me greatly. They allowed me to explore and experience the dynamics of a large-scale organisation and the role HR played. Up until that point, my previous breaks from studying had involved running a small musical theatre company – quite a contrast to the oil and gas industry. After the summer, I was offered a graduate placement in Aberdeen and entered my first foray into the world of work, in a fascinating industry I knew very little about and a function, HR, which had never crossed my mind as a career prospect. At this time, 1999, the industry was experiencing a very significant downturn, and I think I was the only HR graduate recruited that year as graduate numbers had been cut heavily. Oil was trading at about $15 a barrel and the sector was experiencing an existential question mark of how it could survive. Coincidently, we’re just coming out of another one of those periods right now.

I guess your first HR experience was not exactly based in positive territory.  

Far from it, when I started with the company, it had just restructured its UK business unit, and moved headquarters from London to Aberdeen, which resulted in job losses and the relocation of people with their families. Whilst much of the focus was around managing costs, it was vital to retain critical experience and talent, so while the organisation had to consolidate, it also had to plan for the future. Often, major oil and gas companies work hard to continue their graduate recruitment  process during difficult times, because as well as providing a future leadership pipeline, new talent brings a fresh perspective, not weighted down with legacy issues and history – a group of people who hopefully question why things are done the way they are. This kind of approach and mindset has helped to maintain Shell’s great kudos as a career stamp, a really respected place to have worked and learned from. After my first rotation, focusing on employee relations, I was offered a role change to be a HR advisor for the Well Engineering section. These are the people drilling some of the world’s most expensive holes, tied to huge budgets, spending millions of dollars in each project. As a result of this expenditure, making sure you have the right skills at the right time is key, as well as dealing with safety, to avoid injury or fatalities offshore. I spent time on the platforms in order to get to know the population, which was a completely different working environment and definitely knocked some edges off me!

What happened next in your career path?  

I was offered the chance to move from Aberdeen down to London and take on the role of managing the recruitment team for UK and Ireland, as well as being responsible for the “attraction” programmes such as internships and bursaries used across Europe. This involved building relationships with universities and representing the brand to students, which was a great role. I was running my own team for the first time and during presentations would often face diverse questions from audiences, so I had to gain a real understanding of the whole business. My team did a great job which was recognised in various “top graduate employer” surveys and in the increase in the number of high calibre candidates choosing to apply and subsequently join the company. A few years later, during a trip to a university with colleagues, I met the newly-appointed Global Head of External Affairs. She had joined from the banking sector having previously been an advisor to US Presidents Reagan and Bush, and she described a new HR role. The role was to support staff in the external affairs function around the world, a really diverse group of people who ranged from former political advisors, policy and global media experts right through to the guys writing intranet content. I was London-based, but spending time in a wide range of different locations across the world, as I was supporting staff in around 50 different countries at that point. I quickly had to learn about external affairs and communications as a profession, which was something completely new for me. The challenge of the role was largely to bring together a group of professionals spread all over the place with a common purpose, which we enabled through the development of a single competence framework and series of resourcing and development tools. The role was a real eye-opener for me as I learnt about supporting staff in different cultures, in joint ventures, in Government partnerships and it was great to see good HR tools, to help support the business goal of aligning the function. It was a total eye opener in how to really unlock potential and capability which I’ve never forgotten.

A big challenge of this role was the constant travel, and I was approached by BT to consider joining their technology business (BT Exact) as Head of Talent, split between offices in London and Suffolk but with no overseas travel. I had the chance to work for another fantastic leader who headed up the OD & Change function and I became experienced in change management and the power of real implementation of change. I very quickly realised however, that I really missed the oil and gas sector and before long, I was having a conversation about a return to Shell, to take the role of Head of Talent for Europe, based out of Aberdeen. It was a super role which offered the chance to return home – it was too good an opportunity to turn down! I was responsible for supporting high potential talent development as well as diversity and inclusion across the upstream businesses in Europe. The role allowed me to draw on some previous experiences, including the deployment of new talent which I’d seen in the recruitment role, the development and use of competence frameworks which I’d seen in both the external affairs and BT role. I used my experience of working with excellent head-hunters, who used their knowledge of candidate’s personal circumstances to build trust and engagement. I was determined to build a simple system within our team to ensure we could match that approach for our senior and high potential staff, making sure we knew them better than those outside trying to poach them from us. As well as using in-house tools around leader development, we also worked with an external partner to develop a programme for our top 100 leaders, focusing on their ability to deliver transformational change. After a little over four years in this role, I decided to take a year off, with a plan to learn to bake, write a book and reflect. The company agreed with this, but then went through a massive change process called Transition 2009, where the company was completely reshaped. I got a phone call to ask me if I would help support the redesign of the upstream businesses in Europe. I happily agreed as it was a great chance to work from a totally blank sheet of paper.

So the baking, book and reflection would have to wait.  

We uprooted and moved to Texas. The job scope was massive, as a team we had the challenge of bringing together a substantial number of existing businesses, which included the global wind power business, the deep-water exploration function, the gas and power businesses across the Americas as well as both the commercial and the new business development functions. Each was a massive entity, and the challenge involved bringing them all together to form one cohesive team. The culture change was tough going, and we had to respect this involved people losing their jobs, or finding themselves in new roles. One fascinating area was overseeing the billions of dollars of investment made in Alaska, which was on a scale greater than any other project I’d seen before. It was a fast-moving time and most importantly, my family and I really loved living in Texas. The intention was to stay in Houston for four years or so before returning to Europe, but the ages of my children meant we had to ensure stability regarding their education. During a summer vacation back in the UK, an opportunity came along during lunch with a head-hunter where I was handed a piece of paper and told “by the way this needs to be your new job”. It was a chance to become the Group HR Director for Dana Petroleum, an international oil and gas company. Dana had been purchased by the Korea National Oil Company, taken off the stock market but with the plan to be run as a PLC, with operations in the Netherlands, Norway, UK, Egypt and Cameroon. I wasn’t convinced about the move because I loved my role, had great colleagues and bosses and as a family we all wanted to stay longer in Houston. However, the role offered both the chance to take on my own CHRO role in an international firm and to do so from Aberdeen – allowing us to go home and provide stability for the kids’ school years and so I accepted.

One of the main reasons I took the role was the incoming Chief Executive, who is a smart and very people-orientated leader. Right from the outset of the venture, he had a clear and bold vision, anchored in a set of meaningful values. The company had made several acquisitions in different countries and the challenge was to integrate them into one organisation. We set the objective to build what was effectively a new business and invest $5 billion dollars over five years. I took up the Group HR director role of a business with no HR function to speak of, so it was back to basics – the priority was to build governance and people processes, and to recruit a huge number of people, some requiring very specialist skills. Recruiting was going to be tough, Dana had a relatively low employer brand awareness and we were operating in an insanely-highly competitive market, with oil trading at high prices and key people able to name their price. I had to hit the road running, hire my own team and work out how the HR function would play a strong role in delivering the vision we’d set out. I hired a very strong senior HR team, and we focused on a commitment of the “rule of 3” which was that we would only develop processes, rules or practices that had as their primary purpose one of: increasing production; keeping people safe or legally compliant; making people want to come and work here, or staying working here. I learned a huge amount in that role, and am hugely proud of what we all delivered. I decided to step down after just over three years to take a year’s career break. Once again, I failed to manage this sabbatical, lasting only a few months before I met Andy Samuel, the Chief Executive of the newly-created regulator for the UK oil and gas sector, and accepting his offer to come and join him in building a new public body.

How did your involvement with Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) come about?  

Andy and I sat and talked about the challenges that the industry was facing, with oil prices crashing, and the priorities that would exist for the new regulator in supporting the whole sector. His approach was not one around merely technical or commercial change, but about values and behavioural change, and during a long discussion, I decided to cut the break short and joined the OGA as HR Director in January 2015. The role was to help build and resource the organisation internally, and externally by working on the cultural changes required to ensure industry’s long-term survival. The OGA was created to be a Government-owned company, an independent regulator,  designed to work closely with Government and with industry. We worked with colleagues in Government to help develop legislation and created a “Call to Action” mission for industry. Three years in, my role now combines the HR director role with responsibility for our work with the service sector. Whilst the OGA’s regulatory powers relate to the operators, the service sector that supports them is a vital part of the ecosystem, for instance more that 80 percent of people who work in our industry work in the service sector, not for operators. This role includes working with government and industry to help maximise exports from the sector as well as developing and sustaining vital jobs and skills in the UK economy. Since 2016, I have been in a slightly different role, combining the HR Director role with leading on our activities with the supply chain. Whilst the OGA’s regulatory powers relate to the operators, we recognise the hugely important role that is played both domestically in exports by the supply chain. In this role I co-chair the industry leadership body (the Supply Chain & Exports Taskforce) and work with colleagues from the UK & Scottish Governments, industry, trade associations and others to try and ensure that there is a strong supply chain  anchored in the UK for the long-term, and that they support our primary goal of maximising economic recovery.

How does the UK fair globally in oil and gas and what is the OGA's key role?  

The UK has always competed well globally, and remains a great place to invest and explore, not least due to the high levels of skills and experience that exist here. The OGA’s role is to regulate, influence and to promote the industry in the UK. Companies have a responsibility to maximise the economic recovery of the oil and gas resources that they are producing, which can involve working together and sharing technology and facilities. The OGA has a responsibility to ensure that oil and gas assets are in the right hands, and in the past 12 months we’ve seen one of the busiest periods of asset sales in recent memory which is hugely encouraging as it shows companies want to invest new capital into the UK. The UK oil and gas sector has produced more than 40 billion barrels so far and we believe there is up to 20 billion more there to be produced. We’re clear that our industry had to make changes, managing costs and collaborating effectively, to be able to achieve that additional production. Underpinning all of this, is what we call Vision 2035. This is a way of looking at the value of maximising production, whilst also working to double the amount of exports from the UK’s service sector by 2035. The potential prize to the UK economy, and to the companies themselves is significant. Achieving the increased levels of production that we believe are possible could generate an additional £140 billion, and doubling the UK’s share of the service sector export market from 3.7 percent to 7.4 percent could generate an additional £150 billion.

Technology will continue to play a key role in our industry. We partner closely with an organisation called the Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC). The OGTC works on a match-funding basis between industry and government, promoting real partnership and helping to fund innovations from firms both small and large, bringing technology to market in the UK first. Technology of course also needs people. We work with the industry skills organisation (OPITO) who have recently produced a major piece of work with Robert Gordon’s University called their Workforce Dynamics Review. This work takes Vision 2035 and considers what skills would be needed in different future scenarios, including considering the impact of technology on different types of roles. What was key from the report is that industry needs to continue to actively recruit to maintain the levels of staffing needed.

What about the future, as the world becomes less reliant on fossil fuel?  

Both the UK and Scottish Governments have a policy to move to a lower carbon future, and our industry needs to play its part in that process. In almost any scenario of how get to that lower-carbon world, there is a need for hydrocarbons for many years to come. A good example is gas, being used to heat our homes and generate power. We still have a significant resource of natural gas in the UK and we believe it is right that we would continue to maximise the production and use of gas from the UK, and supporting the jobs that go with it. Moving forward, the sector has a huge amount to offer even outside of oil and gas, the skills needed in several low and zero-carbon industries have a real “read across” to skills found in our industry, and presents an opportunity for firms here to work both in the UK and to export technology and services globally. Today the sector faces challenges, just as it did when I joined, it must continue to explain its role in society – just as it did when I joined, and today the sector has the chance for a fantastic and innovative future again, just as it did when I joined. We need to keep recruiting, retaining and developing great innovators and great leaders, and the industry – including the OGA – supports efforts to help the next generation see the opportunities available to them and compete for that talent. Vision 2035 sets out the ambition for us to continue to be a leading part of the UK economy, at the very cutting edge of technology, with great people helping to power the UK and export to the world.

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