Have you got the challenger mentality? Leadership Learns with ERM Lead at Shell.

How to get a challenger mentality, the taboo around crying and what great leadership looks like are just some of the things we discussed with Sophie Spaven, ERM Lead at Shell on The Leadership Learns Podcast.

Sophie directly manages a team of 10 leaders herself but supports six and a half 1000 technology and engineering professionals as part of the overall Shell technology business.

Check out the full interview here or listen on Spotify and Apple:

You’ve gone from being a contractor to being a permanent member for the first time, what changes has this involved?

I was a permanent member of staff in every business that I’ve ever worked in until November 2017 when I returned from Australia having fallen in love and moved continents. I was looking for an opportunity to try something that I’d never done before and to challenge myself in a way that I’d never had in previous lives and experiences. And so, I joined Shell and was very happy being a contractor, they are very good to the people that work for them. It doesn’t matter necessarily whether you are a contractor or a permanent member of staff.

The one thing I have noticed is that becoming a permanent member of staff when you work at Shell is undeniably such a big change because they focus so much on your development. They have a rule at Shell: that you spend 70% of your life doing the job that you can do, and you should be able to achieve that with your skills and your experience, and you can rely on your common sense and your ability to bring the right people together to do that.

Then you have 20% of your life that you should be on the edge of your learning. You should be in that almost fight or flight stage where you’ve got to bring together your ways of previously achieving things and apply them to something completely new. New content, new people, new opportunities.

Then 10% of it should be something completely different, so you should always be spending 10% of your week or 10% of your month doing something that is nothing to do with your job, so you are constantly evolving.
Shell is one of these places where if I take a reflection on how I have worked in the business directly for the last 12 months, the entire focus is on training you and developing you to your next role, it’s great you’re doing the job that you’re doing now, and you’ve been picked for it because you are very good at what it is that you have done to date.

There’s little attrition at Shell. People have been there for 25-30 years and that is because of that.

Your bio on LinkedIn describes you as a Slashy. It also describes you and your joy of being a servant leader. What is a Slashy?

I was trying to be cool and there’s a lot of people that are coming up in the technology and engineering world. It’s a similar description to what a polyglot is. Somebody who can do multiple things at the same time, and it is genuinely a forward slash.

What are your thoughts about the type of university degree that you had and how strong your CV is because you work for an extremely reputable company, Shell?

When I was a contractor, it was about building a community of innovation labs. We created one in four different main locations that Shell has. What I think the education point for hiring managers in the first instance was that perfect doesn’t exist and that you need to be able to hire on somebody’s ability to prove in their background that they can learn and adapt. And that’s the difference, I think, and why it is that we were so successful in building at such speed, the last count was we are at 4 or 500 people across the different hubs. Some came and went, there were not that many at any one time, but it was about recognising what it is that somebody was able to bring to the table. And again, using the similar rule: have they got 60/70% of what it is that we need, and can they show in their background and their previous experience that they were comfortable in high amounts of ambiguity.

As, and when we change in innovation labs, the content or the client, the end-user is going to consistently push you off track. Have you got the challenger mentality? Can you see that somebody has taken on a role that maybe they weren’t initially hired to do, but they excelled in? Can you see somebody self-reflection when they know they didn’t do something well within a project or that their product did fail, but what they learned from it, and their ability to be very self-aware within a team?

Those things at that time when you’re building small product squads when you’re building innovation labs, you have to be able to be much more than the skills that are on your CV. You could have ten degrees. It still doesn’t necessarily give you the right EQ or the right, learner mindset that is not about learning technology but learning about humans and behaviour and people.

Why do you think business fails to attract or fails to have as many women in senior leadership positions as it does?

I don’t necessarily think that leaders have been developed or trained in a way that gives them the feeling of safety in how it is that they work with their female staff. I think that we assume that managers can be leaders and that we give managers this wide overarching responsibility for the health and wellness of their team.

It’s about giving people the opportunity to be visible in their organisation, I think naturally, unless you are a go-getter, and you ask for it. Managers don’t necessarily understand how best to be able to give that visibility.

Visibility is one of the most important things. It shows who you are and what you’re capable of to people above the person that you’re directly reporting to, so you maybe never get the opportunity.

You’ve got to encourage people to challenge, but challenge purposefully rather than just challenge for the sake of it. If you have those types of ingrained values, then people feel like it is their responsibility to be able to step up and speak out and therefore you’re giving everyone a level playing field. If that’s not encouraged, then you’ll find that often, and I think it is a well-known statistic that a male colleague has no qualms in asking for a pay rise and that bigger job and going for it consistently, whereas the female will wait and hold back in the hope that they’re going to be noticed for the good work that they’ve done.

What have been your biggest learns over the past 12 months?

Consistently inconsistent is OK. That’s not based on my performance, but it’s based on what it is that we’re having to focus on. The fact that the world is working at home in a crisis, they’re not just working from home and that we are constantly having to evolve.

If you’re OK walking into work to say I’m not going to be able to solve everything, but I am going to be able to problem-solve and to be able to bring those right people together I think it’s been one of my biggest learns.

I also have spent a huge amount of time listening to my team and for me, I think it was important to establish a way of working with the people that had chosen to do the role and hadn’t necessarily chosen me as their boss or their leader. And I understood what drives them, what they struggle with, what they want to be when they aren’t doing this role. Being able to see what they’re great at and what gets them out of bed and what is their challenger, purposeful feeling of being able to come to work every day.

I had to let go of that feeling that I don’t know everything and that stress and that pressure and genuinely there have been moments this year when I have gone into the office and online and cried because I physically have got to that point where I am so aware I need to be good at what I’m doing and that I don’t know it and that that feeling is so uncomfortable. It’s the worst feeling in the world that you don’t feel like you could do what you’ve been asked to do or that you can’t solve an issue that you know you should be able to do. I think in letting that go, being able to surround yourself with good people. Being able to think about who within the organisation and who within my peer group, or who in my sounding board mentor group or people that I know outside of the industry can just give me that second opinion, that different lens. It’s OK not to know everything and do everything and be everything, and that this is all part of your journey to evolve into being a different leader or a different person – that’s OK.

What’s been the biggest impact of Covid for you and your team?

It has proved that we can trust each other implicitly, that we are all in this together that we would do anything to lighten the load for somebody else. There’s so much more empathy and understanding in other people’s lives.

What is your opinion on the taboo around crying in the workplace?

It is a great conversation starter with some of my colleagues. I took a day off yesterday because I couldn’t do it anymore. I had competing priorities at home. They were just constant escalations, and I am, unfortunately, a centre point for a lot of deliverables and just had one of those days where I woke up in the morning and I had a good cry while I was walking the dog.

If you’re honest about what you’re feeling, a lot of people say “if I can do anything for you, let me take that off you.” It opens up a lot about mental health conversations.

Sometimes, it’s a good release. They say that crying is very good at being able to unlock the valve and it’s like watching air come out of a radiator. The radiator can’t function properly. It can’t keep you warm until you’ve released all the pressure and their air. It’s the same with crying.

What’s the most significant error you’ve made in the last 12 months?

When I first started, I took on everything and I just said yes. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep, Yep and I tried to shield my team from giving them too much or putting too much pressure on them.

I drowned myself. I made silly mistakes in data. I made silly mistakes when reporting. I made myself feel very silly in a role that I just started in front of very senior people, and they were just silly mistakes that didn’t necessarily need to happen.

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