Tuesday, May 26, 2020

With the energy transition, Shell is investing in the power of colorful inclusion

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This past summer, a handful of Shell stations in Amsterdam got a bit of a makeover.

Building on Shell’s signature yellow and red, crucial components of their brand’s identity, four stations were adorned with rainbows — across their facades, their pumps and on the coffee cups.

Coinciding with Amsterdam’s annual Pride Week, the rainbow-colored campaign was an act of solidarity meant to convey Shell’s deeply rooted commitment to diversity and inclusion. And it came with a statement:

Welkom bij Shell. Iedereen.

Welcome to Shell. Everyone.

Shell has a long history of supporting LGBT workplace inclusion and has had networks in place for 20 years. And they have flown the rainbow flag and taken part in Pride events for many years to show their commitment to  LGBT inclusion. This matters as one of the company’s core values is respect and they believe this is the right thing to do. Shell also knows that employees who are closeted or who feel that they can’t be themselves at work are less productive. Recently, the company has taken a more creative approach, says Graham Sparks, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Shell.

Pictured above: Graham Sparks, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Shell

He likes to call it “painting the assets.”

“To be successful in this transition, you’re going to have to have the best people with the best minds,” Graham says. “It brings me back to the core of the D&I business case: the best people, best ideas and best collaboration. That’s what excites me. I’d almost see a place where you don’t have to talk about D&I anymore because it’s so much a part of what you need to be successful and for growth in our industry.”

Graham Sparks, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Shell

The industry isn’t quite there yet, but Graham says he has reached a point where he spends much less time talking about the business case for diversity and inclusion and much more time talking about values, the right thing to do and respect for people.

Shell made a bold move when the company wrapped a storage tank in its refinery in Rotterdam in rainbow colors, and their efforts continued when Shell painted a rainbow flag on the side of a commercial fuels delivery tanker in the Philippines.

And continued to the most public-facing part of its business — gas stations — and gave them the full rainbow treatment.

“The idea is you go beyond something that is purely symbolic and, for a period of four weeks, ensure we have a conversation about it,” Graham explains.

Graham Sparks, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Shell

The reaction was very positive: The campaign generated some 800,000 views across social media, and the sentiment ratings were 79 percent positive — a huge win in a campaign around an often-polarizing social issue.

There were, of course, some negative reactions. The one Graham heard most often was, What does someone’s private life have to do with Shell?

“We aren’t talking about someone’s private life. We’re talking about our behaviors and how we show respect for our customers and staff,” Graham explains. “You have to bring it back to that storyline, and that’s the best way you can make progress where you see resistance.”

That kind of response is honed over years of building a strong diversity and inclusion focus within a large company in a traditionally conservative industry. Graham has been in his role for five years, but, as he is quick to point out, diversity and inclusion has been a core part of Shell for more than 100 years.  

As proof, he points to an old Shell advertisement that turned up recently in a museum in the UK. 

The poster, which dates to 1908, was created to show Shell’s support for the suffragette movement — complete with the headline “Votes for Women! Votes Shell”

“Here we are, 110 years later, having this conversation. The point is, you had better be in this for the long haul,” Graham says.

When you do, you make an impact and you underpin your values— both on specific issues and on the industry as a whole.

When it comes to gender, modern-day Shell now has a 50/50 balance on graduate intake — meaning it is bringing in equal numbers of men and women fresh from college. Six years ago, only a third of the new graduates joining Shell were women.

In that same time period, the senior leadership of Shell has climbed from 16 percent female to 23 percent.

In turn, more inclusive leadership breeds stronger employee engagement and, importantly, stronger safety performance.

“And when you start talking about safety in our world, you suddenly get people’s attention,” Graham says.

But inclusion matters to more than just safety. It’s critical to the energy transition as a whole. When diverse leadership is supported by inclusive behaviors company-wide, you create an innovative, nimble company capable of navigating the complexities of the energy transition.

The leadership doesn’t need to be convinced on the value of D&I. Shell gets it — as evidenced by this quote from Shell CEO Ben van Beurden on the Shell website:

“Inclusion and inclusive behaviours are at the heart of effective collaboration — be it with team members, colleagues in other parts of our company, partners in our joint ventures or, most importantly, with our customers. It is therefore vitally important that we do not view diversity and inclusion as a ‘nice to do’ or an ‘add on’ to business as usual. It must be at the heart of our business plans in the same way as safety.”

Ben van Beurden, CEO, Shell

And the rainbows were just the beginning.

“I think all of this starts to very much define who you are, what your brand is and what you stand for wherever you operate in the world,” Graham says. “Sometimes that means we need to have more difficult discussions, and use this as underpin of our values and broader role in society.”

Shell’s bold inclusive positioning doesn’t just create an environment where employees feel free to be themselves; it paves a pathway for others in the industry to step bravely into diversity and inclusion.

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is a champion of women in business — from innovators and entrepreneurs to executives and nonprofit leaders and founder of Brave New Word.

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