10 years in ‘big oil’ – 5 things I learnt (part 2)

For those that haven’t read part 1, why not go ahead and catch up with the rest here.

In part 2 I continue sharing my 5 key lessons from working in a big corporation. Grab a cuppa before starting, the conclusion is a bit of a long one.

We have three more topics to tackle:

  • Motivation
  • Risk
  • Corporate



Hands up if on day one of joining your company you dreamed of one day becoming the CEO? Probably a fair few of you and I admit to being one of those. Looking some years down the line, who still has their hands up? Probably not so many. There maybe the odd reader or two whose careers are going rather well and have that ambition. I say to those, good luck to you! But here’s the thing, how does a large corporation lower the expectations and make us come to accept our so called fate?

Corporations are pretty good in understanding what your motivation is and how that changes as you also mature. My leaving was a direct protest of the view the Company held of me for the next twenty years. It was also a lack of understanding on their part on what motivated me. I do accept however I am very much an individual case and corporations will always struggle to accommodate everyone.

Motivation is I highly fascinating topic. We have an innate curiosity on what drive us. What makes us tick? Naturally I’m not reinventing the wheel here, a lot of theory already exists out there. I will in due course elaborate further on this topic with my own views.

But for the purpose of this post, I should readdress what I had set out as my objective. I wanted to briefly share what I learnt from the ideas of motivation. In a nutshell, everyone is different. Big companies may get away with making broad sweeping assumptions on us, but for a startup where you can count the number of individuals on one hand, you have to be much more considerate. I have been rather fortunate in working with a large diverse bunch of people. Ranging from the guys who started roughnecking when they were 18 (and still roughnecking) to the highly educated with phds. These experiences I think should serve me well as I move forward and deal with contractors, clients, customers etc

As I said a few paragraphs back, this is not the end of my discussion on Motivation and we’ll return back to it in various guises over the coming months.


I wrote down risk because a large portion of our time as engineers is dealt managing risk. Now I’ve started writing this section, I’m scratching my head in articulating what I actually learnt from managing risk.

Maybe it’s worth taking a big step back and defining what is risk. Risk is the product between consequence and likelihood of an event/hazard. As engineers we’re meant to identify these events and assigning values of consequence and likelihood and if necessary provide mitigation measures to lower the risk.

What’s the most important skill in all the above? I think in lowering and mitigating. But I do wonder how many people take the time to identify and assign risk formally in small businesses at all (both for their own selves and  and also their product). It’s a fine line between using it as a tool and turning it into a huge bureaucratic beast. I could give many examples where this can get out of hand. Recognising and simplifying the process is so important (I feel this is becoming a recurring theme). This was actually something I worked on for my new venture rather early on. And I discovered a basic matrix that works for me (copied naturally…). Not a sexy topic, but we’re pretty much doomed if we don’t understand our risks.


At my leaving dinner I likened a corporation to a casino. In a nutshell, ‘the house always wins’. You as an employee cannot beat the beast. Well not alone at least. Collaborating with fellow employees in understanding your salary, benefits etc are crucial for maximising your return. Corporations do their best to create the illusion that you should be fighting for yourself and everyone around you is a rival as you progress. But as I said in the ‘Motivation’ section, we are not actually in a race to the top (maybe some are, but in general they’re doing alright for themselves). So i strongly urge my friends still in the rate race, to not be so shy with each other on your salaries etc and know your rights and fight for them. It’s also a good warning for anyone who does leave, don’t be too greedy if you venture out alone. Better to split equity in a fair manner, most likely people will respect you better for it.

But alas this is only one thing. Many things are wrong with the corporate system. Next I want to tackle is yearly targets. How many months are wasted each year on ranking sessions, yearly reviews and the rest? Well going by my own experience, we do are end of year reviews in October, ranking sessions held in November and setting out targets for the following year are only done in Jan and finalised end Feb. So essentially there is almost 4 months of faffing around. And on top of that why should it be yearly? Usually linked to a yearly bonus, but then again why should you get a bonus only yearly? Linking reward with your actual business goals seems more reasonable? If that is a shorter term then reward and shift goals when necessary. We said before, startups are very good at wasting time and money. Do your utmost best to reduce that to a minimum. If you want to learn more on how companies are shifting their yearly system, check this example out from IBM here.

Lastly I want to talk about employee flexibility. Now I speak from my own experiences in Shell, and I accept not all companies may be alike this. But pigeonholing most employees on day one and making them stick to a certain discipline is bizarre. As we discussed last time around there are things in place to hire the best. That to me implies those people are adaptable to change. I’ve seen this more so just before leaving as the oil downturn hit companies.

There has been a lot of role creation going on to keep people, yet shifting someone into a completely different area was pretty much a no-go. It’s not the culture. I think this comes back to understanding competency and how oil companies define it. Shifting someone to another discipline seems to mean they start again as a graduate in many eyes. I find this is quite untrue. Half the battle at times is understanding how a certain corporate system works. Understand the system and we know how to adapt and thus can draw on the correct expertise as and when required.

Leaving Shell I do not want to fall into the trap of assuming people only have one skill. I need to be a project manager, engineer, accountant, lawyer and salesman. We have to perform multiple roles simply because more employees means spending more money we don’t have. I’ve come to the realisation that corporations have ‘disciplines’ the way they are because it’s a safety net. We are scared to push people beyond outside of their comfort zones. Employees themselves may use the ‘discipline’ to keep themselves hidden in easier roles?

I realise I’ve written a lot in this post and I hope most of it is coherent. As I’ve said before, this is a forward looking blog and so I wanted to get this topic out of the way. But there are a lot of good themes here. Writing about them has helped me a lot in understanding what are my real skills from working ten years. Also on how they apply in smaller businesses where my future is likely to lie.  I will revisit a lot of these ideas too as I become more experienced. I will also update in another post if I come across some awareness that I’ve not quite appreciated too. Hopefully this has been useful to you the reader, especially ones who work for corporations. It will help you be aware in identifying your skills. Let me know what you believe the corporate world has taught you!


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