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Big Interview: Shell HR Executive On What He Wants From His People

Shell's Downstream HR Executive, Gerard Penning, explains what he wants from Shell hires and talks work-life balance for MBAs in the Big Interview on BusinessBecause

By  Thomas Nugent

Wed May 1 2019

The BusinessBecause Big Interview series showcases the thoughts and lives of some of the world’s leading business figures

Gerard Penning went to school in The Hague, the Netherlands, a stone’s throw away from Shell’s headquarters. Decades later he’d end up working closely with the same kind of people he used to share a bus with every day.

Gerard is the Executive VP of HR for the company’s Downstream business—he’s spent nearly 30 years at the firm, working across a multitude of roles spanning marketing and global recruitment.  

Downstream oversees a workforce committed to Shell’s ‘Goal Zero’—zero harm to people or the environment from Shell’s work. Gerard is responsible for 34,000 employees spread across 75 countries in a business that covers a broad area from 45,000 retail sites, a leading global Lubricants segment, Refining, Chemicals, and Trading & Shipping.

To achieve that goal, personal resilience has been imperative. Gerard speaks about this at conferences, homing in on the importance of eating well, sleeping well, and exercising well. The best leaders lead by example in this regard, he says.

Here, Gerard explains what he values in Shell employees and emphasizes the importance of resilience for MBAs.

What does Shell look for?

Shell Gerard Penning

Shell highlights three ways for MBAs to launch careers with the company.

MBA graduates can apply to Shell’s Graduate Program, where applicants are assessed on case studies and presentations, how they react to different business scenarios, and how they lead.

There are also opportunities for MBAs through Shell’s various Internship programs.

US MBA graduates can apply to Shell’s Accelerated MBA program. Viable candidates should be pursuing a full-time MBA program and have a minimum of five years full-time work experience between finishing their undergraduate and starting their MBA.

In recent years, Shell has hired MBAs from schools including London Business School, Oxford Saïd, Virginia Darden, Duke Fuqua, MIT Sloan, and Wharton. Shell looks for international exposure and experience in mergers and acquisitions, negotiations, supply chain and logistics, and trading.

Gerard notes that incoming employees will join a company committed to a low-carbon energy future, something it drives through a focus on biofuel and renewable energy production—in the US, one-third of the power generation capacity Shell manages comes from renewable sources.

Business school graduates entering the energy sector therefore need to be agile and have the ability to adapt to new and changing scenarios. At Shell, that requirement spans the company’s supply chain distribution arm, finance, HR, and business technology.

READ MORE: Is Sustainability Profitable?


The importance of curiosity

Gerard adds that curiosity is a vital yet underestimated trait he looks for in his people. “Kids have it best, they grow up with the capability to ask questions about things they hear or feel; that’s reduced [with adulthood],” he says.


“Reconnecting with the childhood view that is curious about the world is a fantastic way to connect with different generations, with people who are digitally savvy, creative, analytical, or marketers.”

When leaders are curious, he explains, they ask questions. When they ask questions, they make people think. And, when people think, they can often find the solution to problems themselves, which Gerard says is always better than giving away the answers.

A caveat, though, is that he doesn’t think you can accomplish that on autopilot; a healthy state of mind is required. The best business schools, he says, teach their students the importance of work-life balance in achieving this, so they’re ready for the world of work when they graduate.

That’s not always the case—Gerard’s daughter is currently studying an MBA, and he admits that the intensity of the curriculum can sometimes hinder the quality of learning. Business schools, he says, need to adapt if they want to cultivate the right atmosphere for students’ learning.

Work-life balance & Resilience 

When working in London at the Shell Centre, Lambeth, Gerard walks for an hour to work, through Marylebone and Regent’s Park. Come wind, rain, or snow, it’s his time to think, or to tune out with a podcast.

When travelling, he organizes his schedule as close as he can to his time zone in Europe. Making sure you have time to yourself, and that work revolves around your life, not life around your work, is key for balance, he says.

At Shell, he tries to set the standard. “It’s important that you lead by example, but at the same time allow the people around you to have the freedom to make their own choices,” he explains.

Climbing the corporate ladder was no easy feat. Now in a leadership role, Gerard admits his understanding of the importance of work-life balance grew in lockstep with his career—MBA students should be aware of it now.

“I’m very focused on getting enough sleep. It’s different for people, but I need at least seven hours to have my batteries reloaded.

“I always try to ensure that I have enough, but if I compare that to 15 years ago, I didn’t know I needed that.”