Partner Sites

Logo BusinessBecause - The business school voice
mobile search icon

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

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.”

Student Reviews

Duke University Fuqua School of Business




On Campus

Supportive atmosphere

The professors at Duke university exhibit exceptional commitment to the success and well-being of their students by ensuring their academic growth and fostering a supportive social atmosphere. Moreover, the entire community is recognized for its amicability and inclusiveness.




On Campus


The people or the students are without a doubt Duke's greatest asset. While all students are driven to succeed, they are also enthusiastic about a variety of hobbies. You run across a huge lot of diversity. It is the ideal example of a school with well-rounded students and the ideal balance of campus life in a metropolis.




On Campus

Happy to school

All I could ever hope for is Duke University. That really epitomizes the "work hard, play hard" philosophy that elite colleges frequently pursue. Even though you'll have a lot of schooling to complete over the week, it's simple to keep focused because all of your friends are putting in similar amounts of effort. Many events taking place on and around campus on the weekends provide a great way to unwind. The combination of demanding academics and traditional college fun strikes the perfect balance.




On Campus

Good schooling

Living, eating, learning, and developing who you want to be as an adult are all fantastic at Duke. I participated in student athletics, and I couldn't have asked for a better interaction with the faculty and other students. I appreciate all of the help I get from the Duke community more than anything. Furthermore, the teachers take the time to get to know you, and the lectures are diverse and demanding (if you do the same). I'd give it a 10 out of 10.




On Campus

Beautiful School, Nice Classes

DU remains one the greatest and best universities that I have ever stepped in. The school is beautiful and neat. The classes are spacious and also very nice. I enjoyed attending my Lectures in those lecture halls. I also loved the Lecturers because of the good work they did. The university also has very good dorms that are given to students on first come first serve basis and they are affordable





Amazing experience

I received my B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Global Health with a minor in Chemistry from Duke University. I was able to grow as a student, scientist, and global health advocate with the help of my friends, professors, and other mentors I met along the way. A lot to learn if you look and ask, a great place to learn for those who want to learn.





whirlwind of growth and change

An amazing 2 years, with covid and everything else happening Duke has been a place of growth for me. The courses , classes were one of a kind, online and on campus. But the valuable lessons learned in the classes are irreplicable. The students are amazing here, so much diversity , I had no problem fitting in. The teachers are down right brilliant and so helpful. Don't be afraid to ask them anything. Graduated with my MBA with Duke and now my future awaits.




On Campus

One of the best for Business students

Graduated with an MBA. The classes were very insightful and engaging. The staff are very easy to deal with. The teachers and students, are truly amazing people. Grateful to all the people I've met along the way at Duke. I've learnt a great deal that will help me in my future endeavors. The campus itself is a marvel, it is beautiful.




On Campus

The university campus is awesome

I graduated with a masters degree in Religious Studies from Duke University. One thing I really liked about the university is its huge campus. It is spread in a large area with a lot of greenery and also have the facilities of reading rooms for single person also. My department building was very well taken care of. The library is immensely populated with books for all your needs. The faculty is very nice to students. The classes are equipped with latest technology to cater the needs of students. The University also provides room rentals for international students. They are very well maintained and priority is given to the International students for a comfortable stay there. There are weekly events conducted by the University as well as Student clubs for the entertainment of students. Anybody can take part in them and show their talents. I enjoyed my degree and I graduated in 2021 and was very happy that I had graduated from a reputed University.




On Campus

Program Flexibility and Vibrant Campus Life

Duke University is renowned for its rigorous academic programs and vibrant campus life. The university offers a diverse range of majors and research opportunities, supported by world-class faculty. What I particularly liked about Duke was its strong sense of community and the wealth of extracurricular activities available to students. The campus is beautiful, with top-notch facilities and a supportive atmosphere that fosters both personal and academic growth. Overall, I would highly recommend Duke University for its excellent educational offerings and strong alumni network. If you're looking for a place that challenges you academically while offering numerous opportunities for personal development, Duke is an excellent choice.